"I Am Not Changing"
"When the Devil fell, he couldn't come back up again. That's why the Devil hates you!" the pastor booms into his microphone as he paces frenetically before his congregation, whipping them into exaltation. "But when you're layin' on the ground, all you gotta say is 'Je-sus! — Je-sus! — Je-sus!' — and pick yourself up!"
To dramatize his point, the pastor drops to the floor, lies on his back, and leads everyone in the mantra "Jesus! Jesus! Jesus!"
In the rear of church, an old woman in a wheelchair parked in front of this writer begins to tremble and whimper, as some might do if speaking in tongues.
The mantra reverberates through the standing-room-only church, punctuated by shout-outs of "Amen!" and "Alleluia!" The choir members clap and sing in the sanctuary in front of a giant painting of a black Jesus. A yellow neon sign reading JESUS hangs from the ceiling above.
This Sunday morning scene could be taking place at any number of Protestant churches led by charismatic pastors on the South Side of Chicago. This, however, is one of the nearly 400 Catholic churches of the Archdiocese of Chicago, and — with more than 2,000 regular worshipers — one of the largest.
Parishioners call the parish the Faith Community of St. Sabina. And this Sunday, June 22, is the homecoming celebration for St. Sabina's virtual pastor for life, Father Michael L. Pfleger, the 59-year-old priest who has been at the parish since his ordination in 1975. (Father Pfleger — affectionately referred to by his predominately African American congregation as a "blue-eyed black soul" and a "reverse Oreo" — was appointed pastor in 1983.) This Sunday's bulletin features clip-art of one of Father Pfleger's heroes, Muhammad Ali, with a caption recalling the resilient boxer: "Ain't Nothing Like a Comeback!" This also was the title of Father Pfleger's sermon, which provided the context for this article's opening scene.
Father Pfleger's "comeback" was occasioned by his return from a two-week leave of absence that Cardinal Francis George "asked" him to take — aside from his annual two-week vacation in Hawaii, the longest he had ever been away from St. Sabina's. He was asked by the cardinal "to reflect on his recent statements and actions in light of the Church's regulations for all Catholic priests" concerning politicking.
Although he has been a Chicago media celebrity for decades, Father Pfleger achieved international notoriety after delivering a guest sermon at Chicago's Trinity Church of Christ on May 25. (At the time, it was the house of worship of Father Pfleger's publicly endorsed choice for president, Senator Barack Obama.) Unbeknownst to him, however, Father Pfleger's sermon was partially recorded and then broadcast on YouTube.com.
To the cheers of the mostly black congregation, he was shown ridiculing Senator Obama's then-contender for the Democratic nomination, Senator Hilary Clinton, suggesting that she felt entitled to the nomination because she is a white elitist. He also asserted that white people have a moral obligation to surrender their financial assets, which properly belong to blacks as recompense for racial injustice. And he declared that America was the greatest sin against God, America's "greatest addiction [being] racism" and "racism [being] the greatest sin against God."
The performance was ill-timed for Senator Obama, whose campaign was already counteracting the racially fired sermons of Trinity's recently retired pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright. Senator Obama resigned his membership from Trinity after Father Pfleger's performance.
During his leave of absence, Father Pfleger's congregants held rallies protesting his departure. "[The archdiocese] didn't consult with us," complained Kimberly Lymore to the Chicago Sun-Times (Lymore is identified as St. Sabina's "associate minister" in parish publications, including its website). "We felt very disrespected as a faith community," she said, blaming Cardinal George for bowing to the demands of "white Catholics."
Lymore, who is studying for a doctorate in ministry from the Presbyterian McCormick Theological Seminary, was also indignant that Cardinal George assigned an interim priest to administer the parish. "If it's only for two weeks — then why do we need an administrator?" she asked. "Maybe they thought we need a priest to come in for Mass. But we always have someone to do the Mass. We can have Masses in the absence of a priest, just using consecrated hosts."
