Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Pulling the Plug

In light of recent political controversy involving Fr Michael Pfleger of St Sabina's in Chicago, within the hour the city's archbishop Cardinal Francis George released the following statement:
To put recent events in some perspective, I have asked Father Michael Pfleger, Pastor of St. Sabina’s Parish, to step back from his obligations there and take leave for a couple of weeks from his pastoral duties, effective today. Fr. Pfleger does not believe this to be the right step at this time. While respecting his disagreement, I have nevertheless asked him to use this opportunity to reflect on his recent statements and actions in the light of the Church’s regulations for all Catholic priests. I hope that this period will also be a time away from the public spotlight and for rest and attention to family concerns.

I hope also that the life of St. Sabina’s parish may continue in uninterrupted fashion. Fr. William Vanecko, Pastor of St. Kilian’s parish, will be temporary administrator of St. Sabina’s and will assure the full complement of ministerial services during this period. I ask the members of St. Sabina’s parish to cooperate with him and to keep him and Fr. Pfleger in their prayers. They are in mine.
After apologizing for the offense caused by his Trinity sermon (fullvideo) during Sunday's Mass at the parish, Pfleger launched into another sermon (audio) saying that if YouTube existed at the time of the crucifixion, it would've ignored the resurrection.

The Trib's Manya Brachear notes that the temporary removal came after the firebrand priest, long a beloved activist in the city's African-American community, was returned to the defensive after more of the first set of comments emerged in which he declared that "America is the greatest sin against God."

In a response yesterday, Pfleger said that in making the remark, he "inadvertently inserted the word ‘America’ in the wrong place and was not even aware of it until" conservative bloggers had pointed it out. He said he had intended to say that "racism is the greatest sin."

Ordained in 1975, Pfleger, 59, has served as pastor of St Sabina's since 1981.

He hasn't made any public comment since today's announcement, but noting that Pfleger "has never met a cardinal-archbishop of Chicago he didn't aggravate," this morning's Sun-Times saw the benched cleric talking exclusively about, among other things, his relations with the archdiocese with the paper's famed "God Girl," Cathleen Falsani:
"[George] and I have had conversations, and I won't go into the conversations; I'll only say that he has asked me to remove myself from Barack's public campaign -- from the group Catholics for Obama -- and that was before all of this," Pfleger told me as we sat alone in a conference room Monday in Sabina's rectory. "He said that, as a Catholic priest, I'm not allowed to publicly support a candidate. I said my understanding was that, as an individual, I can support anyone I want, but that I would never tell parishioners who to vote for. First of all, from my point of view, that insults the congregation. They make their own choice.

"While I disagreed with him, I told him that I did not want to create another distraction for him or for Barack," Pfleger said. "So I wrote a letter to Barack, telling him just that: that I did not want to create a distraction for him, that the cardinal has said no priest is allowed to have his name on a [campaign committee] and that this is a bishop's rule throughout the country. Now, I don't know because I haven't done all the research, but he told me there is no other priest in anybody's campaign listing of support around the country."...

How much longer, considering his rocky relationship with George and the fact that he's years and years past the archdiocese's official "term limit" as pastor of Sabina?

"Are you in jeopardy of being removed right now?" I asked.

Pfleger blanched and wearily rubbed his forehead.

"Because of the hierarchical nature of the archdiocese, I think you're always serving at the discretion of the cardinal," he said. "Within the last year, we talked about a plan for transition over a number of years, and I think we agree on a plan and seeing the transition for Sabina over the next several years. That's all I want to say about that, but obviously I serve at the discretion of the archbishop."

How had George reacted to the Trinity dust-up?

"I can say that he called me, and we had a conversation, and I agreed not to use any of the political candidates' names publicly between now and November, and that I would adhere to my staying off of the official roster of people supporting Ob . . . sena . . . Bar . . . " he stumbled, slamming his hands on the table in frustration as he searched for the proper way to describe the junior lawmaker from Chicago with the big ears who has a healthy lead over the former first lady in the Democratic race.

Then, it was my turn. "So you've known, um, the person whose name we can't mention, for, like, 20 years or so?" I stammered. "Jeez, it's like he's Voldemort in Harry Potter, the name we dare not speak."

It's a rare occasion when Pfleger and I find ourselves at a loss for words.

Pfleger's about as cowed as I've ever seen him. He's reeling, really, from what he admits is a difficult predicament of his own making. Over the weekend, he said that the days since his Trinity address had been the most difficult of his life, even more painful than when his foster son Jarvis was gunned down near St. Sabina on May 30, 1998....

The difference between that pain and this, he said, is that, essentially, he shot himself and his church. "I've spent my life trying to, No. 1, serve God, and to build up this faith community. I felt all of that was at risk. I felt that I don't want to hurt this church; I've done everything trying to make this church strong. I don't want to hurt this church. I don't want to hurt these people who are at their jobs or workplaces having to defend their pastor. That shouldn't be what they have to do. I did not want to hurt this church's reputation."
And after the announcement, it didn't take long before news of parishioner protests -- and a strategy-crafting parish council meeting -- took to the airwaves.

PHOTO: Al Podgorski/Chicago Sun-Times