Father Michael Pfleger is not your typical priest. He has drawn media attention for his activism (protesting drug paraphernalia stores and alcohol advertising), evangelism (paying prostitutes to talk with them about how they can escape), criticism of the Catholic Church (he’d like to see women ordained), political rhetoric (once mocking then-Sen. Hillary Clinton at President Obama’s then-church—although he later apologized), and personal life (adopting three children). He’s the white priest of a predominantly African American congregation. He’s also a beloved leader in Auburn Gresham, a neighborhood on Chicago’s Southside that’s broken by poverty and gang violence.
Recently, Cardinal Francis George asked Father Pfleger to consider leaving St. Sabina Catholic Church to become the president at nearby Leo High School—a request that caused a dispute but eventually ended in a decision to prepare a transition plan for St. Sabina. In the Catholic Church, priests are normally reassigned after at most 12 years at a parish, but Father Pfleger has been allowed to stay at St. Sabina for the past 30 years.
In an interview on the Smiley & West radio show in April, Father Pfleger made it clear he didn’t want to leave St. Sabina and said he would “look outside the church” if forced to leave. Cardinal George suspended Father Pfleger from his duties a month ago, writing in a letter to Father Pfleger, “If that is truly your attitude, you have already left the Catholic Church and therefore not able to pastor a Catholic parish.”
After conversations between the two, the cardinal reinstated Father Pfleger on May 20th, with Father Pfleger reaffirming his commitment to the Catholic Church in a statement and taking his place at the pulpit again that weekend. Both issued statements (found on the St. Sabina website) about their conversation and agreement. Although it’s not clear what will happen next, Father Pfleger said in his statement that he is working on a transition plan for St. Sabina to finish by Dec. 1.
Chicago Theological Seminary associate professor Julia M. Speller is a scholar of African American religious history who has led workshops on leadership at St. Sabina. She said the tension surrounding the Father Pfleger controversy comes from the “personality and methodology” he uses to serve his parish.
“He’s a very outspoken, unapologetic, passionate man,” Speller said. “Perhaps the way he lives out his calling makes people uncomfortable. It’s not the way the average Catholic priest might do it, but that’s the way he lives out his calling on behalf of his community.”
Speller said that Father Pfleger’s style meets the needs of his particular neighborhood. She said Father Pfleger preaches like many African American pastors, using stories and an emotional appeal to drive people to socially conscious actions. While many white Protestant churches tend to preach only to the head, Father Pfleger speaks to both the head and the heart, she said.
“In black churches and other churches that are socially conscious, oftentimes the sermon is an opportunity,” Speller said. “Get their mind and emotion and energy all combined, so when they leave the service they’re ready to do something.” (See a video clip of Father Pfleger preaching upon his return below, or watch the entire sermon.) Indeed, in many ways St. Sabina feels more like a traditional black Baptist congregation than a Catholic parish, which may also be at the root of the conflict between Father Pfleger and Cardinal George.
Speller said she sees St. Sabina as an example of parishes that have adopted the cultural expressions of an ethnic group, as Catholic churches have done throughout American history. She said the parish’s music and worship style are similar to that found in many African-American churches, only the ritual and theology is uniquely Catholic. “The same spirit is there, but it’s placed around the traditional experience of the mass and the Catholic Church,” Speller said.
Speller compared St. Sabina’s ministry to the spirit behind the Second Vatican Council, or Vatican II, since St. Sabina has encouraged lay involvement and collaboration between denominations. Ultimately, she said the cardinal’s decision to reinstate Father Pfleger reflected the Catholic Church’s support of his work.
“I trust that this decision was made in an effort to continue the dynamic work that was done in this community,” Speller said. “I trust that (Cardinal George) understands (Father Pfleger’s) compassion and recognizes the value Father Pfleger brings to that specific parish.”
Find out more about Father Pfleger at the St. Sabina website.