Father Pfleger returned after two weeks, supposedly with no restrictions except a promise not to mention the names of presidential candidates or campaign for them. (This proviso, however, could not be confirmed with the Archdiocese of Chicago, whose spokeswoman says Cardinal George has no further statement regarding Father Pfleger beyond his original request for his leave of absence. The proviso was reported by St. Sabina parishioners who met privately with the cardinal.) Beyond that, "I'm not changing," Father Pfleger declared at the press conference he called upon his return.
Business as Usual
Confirmation that he hadn't changed followed during his homecoming celebration at the weekly "Unity Sunday Service" on June 22. As he entered the church, the congregation rose in applause and a battery of TV news cameras began rolling. "I return to the pulpit committed to the gospel of justice," declared Father Pfleger in his public statement. "I will not let my faults or imperfections cause me to either run and hide, nor allow them to cause me to 'play it safe' or become silent." After reciting several mantras of liberation theology — "A commitment to personal salvation must at the same time be a commitment to social change" — it was time for the main show.
After an hour of singing and dancing, the band died down and the liturgical dancers cleared the sanctuary to make way for the first reading, which was said abruptly, with no recognizable introductory rites of the Mass. This was followed by the second reading, the gospel, and Father Pfleger's hour-long "Ain't Nothing Like a Comeback!" sermon, in which he sounded like a defeated boxer determined to take back the title.
There was no profession of faith. In fact, the extent of the congregation's participation was the almost relentless singing, in what resembled a Baptist service. Indeed, newspaper coverage has quoted many parishioners who say they are non-Catholic but come to St. Sabina's solely because of the pastor. According to the Faith Community of St. Sabina mission statement, it is "a Word-based, Bible-teaching church that believes in the power of praise and worship" — not exactly a clarion call to Catholicism.
The remainder of the Unity Sunday Service continued in an ad hoc manner. The liturgy of the Eucharist was said without a missal. The words "Blessed are we who are called to this supper" were altered by Father Pfleger to, "Blessed are we who are called to make a comeback." Father Pfleger himself did not administer the Eucharist but greeted and embraced friends in the Communion line. Several gave the "Black Power" salute.
St. Sabina's is a beautiful old church — formerly an Irish-American parish before the neighborhood experienced what became popularly known as suburban "white flight" in the 70s — but it has been thoroughly Protestantized: kneelers removed; confessionals used to store the band's equipment; no crucifix; the ornately carved high altar concealed by the painting of the black Jesus, arms outstretched in welcome. The new altar is in the shape of an African kettle drum.
Afterward, I stood in the long line to greet Father Pfleger on the church steps outside. "This is my first time here, Father, but was that the Mass you celebrated?" I asked. "Yes!" he beamed. "It's just different."
The St. Joseph Foundation, an organization of orthodox laymen specializing in canon law, was informed of some of these liturgical irregularities. A spokesman deemed them "illicit and unlawful in themselves, but they didn't invalidate the Mass. [The actual words of consecration seemed valid, and they were said by a priest in good standing with his bishop.] But I am consternated by the fact that the archbishop is allowing this to go on."
A History of Disobedience
Father Pfleger says that he was inspired to enter the priesthood in 1966 when he witnessed the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. being pelted with rocks and racial epithets after the civil rights leader journeyed to Chicago to campaign against segregated real estate practices. "I heard that small voice from within that said, 'I am showing you this now, because you must spend your life trying to eradicate this,"' he has said.
Ironically, however, Father Pfleger seems more race-conscious than colorblind. His views on race and political activism were shaped, in large measure, by the black radicalism of the 1960s. "I got very educated by the [Black] Panthers — very educated," he once told an interviewer. And like those radicals of old, he was thwarting the authorities — in this case, his Church superiors — even before graduating from seminary in 1975. In his final year at Chicago's Mundelein Seminary, the school's vicar threatened to expel him for refusing to return to campus from his parish assignment at an inner-city church. But he was ordained anyway.
As the years passed and he amassed power and prestige, mixing Democratic Party politics with the social gospel on behalf of mainly liberal causes such as gun control, he would become increasingly difficult to control.
