01 June, 2008

Fr. Pfleger revisited

I mentioned Fr. Michael Pfleger a while back in the context of Mr. Obama's pastor, the Reverend Wright. Now Fr. Pfleger has appeared on his own in a YouTube video, mocking Senator Clinton's tears after New Hampshire: I'm white, I'm entitled, and this is mine!!! As a consequence, Mr. Obama has withdrawn his membership from that church, and the Archdiocese of Chicago has issued a sharp rebuke of Fr. Pfleger's words. Pfleger himself has felt the need to apologize.

I confess myself at a loss to understand why Fr. Pfleger subsequently apologized for the words he spoke about Ms. Clinton. I half-suspect that Fr. Pfleger is sorrier for the effect his words may have on Mr. Obama's campaign than for the content of those words and the tone in which he delivered them.

I am also surprised that Cardinal George felt compelled to issue that statement. He can't be unaware that this is typical of Fr. Pfleger.

During the two hours I heard him preach at St. Sabina's on that Sunday afternoon almost ten years ago, I heard worse things come out of his mouth, and in worse of a tone. (As I wrote before, I never once saw any insanity preached. Fr. Pfleger came close…) There was a Senate race coming up, and Fr. Pfleger did not merely endorse a candidate; he told the parishioners whom to vote for. I recall the words, I can't tell you whom to vote for, but…, drawing a huge laugh and applause. It was clear that this sort of stuff went on all the time in his church.

(An aside. Had Fr. Pfleger told them to think twice about voting for that candidate, or that she should not have received communion at a Catholic church, because she has been an unabashed supporter of abortion, placing her in direct conflict with his parishioners' Catholic faith,* the national media would have been in an uproar, and public figures would be shaking their heads about how the wall of separation between Church and State is crumbling. Do you think that Fr. Pfleger won't tell his parish whom to vote for this fall, Cardinal George's statement notwithstanding? No one in the media will care, because he is telling them to vote for a Democrat, just as no one in the media cared when he told them to vote for Carol Moseley Braun.)

What to make of the man? As I mentioned in my previous post, Fr. Pfleger waged war on what he perceived as causes of vice in the community, such as beer billboards and the like. He had made national headlines for protesting Jerry Springer's show for his negative television at a time when Springer was at the height of his popularity. I admired him before I walked into St. Sabina's that Sunday morning. I believe that Fr. Pfleger cares genuinely and deeply for the sheep entrusted to him. I also think he has veered terribly off course, and risks leading them to destruction.

What bothers me most about that videotape is not what it shows, but what it hints at. Certain passages of his speech have been cut from it, and I can extrapolate from what remains the sense of those passages. It sounds a lot like something that I heard often during my time as a seminarian: a highly politicized view of poverty and race, where the poor and minorities are always victims, everyone else is always an oppressor. Those of us who don't fall into the categories of poor or minority are obliged to fall at their leaders' feet, beg their mercy for our crimes (which happen to be the crimes of our ancestors, from which we have profited), and give the poor anything they ask for.

I am not exaggerating. There were priests within and without the seminary who tried constantly to make us feel guilty merely for being in the seminary. A priest once told that the words of a letter I wrote him revealed that the poor deserved to be poor, even though I had said nothing of the sort.** I don't know how many times I was told that I came from a "privileged" background, that I was thinking "the wrong way", and that I could never understand what it was like to struggle at the bottom rungs of society.

If I may speak briefly in defense of myself and of my family: I have never held a grudge against the poor or against minorities. My grandfather had the highest grades at his school, but his principal wanted to name someone else valedictorian because John Perry was "poor white trash." My mother struggled to find a teaching job because of her Italian accent, and certain minorities would disparage her within earshot because "she can't talk right."

I myself may not have been poor, because my father had a job as an engineer, and so was able to pay for his house and his kids' food. I did attend school with poor kids, however; I played with poor kids, and worked at Hardee's and Wendy's alongside poor kids. I remember one of my coworkers, a sweet and decent young woman of black and white parentage, crying because her daddy told her that black people were stupid, "and he's right; I'm stupid." I remember a rich white kid whom I knew at school coming in and demanding of me a cup of Sprite, as if he couldn't afford it. I remember a girl I secretly liked who lived in the trailer park nearby and complained frequently that the money she earned at Hardee's had to pay for her car and insurance and maybe college one day if she could get in, while the rich kids just got these things for free from their parents.

As for myself, I left home at 18, and received only room and board payments from my parents after that. I bought my own books, paid for my own entertainment, and built up some debt that I mostly paid off over two years as a high school teacher. I struggled to make ends meet in seminary, and had to give my car to my parents because I could no longer afford it. (Some dioceses pay for their seminarians' cars. Mine would not.)

I noticed that many of the same priests who rhetorically savaged my life of "privilege" regularly enjoyed fine restaurants, lived in fine rectories, collected expensive trinkets, and generally enjoyed a higher standard of living than I had ever seen before.*** They may have cared for the poor, but they didn't care to live like them. Whenever a priest from the diocese came to visit us at seminary, an expensive dinner was on the agenda. This was quite typical, in fact. Other seminarians regularly visited bars, drove cars financed by their dioceses, and lived quite well. Some of the biggest spenders were seminarians from "unprivileged" backgrounds. Quite a few from "privileged" backgrounds like my own had sold or given up their possessions in order to attend seminary, rarely enjoyed a night at a restaurant or a trip to the movies, and took odd jobs at the seminary to pay our bills. I cleaned the chapel one year, and delivered mail the next.

