CHICAGO — His final farewell unfolded as if he had choreographed every song and step. With people in the pews belting out the Celtic hymn “Lord of the Dance,” the Rev. Andrew Greeley was carried out of Christ the King Roman Catholic Church in Chicago's Beverly neighborhood for a private burial.
Hundreds of mourners, including Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke, theologian Martin Marty, comedian and former parishioner George Wendt and about three dozen priests, nearly filled Greeley's first and only full-time parish on Wednesday to give him a traditional Irish Catholic send off.
But they didn't only mourn the loss of an uncle, scholar, novelist and friend. They grieved the loss of a priest whose lone voice in the wilderness forced Catholics to confront their imperfect church.
“Who became the first voice about abuse in the Catholic Church? Andrew M. Greeley, because he had the courage and he had the freedom to pursue it,” said the Rev. John Cusick, who delivered the homily for his mentor. “If on May 30, 2013, the Catholic Church and the world lost an honest voice, doesn't it behoove us to be that voice?”
Greeley, 85, was found dead May 30 at his home at the John Hancock Center, several years after suffering a near fatal brain injury when he fell getting out of a cab.
Cusick recounted seeing Greeley in the hospital days after the fall in November 2008. Doctors had drilled a hole in his head to relieve pressure in the brain. Mirroring Greeley's own impish sense of humor, Cusick said he teased his mentor that if his critics could see him, they would say they always knew he had a hole in his head.
Cusick said Greeley's friends and millions of others knew that, in fact, Greeley had a “holy head” who saw the sacred and divine in ordinary, everyday life. He added that Greeley's boundless energy, quick wit and intellectual curiosity surpassed most minds and his courage trumped most backbones.
“Andy taught me the most contemporary of sins is the oldest of sins — mediocrity,” Cusick said. “Worrying more about fitting in than speaking heart and soul.”
A renowned sociologist and outspoken Catholic commentator, Greeley had been a longtime columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and wrote more than 50 best-selling novels and more than 100 works of nonfiction. After serving 10 years as an associate pastor at Christ the King parish, he was released from the pulpit to become a sociology professor and researcher at the University of Chicago. He eventually held a tenured position at the University of Arizona. Inspired by Vatican II reforms, he immersed himself in research about American Catholics engaged in public life.
Despite all his accomplishments, he always stressed he was nothing more than a parish priest.
In addition to loving his church, he pushed it to change, championing the ability of women to serve the church in every capacity, even referring to God as a “she.” He also believed the church should ordain married priests.
Though Greeley never fancied himself a theologian, the Rev. David Tracy, a professor at the University of Chicago Divinity School, said on Wednesday he “could name no other contemporary thinker who crossed so many borders of the academy with ease and robust joy.”
“Though he modestly disclaimed the title of theologian, in fact, he was one of the major theological interpreters of our day,” said Tracy, who once held the Andrew Thomas Greeley and Grace McNichols Greeley Professorship in Roman Catholic Studies that Greeley established in his parents' names. “Even as Andrew sang out the sheer joy and goodness of God's creation in life, he never hesitated to denounce injustice. Andrew Greeley was our very own American Catholic, smiting nonsense and injustice left and right.”
Because the funeral coincided with Chicago's City Council meeting, Burke sat in the pews without her husband, Alderman Ed Burke. She said Greeley challenged her during her time as chairwoman of the lay National Review Board of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
“He appealed to your moral, ethical senses,” she said. “He was an individual who spoke truth honestly without fear and tried to instill some of that in others. It's a work in progress, and will continue to be. He lives in all of us.”
Niece Eileen Durkin spoke on behalf of Greeley's younger sister Mary Jule Durkin, a pastoral theologian now suffering from Alzheimer's.
Durkin said her mother was just a toddler when Greeley declared his intention in second grade to become a priest. But they watched out for each other. She liked to recount how Greeley covered all the faucets in their family's home so she wouldn't drink water before her First Communion.
Likewise, Mary Jule Durkin's affection for her older brother “was a fiercely protective love because my uncle took risks,” Eileen Durkin said.
Noting that Greeley died on the Feast Day of St. Joan of Arc and again impishly joking that his mentor “beat the stake,” Cusick suggested to Cardinal Francis George that the church open an examination of Greeley for sainthood.
Before leading the crowd in a final farewell, George added his own personal remarks. Though he disagreed with Greeley on many church issues, they did agree on opera and attended the Lyric together several times. Greeley's favorite opera was Giuseppe Verdi's “La Traviata,” George recalled, and one evening, the cardinal asked the priest why.
“He said it's the most Catholic of the operas,” George said, pausing before he finished. “Because in the end … everyone is forgiven.”