The problem might have been nipped in the bud in 1981, when Cardinal John Cody threatened to fire Father Pfleger if he adopted a son. He did so anyway. (He would adopt two more sons, one of whom was killed by gunfire near St. Sabina's in 1998.)
Two bosses later in 2002, Cardinal George attempted to reassign him to another parish after Father Pfleger completed his third six-year-term as pastor, two terms being the normal limit. Father Pfleger responded by telling his congregation he would consider leaving the priesthood and starting his own church if he were removed — and many of his parishioners, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, said they would follow him. "You are going to have to have the balls to fire me," he declared at another forum. "If you want to fire me, fire me."
Discussions with Cardinal George ensued, resulting in the indefinite extension of his term while a replacement was — and evidently continues to besought. Although this process may "take years," said Cardinal George, Church policies permit no "pastors for life."
A year later, Father Pfleger invited the Rev. Al Sharpton — the pro-abortion civil rights activist — to preach at Sunday Mass. Cardinal George warned Father Pfleger that this violation of the archdiocesan policy against allowing pro-abortion figures to use Church property could jeopardize the tax-exempt status both of St. Sabina's and the archdiocese. Father Pfleger disobeyed, and Cardinal George demurred.
Trying to stop Sharpton from coming, Cardinal George said, "would be a futile gesture and a waste of effort." This would be the first time Sharpton ever spoke at a Catholic church. "The comfort," Sharpton told the Chicago Sun-Times before the engagement, "is that Father Pfleger is a different kind of Catholic priest."
So why has he not been reined in?
"If you peel back the onion, it's more than Pfleger," according to Karl Maurer, vice president of Catholic Citizens of Illinois, an organization of traditional laymen that has long exposed and opposed the priest's political and liturgical antics. "He is an integral operative in Chicago's Democratic Party. Politicians court him and steer funds to his various church ministries [$325,000 in two years alone by Barack Obama, first as an Illinois state senator, then US senator]. They want his endorsement, which carries a lot of weight in the black community. And the chancery is afraid to upset Democrats [by removing Father Pfleger from St. Sabina's] because they keep open the floodgates for social programs the chancery deems important . . . But the big problem for the Church is that by not dismissing Father Pfleger, Cardinal George is sending the wrong message to his fellow bishops, who may be dealing with dissenting, disobedient priests of their own. He is, after all, head of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops."
It is worth noting that almost all the leading politicians in Chicago and the state are liberal, pro-abortion Democrats who are Catholics. The chancellor of the Archdiocese of Chicago, Jimmy Lago, the first layman to hold the position, is also a former Democratic precinct captain.
Dennis Martin, a Loyola University associate professor of theology, takes a different view.
"The bishop's task before God is to maintain unity. But when you're dealing with a priest who has built a fiefdom, the social dynamic is such that a bishop can't act as he would with a normal parish priest who defers to authority," Professor Martin said in a phone interview. "This requires discernment. In the case of St. Sabina's, he must consider the 'five or 10 righteous,' so to speak, who are still well-intentioned Catholics but might be confused if a confrontation with the pastor were to take place — and might leave the faith altogether."
Rather than engage in a highly-publicized battle over a problem issuing from 60s-era radicalism, Cardinal George seems to be "concentrating on the future" by cultivating a new generation of solid priests, says Professor Martin.
"He has made Mundelein Seminary a center of strong Catholic theological, intellectual, and pastoral learning" by encouraging the appointment of eminent and faithful priests as professors, he said. "The problem in the archdiocese now is that there are almost no home-grown vocations, so the cardinal is importing them from such places as Poland . . . Until parishes are revitalized [by men who eschew the errors of the past], we won't get new priests. You can't make priests out of nothing."
In the meantime, Father Pfleger's future remains an open question. The week following his Unity Sunday Service, he appeared defiant on Good Morning America. "I don't apologize for being passionate," he said. "I don't apologize for being free."
Matthew A. Rarey writes from Chicago.