Thursday, May 30, 2013

A credit to his cassock

Father Andrew Greeley travels in elephants.
A highly-regarded sociologist, preternaturally prolific author and unabashedly liberal Chicago priest, the Rev. Greeley regularly took his church to task in both his fiction and his scholarly work. His non-fiction books covered topics from Catholic education to Irish history to Jesus' relationships with women.

The Rev. Greeley authored some 50 best-selling novels and more than 100 works of non-fiction that were translated into 12 languages.

His racy novels and detective stories, which often closely paralleled real events, aired out Catholic controversies and hummed with detailed bedroom romps that kept readers rapt and coming back for more. Best-sellers like "The Cardinal Sins" in 1981 earned him millions of dollars, much of which he donated to the church and charities.
I'll be honest: Father Greeley was generally a mediocre novelist, with two or three passable plotlines that he recycled perpetually. His politics were as opposite mine as you can get. His theology (or that of his leading characters, anyway) has often struck me as borderline heretical.

None of that matters a whit to me. Shortly before I started looking seriously into the Catholic Church myself, I read several of his novels. The faith that pervaded them was tangible. It was human. Even priests (and at that time, I'd never actually even met one) were ordinary people in his books. Catholicism was simply a central fact of life. (So were his heritage and hometown. In his books, everybody who was anybody was either from Chicago or Irish, and usually both.)

It was that matter-of-fact approach to the Church that made it seem more accessible to me later. By the time I began my journey to Rome, I had reference points for some of the things I was about to encounter for the first time. God used Father Greeley to soften me up, as it were, for the plans He had for me.

The other quality I absorbed from his books was a certain integrity. Two-dimensional though his characters often were, they were true to themselves. His priests really believed what they preached, and if they strayed from their vows, they did so knowing it was wrong. His laypeople sinned, but they knew right from wrong. I could have done with less sex in the books, but even there, the moral dimension was always present. As too few writers do (Orson Scott Card is another), he knew how to treat religion as more than just a personality quirk. That's because to him, it really was everything.

And finally, he had an optimism and friendliness about him that may be priestly, or it may simply be Irish. I dunno. But in spite of the critical things I said about him in this post, I think I'd have liked him immensely.

Thanks, Father. Partly thanks to you, I'll see you 'round.

Note: This is one of the few Andrew Greeley novels I can recommend. Yeah, it's not great literature, but I still enjoy rereading it now and then. Sappy, romantic, and genuine.

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