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Community outraged by suspension of activist priest

By Starla Muhammad -Staff Writer- | Last updated: May 8, 2011 - 8:53:45 PM

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Parishioners rally outside the home of Cardinal Francis George, Archbishop of Chicago in protest.
CHICAGO ( - Shocked, total disbelief and upset. These words describe how the Faith Community of St. Sabina Catholic Church is feeling in light of the suspension of their popular and beloved spiritual leader, the Reverend Dr. Michael Pfleger.

The outspoken Catholic priest whose work in the heart of a South Side Black community was stripped of his priestly duties April 27 by Cardinal Francis George, Archbishop of Chicago.

In a letter to Fr. Pfleger dated April 27, Cardinal George says his decision was based on recent remarks the parish priest made to the media. He says Fr. Pfleger “misrepresented” their private conversations to the public about his future at St. Sabina. The exact length of the suspension is not clear as Cardinal George wrote, “…I am asking you to take a few weeks to pray over your priestly commitments…”

The suspension allows Fr. Pfleger to keep his designation as a pastor but he is banned from functioning as such. He is permitted to attend church but is prohibited from public duties such as presiding over mass, hearing confession and other functions

Father Pfleger was spotted at service May 1, the first Sunday of his suspension. Associate pastor Fr. Thulani Magwaza from South Africa presided over mass. Father Andrew Smith, a Black priest from Chicago's St. Ailbe Parish is now the assistant to Fr. Thulani. Both men were assigned to their duties by Cardinal George.

Father Pfleger has presided over the predominately-Black congregation for over 30 years and is highly regarded in the community he serves. His friendship and work with Reverend Jeremiah E. Wright and the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan among others has drawn the ire of those inside and outside of the Vatican.

Saint Sabina is the largest Black Catholic Church in Chicago.

(l) Cardinal Francis George Photo: Archdiocese of Chicago (c) Father Michael Pfleger Photo: FCN Archives (r) Parishioners rally outside the home of Cardinal Francis George, Archbishop of Chicago in protest. Photos: Starla Muhammad

His suspension and the manner in which it was handled has left his congregation reeling. “We're very upset, very puzzled, confused about this whole thing and we feel really disrespected because there have been some things that have been stated that are really not true,” Isadore Glover, Jr., a St. Sabina parishioner, told reporters at a April 28 press conference and rally outside the home of Cardinal George. Cardinal George flew to Rome later in the day in route to the beatification ceremony of the late Pope John Paul II.

Three busloads of congregants and church leaders from St. Sabina and supporters of “Father Mike” as the pastor is affectionately called, peacefully marched in front of the Cardinal's home, some on crutches and sang hymns. The leadership of St. Sabina is requesting a meeting with Cardinal Francis to discuss the issues want the suspension lifted immediately, said Mr. Glover, who also serves as chairman of the St. Sabina Parrish Council.

He points to Fr. Pfleger's philosophy that making a difference in the community means working outside of the physical church, which is part of what makes him special.

“What Father Mike has done for the African American community in all the years he's been at St. Sabina; He is an exemplary priest in our eyes and in our hearts because if you walk down 79th Street, you can see tremendous change and none of that developed as the result of staying within the four walls of the church,” said Mr. Glover.

This is something the average priest in the Archdiocese of Chicago is not willing to do and there are priests who are jealous of what Fr. Pfleger has accomplished in the Black community during his tenure at St. Sabina, he added.

The average tenure of a Catholic priest's assignment to a church is 12 years, which makes Fr. Pfleger's 30 years an exception. In Cardinal Francis' letter he says Fr. Pfleger told him “several times in recent years” he did not want to remain pastor of St. Sabina's during his entire ministry.

However, in the same paragraph Cardinal Francis admits, “Each time we discussed the subject, it was clear that there was no other assignment that would make equally good use of your talents in the ministry and that it would also be difficult to find another pastor to take up your ministry at Saint Sabina's with comparable fervor.”

