It can be argued that the most prolific theological educator in the United States today is the Rev. Andrew M. Greeley. He might shrink from that title and, in fact, styles himself "author, priest, sociologist." The order is alphabetical. Those who are familiar with the man and his writings have little doubt which is most important to him. His latest book, Furthermore: Memoirs of a Parish Priest (Forge), is a personal testament to the things he has found meaningful in his own life and in the life of the church.
Father Greeley has won respect for his work as a sociologist and notoriety for his fiction, but affection for his priestly personality. The value he places on the priesthood is pervasive, and it is that identity which has marked his life and his work. He has said himself that those who want to know him should read his fiction and his poetry. It is there, also, that he is a theological educator, in the tradition of the Irish sennachie, the minstrel moralist who spins tales to amuse, uplift and warn.
His new book tells much about his life, the bare bones of which are his education at Quigley Prep and Mundelein Seminary, followed by an assignment as curate in a Chicago parish, then graduate studies in sociology at the University of Chicago.
There are, it seems to me, three elements that are particularly strong in providing a context for his life and ministry: Chicago, Irish, Vatican II (alphabetical order). Is it the bracing lake air that makes Chicagoans so forthright, matter of fact and determined? This Midwestern city is an excellent vantage point from which to view trends in the United States, untrammeled by the glitz of one coast or the cynicism of the other. Greeley’s Irish heritage has probably provided the mystical and spiritual elements to his fiction. And they are treated in the most matter-of-fact way. Of course there are angels. And an afterlife. And it gives every promise of being quite satisfactory. The excitement and hope generated in the church at the time of the Second Council of the Vatican has remained alive in Greeley’s view of American Catholicism. He has the data to prove that the church is vibrant despite the bungling and sinfulness all around.
His fiction has given him the chance to speak his mind in the words of his characters. By his own admission, he hasn’t created these characters, he has discovered them in his imagination. They seem to him to speak for themselves, and there is an urgency about what they have to say. During a recent visit to America House, he told us that the computer was open on the desk in his hotel room, waiting for more dialogue for the next Blackie Ryan mystery novel, this one set largely in Paris.
Of all the characters Greeley has discovered in his imagination, Blackie is my personal favorite. In the clerical tradition of such detectives as Father Brown, Brother Cadfael and Sister Frevisse, Blackie pokes around Lakeshore Drive, a warship off San Diego, a suburban parish, the Cologne cathedral and other assorted venues, solving mysteries and exorcising demons of all kinds. Oh, by the way, Blackie is a bishop, with a parish, a real doctorate, a complicated Irish family and, for a boss, a peremptory, brusque cardinal who is, if possible, even more flexible and compassionate than Blackie himself.
The real-life Father Greeley’s memoir is reflective, amazed to discover how highly he was regarded by those who knew him before he was famous. And there are satisfying notes of reconciliation. After his disaffection during the reign of Cardinal Cody, and his tenuous relations with Cardinal Bernardin, he now has in Cardinal Francis George, O.M.I., an archbishop he can appreciate. Fellow Chicagoans, they both like science fiction, and both get into trouble for thinking out loud, imagining that everyone else is as smart as they are. But the zeal for the house of the Lord is still strong enough for Greeley to rage against clerical misconduct and attempts to cover it up.
Down the road, we can expect to see a doctoral thesis entitled "The Religious Imagination of Andrew Greeley." Meanwhile, we hope he keeps Blackie Ryan hard at work.