Father Michael Pfleger, of Catholic St. Sabina Church on 78th Street, has been a controversial figure in civil rights and the Catholic church in Chicago for the 30 years he has been the church’s pastor. “Father Mike” is working, he says, for “African American culture to be embraced completely [by the Catholic church] on equal grounds and not just tolerated.” His superiors have reluctantly extended his tenure at St. Sabina – against church regulations.
Evanstonian Robert McClory, journalist, author and former Catholic priest, has written a biography of Father Pfleger. “Radical Disciple: Father Pfleger, St. Sabina Church, and the Fight for Social Justice” is a work of admiration and affection, engaging and informative in the story it tells. Mr. McClory understands the hierarchy and the ins and outs of the Catholic church, and other experiences strengthen the book’s impact. He worked at St. Sabina himself, before Michael Pfleger’s arrival; he reported for several years for the Chicago Defender; and he has interviewed Father Pfleger numerous times.
Father Pfleger, a white man, became pastor at St. Sabina during its decline from prosperity in the ‘50s, when the neighborhood was mostly white. By the time he arrived in 1981, the primarily black congregation was small and the church rundown. Mr. McClory says Father Pfleger had and still has remarkable energy. He used it immediately to expand the resources his church provided for its members. He initiated tithing, rebuilt the school and attracted congregants from all over, including many non-Catholics enthusiastic about his preaching.
Father Pfleger has campaigned to make the area a better place to live. With other church members, he confronted sellers of drug paraphernalia and was arrested for spray-painting over billboards advertising tobacco and alcohol in minority neighborhoods. Church superiors were not supportive, but Father Pfleger said “it was a legitimate defense of a community under siege.” Other intense campaigns are recounted in “Radical Disciple.”
Father Pfleger himself seems to exemplify a concept on which Mr. McClory bases his own activism – much of it expressed through his writing – for much of his post-clerical life. In a 2009 talk in Michigan for a Catholic reform group, Mr. McClory defined dissent as the means by which a person “start[s] to live as if the Kingdom of God [i]s already … here.” He said, “Dissent is … a way of correcting things that aren’t as they should be, or as a duty,” and “[D]issent in the Church today is a holy thing.” Mr. McClory says, “It is something that perhaps is inspired by the Holy Spirit. …”
One of Mr. McClory’s earlier books, “Faithful Dissenters,” examines a number of people throughout history who felt that official interpretations of church doctrine no longer worked in society and tried to institute change. As Mr. McClory points out, however, those who have dissented in this way have been treated badly, and their works have become absorbed into doctrine well after their deaths. Indeed, Mr. McClory says, it is impossible to know whether a dissenter’s ideas are positive ones that have come into their own, or contrary ideas that endanger the Church and its members, until years later, when they have – or have not – been accepted.
In “Radical Disciple,” Mr. McClory shows Father Pfleger to be a man whose concept of faith requires that he live his life engaged in the attempt to better the church of which he is part by bettering the lives of those for whom he cares. For him, as for others Mr. McClory calls “faithful dissenters,” dissent is itself a “holy thing.”
The book recounts Father Pfleger’s campaigns and interactions with his superiors in the Catholic Church with a sympathetic eye. He says, for example, “When I saw Pfleger, I thought that was what I should have been like when I was there.”
Mr. McClory reveals Father Pfleger to be a man for whom dissent, both religious and civil, is an affirmation, a way of bringing what he perceives as the good to bear actively on the world around him. In the manner of “faithful dissenters” throughout history, he cannot do otherwise.
Though he lives in Evanston now, Robert McClory was born June 8, 1932, on Chicago’s West Side. His father, Guy, was born on a farm and worked for the Chicago Post Office for 40 years; his mother, Alice, was a schoolteacher before marriage. Robert entered Quigley, the high school seminary, at 14. He attended Quigley for five years, college for a year after that, and major a seminary for seven years.
Ordained at 26, Mr. McClory was first assigned to Saints Faith, Hope and Charity in Winnetka in 1958, the “farthest he’d got away from his childhood home.” He says he felt there was not much he could do there and was pleased when he was sent to St. Sabina in 1964. This was, he says, “during the transition from a white to a black community.” At the time, Monsignor John McMahon was trying to integrate St. Sabina, in hopes that a positive balance could be found.
“It was a very interesting time. It was exciting, nerve-wracking, stimulating, and heart-breaking,” Mr. McClory says. “The whites were very upset about the blacks coming in; the blacks thought they were getting into a stable neighborhood. … After Frank Kelly was killed, ‘white flight’ picked up real fast. Even those who had said they would stay left. … [T]the dream of a stable, interracial community was dead.”
Later visits to the Sabina community allowed Mr. McClory to “meet this young, hyper Michael Pfleger. He was so intense and so determined. Sabina was one of the biggest [churches]. … You were pretty sure a small black congregation was not going to manage to keep it up. [Then] Mike comes along and says, ‘No, you’re not going to knock it down.’”
Now, says Mr. McClory, “a fairly large number of non-Catholics also come to Sabina. With [Pfleger] there are no boundaries. … People come in from Indiana, Michigan to be there on Sunday. [They are] comfortable in the kind of service in the … Baptist, Pentacostal, evangelical Christian [tradition], with the spirit and movement and music,” that Father Pfleger has said he is drawn to. Father Pfleger, says Mr. McClory, is “very critical of tight membership regulations that churches put up;” his is “a Catholic service that crosses borders.”
By 1971, Mr. McClory says he was ready to leave the priesthood. He had “become disillusioned with being a full-time representative of the church,” and he wanted to get married – to Margaret, at that time “a religious sister at St. Sabina, involved with the school,” who would also be leaving the church. He had to “look for something else to do for work,” he says, and had always been a writer, so he applied to Medill at Northwestern University and was accepted.
After graduating from journalism school, Mr. McClory worked for the Chicago Defender. The job he thought would be for a couple of months turned into several years. “They were friendly, open – I got to do everything – news, features, became a good friend of Harold Washington. I interviewed Jesse Jackson on his crusades,” he says.
“[Harold Washington] was a powerful figure,” he says. “He was in the State Assembly when I was at the Defender. I’d call up Harold Washington, and he would say, ‘read me the story’ that I wanted his comment on, and then he’d give his reaction – three or four juicy quotes.”
Mr. McClory is an associate professor emeritus at Medill, having taught there since 1983. He is a founder and current board member of Call to Action, a national organization of “Catholics working together for justice and equality,” he says. Members, both clergy and laity, work toward church reform. The group’s stated mission is to “educate, inspire and activate Catholics to act for justice and build inclusive communities through a lens of anti-racism and anti-oppression principles” (www.cta-usa.org).
Books written by Mr. McClory and widely available include “Man Who Beat Clout City (1977),” “Racism in America” (1981), “Power and the Papacy” (1997), “Turning Point: The Inside Story of the Papal Birth Control Commission” (1997), “Faithful Dissenters” (2000), “As It Was in the Beginning: The Coming Democratization of the Catholic Church,” and “Radical Disciple” (2010).