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Radical Disciple

New book paints a compelling portrait of controversial Chicago priest

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October 27, 2010
EVANSTON, Ill. --- Robert McClory paints a very different portrait of Father Michael Pfleger, the fiery Catholic priest who caught the nation’s attention when his parody of Hilary Clinton during her 2008 run for the presidency went viral.

The author of a new book titled “Radical Disciple: Father Pfleger, St. Sabina Church, and the Fight for Social Justice,” McClory, associate professor emeritus of journalism at Northwestern, tells a compelling story about a white priest and his controversial advocacy for his African-American parishioners on Chicago’s South Side. 

“That sermon of Father Pfleger mocking Hilary Clinton, as he wiped away fake tears, was unforgivable,” McClory said. “But prophets sometimes tend to go over the top.”

Viewed by millions on YouTube, Pfleger alleged in his sermon that Clinton cried publicly because a black man, President Obama, had the audacity to step into her spotlight. The pastor of St. Sabina Church in Chicago’s Auburn Gresham neighborhood instantly became the focus of pundits and the source of fury for many Americans.

But to McClory, Pfleger is foremost a caring and passionate advocate for his parishioners. “Father Pfleger is an outspoken activist who demands attention for the issues that affect his community,” said McClory. “Prophetic people are often called wacky -- in the Old Testament, prophets got stoned for the same reasons.

Many credit the Catholic priest for bringing businesses to the neighborhood around St. Sabina while driving drug dealers and gang members out. Through marches and sit-ins, he was the force behind legislation outlawing the sale of drug-related paraphernalia. And he embraces the African-American worship style cherished by his parishioners –- rather than the solemn, reverent worship preferred by a Church rooted in European tradition. 

In the following Q & A with Andrea Albers, McClory talks about more about his book “Radical Disciple.”

How did you become interested in St. Sabina’s?

I am a former priest and was an associate pastor there in the 1960s. It was one of the biggest, whitest congregations at the time. Then in a complete population turnover, whites fled and blacks moved in. I didn’t think the parish would last with only a small black congregation to support it. When Michael Pfleger came in 1975, he was so full of energy and enthusiasm, I was sure he’d burn out within a couple of years. Thirty-five years later he is still there, and St. Sabina is one of the most active churches in Chicago.

How does Father Pfleger fit into a church that is trying to bring back a conservative tradition?

He offers his own understanding of where the Church ought to be. The Church says priests should incorporate the culture of the people into worship. So, go to a St. Sabina mass, for example, and you’ll see people praising God in the aisles, the choir rocking back and forth, a live band playing like heck. This worship style is incredibly important to St. Sabina parishioners. Yet he gets flack, because it’s not a quiet, solemn traditional mass. People say he is not acting “Catholic.” There is a contradiction there.

But in some ways he’s very traditional. Probably the hardest chapter to put together was the theology of Michael Pfleger. His understanding of the scripture is almost literal. During our interviews, we’d have arguments over Biblical stories like Jonah and the Whale, because he truly believes they happened as the Bible says.

What does he mean to the people of the community?

Before Pfleger, the joke was that you could get everything you needed at the corner store: bread, milk and marijuana. Now the neighborhood has restaurants, bakeries, a job placement office, a social services office, homes for the elderly, a beautiful park. He is responsible for all of it. Father Pfleger doesn’t want people who just sit in church. He wants people out marching, in ministries, helping others, taking buses down to Springfield to protest. He wants activism. Many of his parishioners will tell you he turned their life around. Yet the vitriol that is heaped on him is incredible.

Why do you think he stirs up such strong emotions?

Michael Pfleger is an outspoken activist –- and that bothers people who think Catholic priests should be more reserved. He counsels drug dealers and prostitutes, stands up to rap musicians for offensive lyrics, takes on big corporations for advertising alcohol and cigarettes in his community. The New Testament tells us what happens to people who are out on the highways and byways.