THE BLOG
06/11/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

My Talk with Father Pfleger: "A Dangerous Time in America ... You Have to Whisper Your Thoughts."

On Sunday morning, I was enjoying a brisk walk along the Hudson River in lower Manhattan and some quiet contemplation when my cell phone rang. It was my editor.

"Mike just called, and he wants to talk, but he'll only talk to you," he said.

Mike, as in the Rev. Michael Pfleger, the perpetually embattled pastor of St. Sabina Roman Catholic Church in Chicago, who most recently has been under siege from comments he made about Hillary Clinton a week ago from the pulpit of Trinity United Church of Christ -- aka Barack Obama's former (as of Saturday) church.

"Oh, really? Well I don't want to talk to him," I said. "I'm pissed at him. How could he do this? He probably thinks I'm a sympathetic ear, but I'm not. I pretty much want to slap him."

"Just think about it," my editor said with a whiff of smugness, "and call me back in five minutes when you've changed your mind."

I hate it when he's right.

I've been writing about Pfleger for almost as long as I've been writing about anything in Chicago. He's a perennial source for theologically intriguing, often controversial, sometimes plainly outlandish stories on the religion beat. Pfleger, 59 years-old and a priest for 33 of those years -- nearly all of them served at St. Sabina in the Auburn-Gresham neighborhood -- has never met a cardinal-archbishop of Chicago he didn't aggravate. During his tenure, the activist priest has had throwdowns with all three of the "men in the red dresses," as we call them, who have run the Catholic Church in this town.

Pfleger is always in trouble over something, with someone.

This time, the tone is a little different, as Pfleger's waves have made a loud, acrimonious splash on the national and international scene. In video clips broadcast on YouTube, he stood in the same pulpit the Rev. Jeremiah Wright vacated not too long ago, mocking Clinton's tearfulness earlier this spring on the campaign trail and accused her of expecting white entitlement in the face of her black opponent's wildly successful campaign.

In the wake of the Clinton flap, Cardinal Francis George officially silenced Pfleger, whom he had pressured to resign a month ago from the Catholics for Obama committee.

"He 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."

As for his performance from the Trinity pulpit at a Sunday night service May 25, Pfleger has apologized for "the words that I chose" and for "my dramatization." Pfleger told me he called the Clinton campaign to apologize directly but had not heard back from Clinton or her representatives.

All that is well and good, but how, as a friend and passionate supporter of Obama's campaign for president, could he do what he did, with cameras rolling?

Pfleger's short answer? He didn't think the service and his "conversation" -- a more casual address than a classic sermon, he explained -- were being broadcast live online, as Trinity often does.

"They told me it was down," Pfleger said. "Their live streaming had been down all day, and they didn't know whether it was back up. . . . I regret the dramatization that I was naive enough to believe was just going to be kept among that church."

Trinity is like a second home to Pfleger, who counts Wright as one of his mentors. "I thank God for the day I walked into Delores' Barber Shop and met you," the priest said of Wright at the beginning of his May 25 address at Trinity. "I wouldn't still be at St. Sabina if it wasn't for Jeremiah Wright."

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, I wondered aloud.

"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.

I've spoken to Pfleger many times about Jarvis' death and couldn't believe he said this. It sounded like the worst kind of narcissism, and I told him so.

He told me that, when Jarvis was killed, he was angry with God and didn't understand why God had allowed it to happen. But he knew Jarvis' death was not his fault. He hadn't shot his foster child.

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."

The rebel priest has had a rough couple of weeks. Last week, as the furor over his comments at Trinity was building, he underwent surgery for a hernia. His doctor told him to stay in bed for a week. He didn't. And Pfleger's 96-year-old father is ailing after a series of strokes.

"He's all I've got. He's all that's left of my family, and it's so painful, " said Pfleger, choking back tears. He has two adopted sons (and five grand children), but his mother and sister are deceased.

"So I'm dealing with that and the fact that the whole world hates my ass right now. There's a new group just started called 'Catholics Against Michael Pfleger,' with an online petition to have him removed from the pulpit.

Pfleger has become collateral damage in a battle that's bigger than he is.

"I understand that," he says. "People say, well, I thought you were more politically savvy. Well, I would have been if I was speaking at a banquet, or if I were speaking at a press conference. But I didn't think this was a political time. I was speaking at a pulpit about an issue that is . . . the greatest sin against the Bible, about racism.

"This is a dangerous time in America, the freest country in the world," Pfleger says, "where you have to whisper your thoughts."

Cathleen Falsani is the award-winning religion columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and author of the critically acclaimed book, The God Factor: Inside the Spiritual Lives of Public People. She is also author of the memoir Sin Boldly: A Field Guide for Grace, which will be released in August, and of the forthcoming The Dude Abides: The Gospel According to the Coen Brothers, due in stores April 2009.