US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Radical Disciple: Father Pfleger, St. Sabina Church, and the Fight for Social Justice

By Catherine O'Connell-Cahill | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
Radical Disciple: Father Pfleger, St. Sabina Church, and the Fight for Social Justice
By Robert McClory (Lawrence Hill Books, 2010)

Millions first saw Father Michael Pfleger in a grainy video as he mocked Hillary Clinton during a May 2008 sermon at Chicago's Trinity United Church of Christ. Longtime friend Barack Obama denounced his remarks. Pfleger apologized, and Chicago Cardinal Francis George asked him to take several weeks' leave from his parish, St. Sabina, where he has been pastor since 1981.

Chicago journalist Robert McClory shows Pfleger to be a more complex figure than his 15 minutes of fame indicate. In this balanced look at the priest and the community at St. Sabina, McClory details how Pfleger took a declining parish in a racially shifting neighborhood and turned it into "the most dynamic black parish in the United States" in the words of a fellow priest.

Pfleger challenged parishioners to tithe, and today St. Sabina is not only financially independent but funds a staggering number of outreach projects. He adopted and raised three young men. Although Pfleger's style can irritate, his dedication and effectiveness as a pastor are undeniable. Lay leaders abound at St Sabina, whose website proclaims the parish as "a spiritual hospital where all are welcome." Yet Pfleger, a doctrinal conservative, also requires live-in couples to separate for six months before he'll marry them.

Chicagoans know Pfleger well due to his savvy use of the media to publicize his many crusades--to outlaw the sale of drug paraphernalia and to protest the alcohol and cigarette billboards blanketing Chicago's minority communities. More recently he has mobilized against the city's epidemic of gun violence against young people--even before his own son became one of its victims.

"There's a war right here in Chicago," he says, organizing marches and flying the U.S. flag upside down in the traditional signal of distress. Some say Pfleger is over the top. McClory's book leaves one wondering why our church doesn't have more like him.

This article appeared in the October 2010 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 75, No. 10, page 43).