Pulpit Predecessor Pens Rev. Pfleger Tell-All

CHICAGO — The drama at Chicago's St. Sabina Catholic Church begins with a nod to the 1983 miniseries "The Thorn Birds."

But this love story began in 1971, when Robert McClory, the parish priest, and the nun who served as the school's principal fell in love.

After both left religious life and married to start a family, McClory heeded a different call and became a journalist.

A few years later, another rebel who had a way with words stepped into the South Side pulpit — the Rev. Michael Pfleger. Known for his activism, Pfleger's prominence peaked during the 2008 election when his controversial sermons about race caused a national uproar.

Though McClory and Pfleger launched remarkably different journeys from the same pulpit, they have inspired each other over the years, sharing mutual admiration and confidences.

So it should come as no shock that McClory's latest reportage is a tell-all biography of his notorious successor. Yet in "Radical Disciple: Father Pfleger, St. Sabina Church and the Fight for Social Justice," McClory reveals Pfleger's notable level of modesty, surprising for a priest known for his media savvy and bully pulpit.

In fact, persuading Pfleger to write a book was no easy task and took about two decades of coaxing, McClory said. Pfleger insisted that he never wanted the spotlight to shine on him. He wanted it on the causes he championed, including gun control, youth violence and poverty.

"I never thought about writing a book about me. I'm living life," Pfleger said. "I don't have time to talk about my life. Time is what I don't have."

But Pfleger said that if anyone could be trusted to tell his tale and place his secrets and shenanigans in the proper context, it was McClory. Pfleger finally agreed to answer his questions.

"Because he's a former priest and because he was here, and knowing his theological beliefs over the years, I trusted his telling of the story," Pfleger said, sharing a pew with McClory inside St. Sabina's sanctuary recently.

Pfleger hasn't always known whom to trust or lean on for support. He possesses a remarkable ability to bring heated critics out of the woodwork.

"I was fascinated by the amount of sheer hatred he stirred up," McClory said. "What is it that causes people — most of whom don't know him — to think he's worse than Attila the Hun? Who does he think he is?"

McClory remembers asking that same question in the 1970s when Pfleger first arrived on the scene. As an associate pastor assigned to St. Sabina in the late 1960s, McClory witnessed firsthand the transformation of the Auburn-Gresham neighborhood, the area also known as St. Sabina parish.

McClory's boss, Monsignor John McMahon, poured all of the parish's savings into integrating the neighborhood and pews, but the gamble did not pay off. Instead of inspiring good will, it generated stacks of hate mail and put him at odds with city politicians.

But the reams of vitriol prepared Pfleger for the public's disapproval in his future and taught him that the church wasn't only about love.

"If church is really doing its job, it should be getting lots of hate," Pfleger said. "Why are we not all being hated?" He added that Jesus and his apostles faced scorn and repugnance, too.

But McClory's mentorship and example also reassured Pfleger. Both traveled parallel paths to find their callings. Despite expressing interest in African-American ministry, both men began their careers at affluent parishes on Chicago's North Shore.

And both came face to face with the specter of youth violence during their time at St. Sabina. McClory blames the bullet that pierced the heart of a teenager outside his rectory for the decline of St. Sabina. The bullet that pierced the heart of Pfleger's adopted son emboldened St. Sabina's ministry even more.

"When it comes to teaching the value of life and changing society, we have failed miserably as a church," Pfleger said.

But unlike his predecessors, Pfleger has built bonds with politicians in City Hall and the White House, and his activism has put him at odds with church leaders. When he mocked Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton in 2008, Cardinal Francis George temporarily removed Pfleger from St. Sabina's pulpit and rectory. George allowed the pastor to return a few weeks later.

"Down deep in his soul, he knows something extraordinarily Christian has happened here," Pfleger said about the cardinal. "He's a spiritual enough man to say, 'I don't like it for a moment, but there's something going on there.'"

Pfleger also believes men who take McClory's path don't necessarily leave the priesthood. Once a priest, always a priest, he said. The parish will honor both men after Mass on Dec. 5.

"If we take our faith seriously," Pfleger said, "we are all priests."