father pfleger



St. John the Divine in Silence/17th-century Russian icon

In the face of silence (as in the absence of proof) we are left with theories.

Since Thursday afternoon, when a group of parish leaders from St. Sabina Roman Catholic Church met privately with Cardinal Francis George at the archdiocese’s pastoral center, there has been silence.

No one is talking. Not Sabina’s embattled pastor, the Rev. Michael Pfleger. Not the parish’s pastoral associate and effective No. 2, Kimberly Lymore. Not the cardinal. Not the archdiocese’s official spokeswomen. Not even off the record.

Most of us can only guess what might happen next.

A hush has fallen over the five-alarm controversy that has roiled religious and political circles from Chicago to Kathmandu (or at least that’s what it’s felt like) since Pfleger let fly a snarky torrent of racially-loaded criticism of Hillary Clinton in a sermon late last month.

The cardinal placed Pfleger on a leave — for a “couple of weeks,” he’s said — so that the longtime activist/rebel-priest can reflect on what he said and did, and maybe achieve some new perspective. Pfleger and his loyal parishioners balked, as did many of us who admire Pfleger for his tireless work on behalf of the least of those among us even if his bombastic style sometimes makes us cringe.

But maybe the cardinal was on to something after all. Maybe we all needed to take a few deep breaths.

I don’t know what transpired at that meeting Thursday between St. Sabina leadership and the cardinal, but whatever it was must have been monumental. (Parish leaders have said they would not speak publicly again until a statement is read to the “parish family” at mass this morning.)

Cardinal George and Mike Pfleger have a long, acrimonious history. They clearly rub each other the wrong way, in much the same way as they both rub a lot of other folks the wrong way.

Both men of God can come across as arrogant and stubborn. And both have had their share of rhetorical missteps.

I wonder whether the cardinal wasn’t in some way acting from his own difficult experiences when he told Pfleger to step away from the parish and let things cool down.

In April 2002, I was standing on an outcropping overlooking Vatican City with George, who was waiting to be interviewed by a TV reporter, when his cell phone rang. It was one of his press people in Chicago calling to inform him that comments he’d made earlier in the day at a press conference with other American bishops about the clergy sex abuse scandal had caused a near riot at home.

“There is a difference between a moral monster like [John] Geoghan, who preys upon little children, and does so in a serial fashion, and to someone who, perhaps, under the influence of alcohol, engages in an action with a 17 or 16-year-old young woman who returns his affection,” George had said.

I was in the audience that day and as soon as the words left George’s mouth, I knew he was in for it. But he didn’t have a clue until hours later when his spokeswoman called from Chicago where the archdiocese’s phone bank had been flooded with calls from angry Catholics.

“But there’s a clinical difference,” I recall the cardinal stammering into the phone.

Yes, there is, but that’s not what people needed to hear at that traumatic time in church history. He should have known better than to make such a comment in public, with cameras rolling. And he caught holy hell for it.

One Sunday in Ocotber 2006, the cardinal was a guest at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, the largest Catholic theological school in the nation. He delivered a homily during a special service for the heavily international student body where he made some keen observations about the way the United States is viewed abroad, remarks for which he quickly felt a lot of heat.

“The world distrusts us not because we are rich and free. Many of us are not rich and some of us aren’t especially free. They distrust us because we are deaf and blind, because too often we don’t understand and make no effort to understand,” he said.

“We have this cultural proclivity that says, ‘We know what is best and if we truly want to do something, whether in church or in society, no one has the right to tell us no.’ That cultural proclivity, which defines us in many ways, has to be surrendered, or we will never be part of God’s kingdom.”

They were unusually forceful words from George, who normally shies away from addressing anything remotely political in public. Some critics howled that he was anti-American, that he’d crossed a line.

I thought his comments were incredibly astute. I agreed with him, in the same way that I agreed with the point Pfleger was trying to make about racial entitlement in his sermon at Trinity United Church of Christ. His crucial point was lost, forever I’m afraid, in the over-the-top dramatics he used to mock the former First Lady.

“I remain hopeful that this could be a grace for [Pfleger] and for everybody,” the Rev. Donald Senior, president of Catholic Theological Union, told me Friday, referring to his force leave of absence. “This must be killing him. I mean, everywhere he turns, people are throwing brickbats and it seems endless. … Just take a deep breath. Why not? He deserves it.”

We all do.


JANUARY 7, 2001
By Cathleen Falsani
Religion Reporter

Mike Pfleger is standing in the middle of the women’s department at the Burlington Coat Factory in Burbank.

He’s lost.

