A Sense of Common Ministry

Father Andrew Greeley’s death last week set me to thinking about the changing relationships between Catholics and Protestants and the unique relationship between Catholic and Protestant clergy.

Greeley suffered a tragic accident and brain injury five years ago and has been in ill health ever since. He died in his home on May 29th. He was 85. A Catholic Priest, life-long Chicagoan, Greeley was  a respected Sociologist who taught at the University of Arizona and the University of Chicago. He was also a best selling novelist who wrote 50 novels, many dealing with the lives and struggles of Catholic clergy, some of them overtly sexual. He was fiercely loyal to his church but also outspokenly critical. At his funeral mass this week, Fr. John Cusack observed that Greeley was the first  voice to be heard about sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. He critiqued and pushed for change in the church’s policies regarding women and pressed for women to be able to serve in every ministerial capacity. He argued for the possibility of married clergy in the Catholic Church and sometimes referred to God as “She”. The Chicago Tribune said that we have “lost a priest whose lone voice in the wilderness forced Catholics to face their imperfect church.” The Catholic hierarchy was never quite sure what to do with him and maintained an uneasy and distant alliance.

I was grateful for his public witness and courage, and for his friendship. He lived in The Hancock Building across the street from Fourth Presbyterian Church. We were neighbors and occasionally lunched together. Every time I was with him, I found myself feeling grateful for being in the same business as he was, and experiencing a commonality of purpose, a unity, that transcended our Catholic – Protestant differences.

In fact, Protestant and Catholic clergy, with five centuries of sometimes contentious conflict behind them, nevertheless mostly understand the essential unity they share. And sometimes authentic friendships develop.

With the reforms of Vatican II and the slow smoothing off of the roughest edges of conflict: e.g. the  practice calling a change of allegiance from Catholicism to Protestantism and vice versa a “conversion”, the requirement of a commitment and signed agreement by the Protestant partner in a marriage to see that children are raised in the Catholic Church, the old prohibitions against Catholics even attending a Protestant worship service – new, trusting relationships became possible, and tamped down an old, insidious anti-catholicism.

A remarkable phenomenon has emerged on both sides of the old divide as progressive Protestants and progressive Catholics realized that they had more in common with each other than they did with conservative, reactionary members of their own church.

I have been fortunate to have enjoyed several such friendships that included a sense of common ministry and purpose. In West Lafayette, Indiana, in the 60’s and 70’s, Father Leo Piquet, Pastor of the large Catholic Church on the Purdue Campus was very popular with students. His upbeat innovative liturgies and thoughtful, edgy sermons became a destination for thousands of Purdue students. Leo reached out to a small group of ecumenical colleagues and we ate lunch together monthly and talked  for hours. It was a new and great experience for all of us. Leo and I preached a “Dialogue sermon” together in an Interfaith service which was a radical gesture at the time. It was so unprecendented that it made the front page of the local newspaper.

In Chicago, the late Father Robert McGlaughlin, Pastor of Holy Name Cathedral ,  a quintessential Vatican II priest, and I became fast friends. Our work was similar and so, we discovered, was our world view and our sense of mission in the city. We were also both Cubs fans, he longer and more passionate even than me. We planned and launched interfaith services with our two congregations. Bob was a guest in our home, came to know and love Sue, and invited me to preach at Holy Name at a Memorial Service for the United Airlines pilots and flight attendants who lost their lives on 9/11. I invited Bob to preach at a New Years Eve Service at the new Millennium. Before the service, as Presbyterian and Catholic clergy robed and prayed together, Bob said, “It’s at times like this that I feel so deeply the pain of our separation.”

Father Leo Piquet, Father Bob McGlaughlin, Father Andrew Greeley – brothers in the Lord, and my dear friends.

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