UPDATE 4/30/2011: Fr. Pfleger has not given any interviews to the mainstream media since his suspension but he did talk to a young journalism student, Cassandra Norris. In the interview, Fr. Pfleger called the proposal that he take over the presidency of Leo High School "disaster in motion." He stated that he wants to remain a Catholic priest and pastor and that he intends to remain in the African American community. “If they say leave tomorrow, I’ll get up and leave tomorrow. But right now, I don’t know what the future is. Right now, I want the church to decide what they want," Fr. Pfleger, who is rumored to have hired canon lawyers to fight the suspension, concluded.
Yesterday, Fr. Michael Pfleger, the long time pastor of St. Sabina, an African American parish on Chicago's south side, was suspended a divinis by Cardinal Francis George, the Archbishop of Chicago. In the letter, the Cardinal indicated that the primary reason for the suspension was a radio interview that Fr. Pfleger gave on the nationally syndicated "Smiley & West" program in which, in response to a question about the Cardinal's attempt to transfer him to another assignment at Leo Catholic High School located a few blocks from his parish, Fr. Pfleger replied: "I want to try to stay in the Catholic Church. If they say you either take this principalship of a high school or a pastorship there or leave, then I have to look outside the church. I believe my calling is to be a pastor. I believe my calling is to be a voice for justice. I believe my calling is to preach the gospel. In or out of the church I’m going to continue to do that."
The response, which was picked up across local and national media, was stunningly lackadaisical. According to previous media accounts, Fr. Pfleger had not been offered a principalship, but rather the presidency of the high school, a much different role. He didn't even care about the offer enough to get the title right. It was also not the first time Fr. Pfleger had suggested he might consider leaving the Catholic church (the theme of forming his own storefront church has come up more than occasionally in his videotaped homilies), but this was the first time he had articulated it in such a large forum.
Vince Clark, Fr. Pfleger's personal assistant, claims that the St. Sabina community was "blindsided" by the suspension and didn't see it coming. Isadore Glover Jr., chairman of the parish council called the decision "totally a shock to the faith community of St. Sabina" and Kimberly Lymore, a member of the pastoral staff, called the letter "unfair" and "an ambush". Yet the decision should not shock anyone with any familiarity with the institutional Catholic church. It was a logical, and even a mild response to Fr. Pfleger's ongoing provocative words. You cannot keep on pulling the lion's tail and expect him to ignore you indefinitely.
There appears to be controversy over whether or not Fr. Pfleger had really indicated a desire to leave St. Sabina, as the Cardinal's letter states in its opening paragraph. Fr. Pfleger has repeatedly said to his congregation that he wants to stay at St. Sabina but on a recent appearance on "Roe and Roeper" on WLS, he alluded to the succession plan St. Sabina is putting into place. "I don't want to stay here forever", Fr. Pfleger said. Thus it is disingenuous for Fr. Pfleger and his followers to accuse Cardinal George of misinterpreting Fr. Pfleger's position on remaining at St. Sabina.
Ironically, Cardinal George's action puts St. Sabina's succession plan, projected to be carried out over a 5-6 year period, on a fast track. The plan was to promote associate pastor Fr. Thulani Magwaza, a South African priest, to pastor. The Cardinal has appointed Fr. Magwaza parish administrator during Fr. Pfleger's suspension. The Cardinal has allowed Fr. Pfleger to continue to use the title "pastor" while he reflects on whether or not he wants to continue to be a Catholic priest and hence work respectfully with the Cardinal.
Cardinal George has also asked a young African American priest, Fr. Drew Smith, a former cop who is a native of south side Chicago, to move in and help at St. Sabina. Fr. Drew, who was ordained in 2009, is currently the Associate Pastor of St. Ailbe Catholic Church, another predominantly African American parish. He is the author of From the Gun to the Pulpit.
Fr. Pfleger is concerned that the Cardinal wants to turn St. Sabina into a traditional Catholic Church. I suspect this fear may be exaggerated. I doubt that the Cardinal cares too much about whether or not the sanctuary looks Afrocentric, what kind of music is sung or whether or not there are liturgical dancers. I'm quite sure he doesn't want to undermine St. Sabina's social ministry, for which he has always expressed admiration. He probably does want to keep people like Dr. Cornel West and other non-priests and non-Catholics out of the pulpit on Sunday mornings. It doesn't mean that St. Sabina can't have these speakers at all -- just not within the context of what is supposed to be the liturgy.
Change will come to St. Sabina and, if the community is able to embrace it maturely, they may find that it is change that they can live with. After all, if St. Sabina is really a successful model, its survival will not depend on the presence of one man nor will it be undermined by that man's departure.
Saint Sabina has put a number of documents on their Web site including:
- The April 28th Statement from St. Sabina Leadership about the suspension of Fr. Pfleger
- A March 11th letter from Fr. Pfleger to Cardinal George in response to the proposed transfer to the presidency of Leo High School in which Fr. Pfleger offers a counterproposal that would involve bringing the high school under St. Sabina's aegis and continuing as pastor while also administering the school which, under Fr. Pfleger's plan, would undergo a complete reorganization.
- A letter signed by 14 priests at other predominantly Black Catholic parishes encouraging Cardinal George to make Saint Sabina's transition as smooth as possible. Signatories include Fr. Matthew S. Eyerman, who had been proposed by the Cardinal as a possible successor to Fr. Pfleger, and Fr. Andrew Smith, who has now moved in to St. Sabina to assist Fr. Thulani Magwaza, the appointed parish administrator, while Fr. Pfleger is suspended.