A sea of winter coats lies before him-down, wool, faux fur, floor- length, knee-length and everything in between. He hasn’t a clue where to begin and heads toward a display of men’s leather jackets before veering back into the women’s section.

“I don’t have a wife, so . . .,” the 51-year-old priest says as he tentatively approaches a rack of medium-size coats.

On this frigid afternoon, Pfleger is running an errand that any one of his staff at St. Sabina Roman Catholic Church on the South Side could handle with ease. But he wants to do this himself. You see, Shirley is special. And she needs a winter coat.

“She’s the most faithful person I have in the church,” Pfleger says. “She takes the money she begs for on the street and uses it for carfare to church.”

Shirley is a homeless woman who has been attending St. Sabina’s for years. Much as he tries, Pfleger can’t talk her into going to a shelter. She says she prefers to stay on the streets. Recently, he struck a deal with her: He would buy her a new coat, and she would promise to wear it.

“This is personal to me,” Pfleger says, picking up a long, black, down coat with a fur-trimmed hood and carrying it to the check-out counter.

There is little the Rev. Michael Louis Pfleger doesn’t consider personal.

That’s why earlier in the day he couldn’t walk past the Mercy Food Mart at the corner of 79th and Racine without saying something.

Pfleger passed the convenience store on his way back to the rectory from St. Sabina’s Employment Resource Center a few blocks away. He ducked into the busy shop and walked right up to the clerk behind the counter.

“I want you to know we’re the people who called the police on you,” Pfleger told the man, who stared blankly at the priest. “If I hear that you are selling loose cigarettes to our kids again, we’ll close down this store. We’ll come in here, sit down and close you down.”

He wasn’t yelling, hadn’t even raised his voice. He just glared at the clerk with his sparkly blue eyes and told him how it is.

“They’re just so disrespectful,” Pfleger said as he stepped back out onto Racine before the store door could close all the way. “I want him to understand who it is that sent them there, that got him busted. I want him to know we’re here, and we’re not going anywhere.”

A lot of people wish Pfleger would just go away.

Gang-bangers. Pimps and drug dealers. Tobacco, alcohol and billboard companies. Head-shop owners, gun sellers, Jerry Springer. And plenty of political, social and religious leaders-not that they’d ever say so publicly.

Pfleger, the fair-haired white kid from 81st and Talman who took the helm of a black inner-city parish when Richard J. Daley was mayor, is still doing things his own way now that Richard M. Daley is hizzoner.

For 25 years, this loud-talking, stubborn, in-your-face, control freak of a priest has refused to back down, shut up or go away.

And in doing so, this maverick priest has helped bring life to a dying parish, hope to a struggling community and relentless challenge to the Roman Catholic status quo.

Turning the church on its ear

He’s standing on top of the altar.

Not next to it, or behind it-on top of it.

And people are pelting him with packs of cigarettes.

“God didn’t deliver you from cocaine and alcohol so you could be addicted to nicotine!” Pfleger shouts at the recovering addicts who have filled St. Sabina’s gothic sanctuary for a special revival service.

“Come on, come on now. Give ’em up,” Pfleger says as dozens of packets of Kools, Benson & Hedges, Merits and Marlboros land at his feet.

People move from the pews and toward the altar. Eventually, about 200 ring the altar, a hulking wooden table in the shape of an African drum, singing and weeping, arms outstretched in prayer.

“God loves you, God loves you,” Pfleger cries, as he reaches out to gently pat the head of one worshipper. “Some of you haven’t heard it in a long time, that someone loves you.”

Behind him, the St. Sabina Levites-the parish’s rock-the-rafters gospel choir-set the tone for the climax of the emotional 2 1/2-hour service.

“Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so,” they sing. “Little ones to him belong; they are weak, but he is strong.”

This night, the priest asks people to come forward not only to give up their cigarettes, but also to give their lives over to Christ, to become born again.

Unlike at most Roman Catholic churches, this altar call inviting worshippers who never have done so to pray a prayer of salvation is a part of most masses at St. Sabina’s. Saving souls is the most important work of the church, says Pfleger, who became a born-again Christian more than 25 years ago.

There are many things that make St. Sabina’s look different from most other Catholic churches. Its worship style-charismatic, arm- waving, foot-stomping, leave-your-ears-ringing-like-a-rock-concert loud-is just the most visible.

Many parishioners speak in tongues, believe in divine healing. They don’t pray the rosary, they don’t visit confessional booths, and they don’t play bingo.

African kente cloth banners bearing Scripture quotations far outnumber statues of saints. The focal point of the sanctuary is a huge oil painting of a black Jesus with outstretched hands.