News first broke several weeks ago about a March 11 meeting between Fr. Pfleger, Cardinal George and the possibility the priest would be reassigned to take over Leo High School, an all male school near St. Sabina as principal and president and that another priest would take over pastoral duties at the church.

Almost immediately, questions arose about the timing, motivation and intention of the Cardinal as Fr. Pleger has no formal background or training in education. Was Fr. Pfleger being manipulative in trying to hold on to a position he has held three decades or was he being forced out?

In a follow up letter to Cardinal George dated March 19, Fr. Pfleger writes he tried bringing a principal to Leo two years ago “but the Archdiocese was not willing to pay the salary needed for him to come.” Fr. Pfleger's solution to Cardinal George was to place the school under the auspices of St. Sabina. This would be a way to strengthen the base of Leo and try to save it, said Fr. Pfleger.

He also suggested the ongoing mentoring of Fr. Thulani continue and that in the next five years Fr. Thulani become pastor of St. Sabina, wrote Fr. Pfleger. This suggests Fr. Pfleger was not only concerned about Leo school but had already begun planning for the eventual transition of St. Sabina to new leadership.

This is very different from Cardinal George's assertion that Fr. Pfleger misrepresented this series of events as an attempt to “remove” him from St. Sabina. In fact, in Cardinal George's April 27 letter, he wrote, “You promised to consider what was a proposal, not a demand, even as I urged you to accept it.”

The Vatican and its head, the Pope, is spiritual head of over one billion Roman Catholics and one of the many promises a priest pledges is to “obey his bishop.” What remains unclear is in what way Fr. Pfleger disobeyed, since he considered the Cardinal's proposal.

This is not the first time Fr. Pfleger and Cardinal George have bumped heads. The Cardinal also suspended Fr. Pfleger in 2008 prompting some to wonder if perhaps he is trying to settle an old score now.

While pedophile priests were either quietly ushered from church to church or allowed to remain in congregations molesting innocent children, St. Sabina parishioners question Cardinal George's decision to suspend Fr. Pfleger.

Vince Clark, assistant to Fr. Pfleger told 1690 WVON radio host Cliff Kelley he does not know of one priest in the Chicago Archdiocese accused of child abuse, stealing church money or accused of having an addiction that has been suspended.

“But yet you suspend this priest … you pretty much suspended him underneath freedom of speech for something that you misinterpreted of the Tavis Smiley, Cornell West show,” said Mr. Clark, referring to the April 9 broadcast on “Smiley and West” on NPR. In a transcript of the comments posted on the St. Sabina website, Mr. Smiley asked Fr. Pfleger if he was moved from St. Sabina, what was left in his calling, to which he responded:

“Well I'm trying to be very prayerful on that right now, Tavis, and see where the Lord leads me. I want to try to stay in the Catholic Church. If they say you either take this principalship of a high school or a pastorship there or leave, then I have to look outside the church. I believe my calling is to be a pastor. I believe my calling is to be a voice for justice. I believe my calling is to preach the gospel. In or out of the church I'm going to continue to do that.”

What is clear is the Faith Community of St. Sabina is gearing up and preparing to do battle for the reinstatement of their pastor. Parishioners say support has poured in from various faith communities.

Minister Farrakhan has spoken at St. Sabina several times and has called Father Pfleger both his brother and friend, a sentiment echoed by many from within and without the church.

“Across this nation and across denominations and even within inner faith context, there has been support coming in from all over the country,” said Dr. Iva Caruthers, general secretary of a social justice group, Samuel Dewitt Proctor Conference, to Cliff Kelley. For all Fr. Pfleger's good works, he needs to be celebrated, not punished she added.

Mr. Glover said Fr. Pfleger was devastated by the suspension but the congregation vows to persevere. “We will stand with him, we will fight for him because what has happened here recently is totally unjust as far as I'm concerned,” said Mr. Glover.