The unsinkable Father Pfleger
By Michael M. Bates
Chicago's Father Michael Pfleger made a triumphant appearance not long ago at St. Sabina's Catholic Church. Returning from a two-week suspension, the priest delivered his "Ain't nothing like a comeback" sermon to an adoring congregation.
He could as aptly have used "I will survive" as his theme. Like him or love him, Father Pfleger is the definitive survivor. Cardinals come and cardinals go, but the activist pastor does as he pleases and prevails.
It's always been that way. Declining enrollments forced some Chicago Catholic schools to close in the 1970s. Pfleger, still a seminarian at the time, picketed then-Cardinal John Cody's home in protest.
After ordination, the man decided he wanted a family and initiated adopting a son. Cardinal Cody threatened to remove Pfleger if the adoption took place. It did and the cardinal didn't. Father Pfleger later adopted two other boys.
Destruction of private property isn't a skill set commonly associated with the priesthood. Father Mike, however, strenuously objects to billboards advertising cigarettes and alcohol. He charges that they're disproportionately placed in black neighborhoods and lure people into bad decisions.
In 1990, he took matters – and a paintbrush – into his own hands, defacing billboards he found objectionable. Then-Cardinal Joseph Bernardin wrote Pfleger, who told a Chicago Sun-Times reporter the cardinal's letter "condemns - (that is) asks me not to endorse any activity that is illegal." The news article continued: "Asked if he would heed the cardinal's wishes, Pfleger vaguely replied, ‘I continue to advocate the removal of that kind of advertising from the African-American and Hispanic communities.'"
Father Pfleger stood trial the following year on criminal damage charges. An accommodating Cook County jury, apparently deciding citizens should obey only the laws they find congenial, acquitted him.
The priest maintained his abhorrence toward tobacco and alcohol companies. An Associated Press story after the verdict quoted him: "They hide behind this free speech thing and in the meantime are allowed to be immoral. . . When you saturate a community with two top killers . . . that's genocide."
Yet Father Pfleger eagerly embraces "this free speech thing" when it suits his purposes. He's invited Louis Farrakhan, a man he describes as a close friend, to speak at his parish multiple times. He may not agree with everything Farrakhan believes.
Still, according to a November, 1994 Sun-Times story, Pfleger said the Muslim minister "has raised serious questions regarding Jewish power, Jewish influence, that people do not want to ask or answer, in particular Jewish power in the media, and with racism and white people and what's been done." Even with this history, Barack Obama included a testimonial from Pfleger on his campaign Web site until the mocking of Mrs. Clinton incident. Then it disappeared.
The priest's relationship with Chicago's current prelate, Cardinal Francis George, is decidedly mixed. The cardinal endorsed Father Pfleger's 2000 initiative in which parish members paid prostitutes to listen to the Gospel. On another occasion, he described Pfleger as a "unique priest."
That's certainly accurate. Father Pfleger has pastored at the same church much, much longer than archdiocesan rules generally permit. The standard is two six-year terms as pastor. Michael completed his third six-year term in 2001 and threatened to leave the priesthood if he weren't permitted to stay.
It was announced then that the cardinal had extended Pfleger's time at St. Sabina's indefinitely, allowing some time – possibly a couple of years – to name a replacement. The priest voiced his appreciation for the cardinal's decision.
That appreciation lasted about as long as a chocolate éclair does in my refrigerator. Within days, at a conference on the legacy of slavery, Pfleger dared the Catholic Church: "You are going to have to have the (crudity) to fire me. If you want to fire me, fire me." That's a fine way for a man of the cloth to talk. A friend of Pfleger's, the shy and retiring Rev. Jeremiah Wright, wrote to his eminence urging his comrade stay put. Months later, the cardinal publicly suggested that maybe it was time for Michael Pfleger to seek a new vocation.
That was six years ago. Father Pfleger is still the pastor. The cardinal told him last year he would remain at St. Sabina's.
Shortly after that reassurance, the cardinal might have had second thoughts. An anti-gun rally, one of the priest's enthusiasms, offered the chance for him to declare that he and his associates would "snuff out" a certain gun shop owner and any state legislators not voting the approved Pfleger way.
Cardinal George issued a statement: "Publicly delivering a threat against anyone's life betrays the civil order and is morally outrageous, especially if this threat came from a priest."
Father Pfleger claimed he didn't realize that "snuff out" meant to kill. A man who's spent years developing his all-important street cred simply hadn't ever heard that expression before.
One thing he knows for sure is how to tap into tax dollars. His pal Obama greased the way for Pfleger's church to receive at least $225,000 when the messiah was doing his apprenticeship in Springfield.
Father Pfleger said Sunday that he'll not be silent. Why should he? Cardinals come and cardinals go, but the activist pastor does as he pleases and prevails. No one is gonna steal his show.
This Mike Bates column appeared in the June 26, 2008 Reporter Newspapers