On Sundays, the 11:15 a.m. mass doesn’t let out until well after 2 p.m. Most of the predominantly African-American parishioners carry a Bible with them to mass. And they serve hotcakes in the church basement between services.

It has been said the problem with many Catholics is that they don’t celebrate their faith, they mourn it. Since Pfleger arrived at St. Sabina’s 25 years ago, faith has become a celebration.

“It has come a long way spiritually because it used to be dead,” said Gloria Williams, a parishioner since 1966. “This is an African- American church. It’s more on our level now, with the music and spiritualwise. . . . Mike, as a person, has done a lot for people.”

When Pfleger landed at this Auburn-Gresham parish, numbers were dwindling as the surrounding neighborhood began to change. Once an Irish-Catholic stronghold, more black families were filling its pews and many white families were heading for the exits.

Fueled by his experiences during seminary at a West Side parish where he worked on community projects side-by-side with members of the Black Panther Party, and by his admiration for the politics and ministry of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.-whom he had first seen as a teenager in 1966 in Marquette Park-Pfleger set about making St. Sabina’s feel more like the people who sat in its pews.

As he began to incorporate African-American culture and hard-line civil rights ideology-raising up black leadership within the parish- the exodus continued.

“The congregation was rather small,” recalled Dorothy Mosley, a member of St. Sabina’s for 33 years. “Through his diligence and the parishioners that stayed here and fought it out, we made it in spite of what everybody told us, that we couldn’t survive.”

The changes Pfleger brought to the church were not always well- received, she said. The first thing he did when he assumed the role of pastor on Christmas Eve 1981, after more than five years as associate pastor, was do away with bingo. That raised the ire of many parishioners who didn’t believe the struggling church could survive without it.

“We stayed and we struggled, and then all of a sudden things changed-people started coming,” Mosley said. “What really saved it was we began to study the Bible.”

Managing the family business

“How much was it, Mike? Twenty-six?”

The voice coming from the speaker phone in Pfleger’s office belongs to his 89-year-old father, Louis Pfleger. He is calling to check, as he does every week, on the amount of the Sunday collection.

Was it a good week? It was, as always.

Louis Pfleger is proud of what his son has accomplished.

That hasn’t been the case with the rest of the family. Most of Michael Pfleger’s extended family turned their backs on him years ago.

The reasons were varied: his choice to devote his life to the black community, his very public stands on controversial topics, his decision to adopt three African-American sons, his over-the-top personality.

In 25 years, Michael Pfleger has been asked only once to celebrate a wedding, baptism or funeral for one of his many relatives.

“It was a painful but very noticeable separation,” Pfleger said of his estrangement from his extended family. “A relative said to me when I adopted my first child, `I think it’s really cool that you adopted, but why a nigger?’ “

But Louis Pfleger and his late wife steadfastly stood by their son the priest. Every Sunday, Louis Pfleger drives from his Southwest Side home to St. Sabina’s for the 11:15 a.m. mass. He usually sits smack in the middle of the congregation, his shock of thick, white hair standing out like a torch.

He stands, one hand on a cane, the other often lifted in praise as his only son preaches at the top of his lungs. This day, Louis Pfleger has just returned home from a doctor’s visit, and he wants to know two things: if his son will call to tell him the score of St. Sabina’s touch football game against Holy Angels that night, and the collection.

The latter is important to him because it signifies the health of the parish-economically and spiritually. More than a decade ago, Michael Pfleger began to teach his parishioners about tithing-the biblical principle that says believers should give one-tenth of their gross income to God, that is, the church. It took a while to catch on.

“My husband was totally against tithing,” Mosley recalled, adding that she used to sneak a weekly tithe into the collection plate until her husband changed his mind.

Today, Pfleger says, nearly 80 percent of parishioners tithe regularly.

On average, the parish takes in $25,000 to $35,000 each week. That places it in the top 10 giving parishes, including some of the wealthiest suburban churches in the Chicago Archdiocese, according to an archdiocesan spokeswoman.

About 40 percent of St. Sabina’s 1,500 or so regular attendees come from outside the parish boundaries-from the north, south and west suburbs and from Indiana, church officials said.

Tithing helped the parish recover from more than $200,000 in debts it had when Pfleger became pastor. The parish has been operating in the black since 1989. And the lessons tithing has taught-if you are obedient to God, you will be blessed for it, God will provide all your needs-have enlivened parishioners’ faith, they say.

The parish uses its financial resources to fund programs and ministries in the Auburn-Gresham and Englewood neighborhoods, including a community youth center, after-school programs, a social service center, employment resource center, substance abuse programs and a new 80-unit senior citizens housing complex built next to the church in conjunction with Catholic Charities and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Last year, the parish contributed $80,000 to the public senior housing project to subsidize extras such as the kente cloth- patterned brick adorning the side of the building, bright paint, carpeting and artwork throughout the complex.