One of the older seminarians described these priests' attitudes aptly when he said (not verbatim):

A lot of these guys grew up in rich families. Once they became priests and were assigned to black parishes, they saw how poor people lived and never got over the shock from the disparity.
Why that means they have to blame me for it I'll never understand.

I don't know what background Fr. Pfleger has. I do know that he has bought into, and encourages, an attitude all too common among many priests of poor or minority parishes: that they have to seize political power in any way possible, using any means available. This is why I write that Fr. Pfleger is sorrier for the effect he may have on Mr. Obama's campaign than for the content of the words he said and the tone in which he uttered them.. If his words mean Mr. Obama loses, then the culture in which Fr. Pfleger has invested so much energy, a culture which sees politics ultimately as being about seizing power to benefit their community through patronage, will have lost their chance at power again, just as in 1998 the candidate Fr. Pfleger openly endorsed, the corrupt Carol Moseley Braun, lost her Senate seat to a white Republican from a privileged background.****,*****

As I wrote before,
I am no Fr. Pfleger, however. When I left St. Sabina's four hours later… I was on my way out of seminary.
The visit had been for a class on liturgy, and I concluded the report that for the first time in my seminary career, I was thinking about leaving seminary. (The professor wrote something to the effect of, "I hope not.")

A black darkness had already come over me then, an anguish I had never felt before, and never felt since. I began to believe that I would serve God better outside the diocesan priesthood than within it. My experience as a seminarian intern at a parish church the previous summer hadn't been very positive, either. (I had been assigned there in order to "grow". When I wanted to talk about some things that bothered me, I was told "later", but "later" never came. I had wanted to talk about things such as the fact that the priest didn't care about declining attendance so long as the weekly offering was growing.)

If I've learned anything about myself over the years I spent trying to perform public service (high school teacher, volunteer tutor, parish minister) or even of myself as a general human being: people don't like me. I do not possess characteristics conducive to affability and leadership. That is not my nature. Grace builds on nature, they told us at seminary, and I don't have the nature for diocesan priesthood. All my life I have loved Christ and have wanted to make him known, but I seem to succeed only in driving people away from him. It broke my heart to leave seminary, but I don't know what in good conscience I could have done. I tried over a period of years: I volunteered at Christ the King, served at Holy Family, tutored for free at an inner-city Chicago parish, and did lots more that I don't care to repeat. I walked out of St. Sabina's church with my vision cleared; I cannot be a priest. I would help any way I can (and I do when I can, but I won't recite that here) but I surely could not have helped as a priest.

If this seems strange to you, that doesn't surprise me. I'm the only person who has understood it. I tried to explain this to people when I left seminary, but no one believed me. My father's words were, I'm not sure even you know why you left seminary. Everyone was sure that I had some deeper reason for leaving—I suspect from the way they quizzed me that some hoped for a scandal—but no, that was all.

Perhaps that reveals me for a shallow, faithless, and false Christian. Some people have said as much. Perhaps my words are equivalent to those of Milton's Satan, I will not serve? God have mercy on my soul.

It has been ten years since I walked into Holy Family Parish, and began slowly to fall apart. Again I find myself in a position where the weblog is taking a direction I don't like. I have a family to tend to, so I think I will walk away awhile. I'll probably return, but it will be a while.

God bless.

*The irony is that a few minutes before endorsing Carol Moseley Braun, he had warned his parishioners against falling prey to the culture of contraception and abortion surrounding them. I have wondered if he did that because he genuinely believes that that culture is poisonous, or because he knew there would be some seminarians there.

**What I recall writing in that letter was something I had been told: namely, that companies fled black neighborhoods of Chicago after many of them were burned down during race riots. I had added the comment that now I understood why these companies no longer wished to set up shop there, something that had made no sense to me previously. From this the priest extrapolated my supposed belief that the poor "deserve" to be poor.

***My Italian grandfather worked his way up from a poor childhood to a high position in the Bank of Naples. He never lived so well as some of these priests who spoke loudly of my "privileged" background, despite the fact that he lived with his brother, who died a childless bachelor and contributed his income to the home. To my knowledge, my only benefit from Nonno's position was a yearly trip to Italy every summer, and some money that my mother used to buy us clothes (that other kids made fun of, because I looked "poor"). Nonno didn't leave much inheritance to his children, either. That's a story I'll never get discuss, not merely because of the virtue f discretion, but because I don't understand it. It does seem to be a hallmark of the Leboffe family of Gaeta, which in the mid-1800s prospered on a small fleet of merchant ships, but in the early 1900s was reduced to such poverty that Nonno's brother, as a teenager, had to take a job as a sailor to support his mother and younger siblings.

****If I understand Wikipedia correctly, this white Republican from a privileged background turned out to be one of the most honest and decent men we had in government during the worst excesses of the current administration's own approach to patronage-based politics. He so resisted the culture of corruption and kickbacks that his own party turned against him. Read about him and judge for yourself.

*****As for privilege and victimization, I wrote everything I care to write on that two years ago. In my opinion, these are the things that Fr. Pfleger and others like him should be telling his sheep from his pulpit, and this is why they lead their sheep astray.

Like I said, I could never have been a priest.

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