Knight: Amazing priest was everyday guy – and guiding light

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After an invigorating, uplifting Peoria Cursillo renewal weekend in 1999, my heart was drawn to Catholicism but my head resisted with resentment. Among various voices, influences and sounding boards during and after that ecumenical experience in Christianity, I heard priests and Protestant pastors alike acknowledge my misgivings, but none were as meaningful as a sort of guide in absentia, Father Andrew Greeley, who died Thursday at his Chicago home at the age of 85.

Greeley had been ill for more than four years as a result of striking his head in a fall after his raincoat caught in a door of a Chicago cab. But he'd left a healthy body of work that had touched me and millions of others.

A Peoria priest had pointed out that Catholicism was a big tent, with active Catholics including Cesar Chavez and Dorothy Day on the one hand and on the other Bill O'Reilly and Father Charles Coughlin (the Rush Limbaugh of the 1930s). Those aren't extremes exactly, just varieties, but occupying the middle – not moderate, but independent – were figures such as Bishop Fulton J. Sheen (born in nearby El Paso, Ill.) and Father Greeley, an outspoken, sometimes grumpy, priest and also a novelist and columnist.

He was a natural storyteller who saw stories as integral to faith.

"Religion has been passed down through the years by stories people tell around the campfire," he wrote. "Stories about God, stories about love. Stories about good spirits and evil spirits. Practically speaking, your religion is the story you tell about your life."

Ordained in 1952, Greeley also earned a Ph.D. in sociology in 1962 and led the Chicago-based National Opinion Research Center in the 1960s. However, the respected sociologist and author of more than 150 books, both scholarly and genre fiction (his second novel, 1981's "The Cardinal Sins," was a bestseller), preferred the identification of priest.

"I'm a priest," he wrote in his memoir, "Confessions of a Parish Priest."

"Not a priest-sociologist or a priest-journalist or a priest-novelist or any multiple variations of those hyphenates," Greeley continued. "I'm a priest, a parish priest. The other things I do in life – sociological research, journalistic writing, storytelling – are merely way of being a priest."

His priestly duties included honest appraisals that didn't fit dogma or dictates of authoritarian elites. His research in 1972 showed that U.S. priests were unhappy with church leaders, a conclusion unwelcome by the Church hierarchy. Publicly, he was scornful of clergy ignoring the laity, but he also defended the institution of Catholic education and valued its importance to society.

Although he was a New Deal liberal, Greeley embraced family values before those words became political jargon nonsense.

He advocated for victims of abusive priests and wrote a scathing indictment of the Bush administration's military adventures, a collection of newspaper columns titled "A Stupid, Unjust and Criminal War: Iraq 2001-2007" (which author and history Gary Wills summarized as showing "that Jesus is the Prince of Peace, not a Captain of War.").

Frustrated with the "1 percent," whether the Curia in Rome, intellectuals or snobs of various stripes, he was critical of some Catholic leaders and practices (his last book, out in 2010, was "Chicago Catholics and Their Struggles within Their Church"), Greeley also blasted some reformers and other church critics as being biased against faith or swayed by trends more than inquiry.

Once, as the guest on the popular and long-running daytime "Phil Donahue Show," an audience member asked Greeley, "If you're so critical of the church, why don't you just leave?"

He said, "I like being Catholic."

But he wasn't so doctrinaire as to be narrow-minded or exclusive.

"We don't believe that we have a monopoly on truth," he said of Catholics. "We believe what we have is true, but it's not the whole truth. And we can learn a lot from the other religions if we listen to them respectfully."

Amazing, inclusive insight in an atmosphere too often insular and exclusionary.

Extraordinary, in fact. Greeley was an extraordinary man who could be a regular guy, too.

Greeley said he was a Cubs fan (and Bears fan and Bulls fan) "while praying for them to improve."

And an assistant recalled what when she started working for him, she made clear she was not Catholic.

"Well, that's OK," he said, adding, "– you're not a Republican, are you?"

I converted to Catholicism in 2000, when several Republicans, Cardinal fans and political conservatives were present, and we all celebrated and told and heard stories in the welcoming big tent.

A wake for Greeley is scheduled for 3-8 p.m. Tuesday (June 4) at Chicago's Christ the King Church (9235 S. Hamilton Ave.), which will host a 9:30 a.m. visitation and noon funeral Mass on Wednesday.

About the Author
Bill Knight recently retired after a couple decades teaching journalism at Western Illinois University. Now, you might find him strolling through the streets of Elmwood with his wife and fellow writer, Terry Bibo, along with their son, Opie, and his beloved collie, Lassie.* *Actually this last bit isn’t true. Not to mention the fact that our writer got “The Andy Griffith Show” and “Lassie & Timmy” mixed up.