“We thought if you do it, do it nice,” Pfleger said of the elder village. “Seniors deserve to live in something nice.”

Priesthood’s push and pull

For nearly as long as he has been a priest, Pfleger has been talking about not being one.

“Will I die a Catholic priest in the Catholic Church? I don’t know,” he said recently during a conversation about why he stays in the Catholic Church when he finds so many problems in it.

“I think priests should be allowed to get married, and I think women should be allowed to be priests,” he said. As for celibacy, “I think that ought to be a choice that you are led to by God, not a hoop that you’ve gotta run through for the church. I don’t think they have the right to make that decision.”

Pfleger believes that sex outside of marriage is a sin.

At one time, Pfleger advocated creating a separate African- American Catholic rite because of the deep-seated racism he saw in the church. Today, he stops short of saying the church is a racist institution.

“I think there is racism in the church, from top to bottom,” he said. “That has to be not just eradicated but transformed. It’s not just good enough to get rid of racist behavior. It’s good enough when the one who hated, loves.”

Pfleger has been talking about leaving the church for 15 years, but he talks about it the way some people talk about quitting smoking. (He quit his own three-pack-a-day habit cold turkey more than a decade ago.)

But as ready as he has been on many occasions to hang up his Roman collar, he says God hasn’t told him he can go yet.

“In one sense, it’s frustrating. But in another sense, it’s exciting to me because I have an opportunity to correct wrong teaching and to teach the truth,” he said.

Many of his parishioners say they would follow him if he left the Roman Catholic Church. Some even say they wish he would leave and find himself a wife. It’s an idea that has crossed this priest’s mind more than once.

“If I had to say honestly would I like to be married? Yes. I, Mike Pfleger, would like to be. Is that what God wants for me? I don’t think so,” he said. “If I ever felt like God had freed me to, say, go get married, I’d leave. I know I couldn’t do it as a priest, so I’d leave. I don’t feel released to do that now, and I struggle with that.”

“I’ve met people. I did when I was in theology school. I was madly in love with a girl and wanted to marry her. We were very much in love,” he said. “Was there any time when I felt that God was saying, `That’s the one’? No. But there’s been many that I felt could have been the right one. Right now for me to be married, I’d have to have a woman who really believed in the ministry as much as I did.”

Despite his unorthodox views and a larger-than-life persona fostered by hundreds of appearances on TV and in newspapers as a participant in one demonstration or another, at times causing his superiors to cringe, Pfleger has been allowed to do what he does more or less freely. His assignment at St. Sabina’s has lasted more than twice as long as the normal 12-year assignment for Chicago archdiocesan priests.

“If I was ever told I couldn’t do what I believe I should do, I would leave,” he said. “But I have never been told that, and I never expect to be told that.”

Some observers thought Pfleger would be high on the list of things to fix when Cardinal Francis George, a by-the-book prelate, arrived in 1997. But after three visits to St. Sabina’s, George has offered little public criticism.

“There are many ways to be Catholic,” George said. “Father Pfleger to some extent maybe has pioneered a few things that aren’t official, but what I saw when I was there made me sure that it is the Roman Rite in its essentials.

“He’s himself a good priest, a priest in good standing. I’m not saying that I would agree with every word that comes out of Father Pfleger’s mouth, but that’s true of a lot of people in the archdiocese. I trust him. I trust that he’s close to his people and close to the Lord.

“That’s a unique place, and he’s a unique priest.”

Not making friends

“Father Mike,” as most of the 500-plus kids at St. Sabina’s School call him, almost didn’t make it through seminary.

In his third year at Mundelein Seminary, the school’s rector threatened to expel him for a “lack of significant presence” on campus, Pfleger recalled. At the time, the young renegade priest-in- training was living at Precious Blood, a mostly black and Hispanic parish on the West Side, where he was doing his pastoral training.

“I felt the seminary could not give me the training I needed. I went back for classes, but I didn’t live there,” he said. “The rector put me out. He told me I had to commit myself to stay there, which I could not.”

A group of West Side pastors came to Pfleger’s defense and confronted Mundelein officials for not properly training priests for urban ministry. And the student government at Mundelein censured the rector for his treatment of Pfleger. He wasn’t expelled, and at the end of the year, the rector resigned.

But that was far from the end of Pfleger’s touch-and-go relationship with the church. Once, as a seminarian, he was evicted from a parish rectory after he’d angered the pastor by challenging the way the priest treated parishioners.

He has been arrested for acts of civil disobedience 30 or 40 times since his college days. He was called on the carpet for his outspoken activism by Cardinal John Cody and Cardinal Joseph Bernardin. And he continues to be viewed as a troublemaker, if a successful one.

As a seminarian, Pfleger picketed Cody at the archbishop’s residence on State Parkway for closing inner-city schools. It was the first of many times he would run afoul of Cody.

In 1981, he decided to adopt a child, following in the footsteps of his friend and mentor, the Rev. George Clements, founder of the One Church, One Child program.

“There was always the part of me that wanted to raise children, that wanted to have a family,” Pfleger said. “I didn’t have the wife, but I got the kids.”

He found the first of his three sons, Lamar, a 7-year-old ward of the state in Rockford, through the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. He had tried to adopt through Catholic Charities, but the archdiocese-affiliated social service organization refused to work with him, he said.

For six months, Pfleger and Lamar jumped through the hoops of the foster-care system. Then, just a few weeks before the boy was to move into St. Sabina’s rectory next to the church, Pfleger got a call from the archdiocese. Cody wanted a chat.

When Pfleger arrived at the Pastoral Center downtown, Cody refused to see him. He was too upset, Pfleger was told. The priest met instead with the chancellor, who told him the cardinal wanted him to stop the adoption process.

“How Christian would it be for me to go back and tell this young boy, after all of this . . . no, you can’t do it because my boss said, `No,’ ” Pfleger said.

He refused to stop the adoption and was threatened with suspension.

In the end, Lamar did come to live with him, and was followed by 13-year-old Beronti in 1992. A third foster son, Jarvis, who came to live with the priest at age 15, was killed in gang crossfire two years ago on his way back to the church on a Saturday afternoon.

Pfleger had just finished performing a wedding when someone came to tell him that Jarvis had been hurt.

“The bullet went into his neck,” Pfleger recalled matter-of- factly. “I ran down, and he was still laying in the street and blood was gushing out of his neck. He died Monday at Christ Hospital. He was 17.”

Outliving the past

Driving west from the Dan Ryan Expy. on 79th, past the Salaam Restaurant with its tall, lighted crescent and star at the corner of Union, past the boarded-up storefronts and vacant lots, the landscape begins to change.

In the distance, St. Sabina’s bell tower marks an oasis of renewal in what once was a desert of decay. A new Walgreens drugstore, a strip mall, a community mental health clinic, and a Women, Infants and Children center all are under construction within two blocks of the church.

Late last year, the city finished construction on Renaissance Park adjacent to the elder village on 79th. The one-acre park has wrought- iron fences, flower boxes, benches, torchieres and an 8-ton black granite obelisk and fountain inscribed with the names of black historical figures.

“Can you believe it? Something this beautiful on 79th Street?” Pfleger gushed as he watched workers construct the elaborate fountain back in November.

Rosia Anderson, who has lived in Auburn-Gresham for 36 years, has seen the changes in her community since Pfleger arrived.

Though she is not a member of St. Sabina’s, Anderson said, “It’s hard not to know Father Mike. St. Sabina’s has had a great impact on the community and continues to have a great impact. Father Mike has done a great job on the community and for the people.”

She has spent plenty of time at St. Sabina’s for community meetings and other events. The parish, she said, provides the neighborhood with a sense of “protection and stability.”

Anderson points to Pfleger’s efforts to have alcohol and tobacco advertisements removed from billboards in the neighborhood and the elder village as concrete examples of improvements.

“It stops people from being able to stand on the corner,” she said of the senior complex.

“I can’t say enough about how instrumental St. Sabina’s and Father Mike have been in the revival of that community,” said Terry Peterson, the Chicago Housing Authority chief and former 17th Ward alderman. “To have been in that community for 25 years, always looking to help people, marching against drug dealers and gang- bangers, feeding the hungry, providing clothes, you name it across the board, he is one of the individuals who are the conscience of the city.”

Pfleger also has critics who question his motivation for being perpetually in the public spotlight. He has been called an egoist, a media hound, a self-serving, self-righteous attention-seeker.

The priest is keenly aware of what people think of him. “Most people out there who don’t know me have all sorts of wild definitions of me. So be it,” he said.

He laughs at the notion that a self-serving agenda motivates him.

“I’m in the same place 25 years, 78th and Throop. This is not the plushest assignment of the archdiocese. I’m not running for political office,” he said. “An ego trip to get hate letters and threats? I don’t understand that.

“I’ve been doing the same thing since I was in seminaries-we’re talking about 30 or 35 years. A friend of mine years ago told me, `Sooner or later, time will put to rest all the naysayers.’ I believe that.”