Eminentoes

Abraham, Martin, and John…and Barack?

Meet the Archdiocese of Chicago's Al Sharpton.

By 1.23.07

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Barack Obama has not entered a single presidential primary, yet Father Michael Pfleger, pastor of St. Sabina's parish on the South Side of Chicago, appears to have his eyes on a different and entirely undesirable kind of prize for the senator from Illinois. In a story reported by Chicago's WBBM Newsradio, Father Pfleger, who says he has known Senator Obama for 20 years, praises his friend for being "in a class of his own...the best thing that has come across the political scene since Bobby Kennedy."

Now pause for a moment here: what do you think of when you hear the name "Bobby Kennedy"? Youth. Good looks. Maybe idealism. And assassination. It's that final quality that appears to be on Father Pfleger's mind. "When anybody comes with that much hope," Father Pfleger says, "whether it's a Bobby Kennedy or whether it's a Martin Luther King Jr., they do become vulnerable." So, Father Pfleger is putting the word out. "Do not touch this man," WBBM quotes him as saying, "for if you do, you will answer to us all."

So there it is. While Senator Obama is gearing up for a run for the White House, his friend at St. Sabina's is already planning a martyr's funeral for him, while issuing what could be read as a thinly veiled threat of riots, perhaps something along the lines of what the nation endured during the spring and summer of 1968 when angry mobs took the streets in Baltimore, Louisville, Washington, D.C., and Chicago.

As the pastor of what he describes as an "African-American Catholic Church," Father Pfleger is the Archdiocese of Chicago's version of the Rev. Al Sharpton. Granted, he's not as flamboyant as the Reverend Al, but he is media savvy and he makes for good news copy. He has gone toe-to-toe with Chicago's Cardinal Francis George, and on at least two occasions it was the cardinal who blinked. In February 2003 Father Pfelger announced that at Sunday Mass on February 9 he would hand over the pulpit to Rev. Sharpton, who at the time was chasing the Democrats' presidential nomination. In response, Chicago Catholics deluged Cardinal George's chancery office with phone calls and emails objecting to a Catholic pastor turning Sunday Mass into a whistle-stop for a pro-abortion political candidate. Cardinal George issued a statement saying "making a case of this invitation at this time would be a futile gesture and a waste of effort."

It may strike some readers as odd that a cardinal cannot bring one of his own priests to heel, but when it comes to Father Pfleger, Cardinal George knows something about wasted effort. November 2001 marked the end of Father Pfleger's third six-year term as pastor of St. Sabina. It is the policy of the Chicago archdiocese to limit its priests to three terms as pastor of a parish; Father Pfleger was told to get ready for a new assignment. But Father Pfleger countered that Cardinal George's predecessor, the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, had promised he could remain at St. Sabina as long as he wished. When the Chicago chancery officials repeated the Chicago rule -- no more than three terms as pastor, no exceptions -- Father Pfleger threatened to leave the priesthood. Other men might have let him go; Cardinal George caved. As of this writing, more than five years after his showdown with his archbishop, Father Pfleger is still pastor of St. Sabina.

As the Sharpton incident suggests, Father Pfleger enjoys the company of controversial characters. A month before Rev. Sharpton climbed into St. Sabina's pulpit, Harry Belafonte -- at Father Pfleger's invitation -- stood on the same spot and denounced Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice as the "house slaves" of the Bush administration. Speaking in 1999 to the Tampa Tribune, Father Pfleger said of the Rev. Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam and notorious for speaking hatefully of whites and Jews, "I believe he is the man who can bring us together... as Christians, Jews and as Muslims." In his biography posted on the St. Sabina parish website, Father Pfleger lists among his honors a Distinguished Service Award presented to him by the Nation of Islam. Apparently Father Pfleger and Minister Farrakhan are still close -- around New Year's Day 2007 the priest visited the ailing minister shortly before Farrakhan underwent 12 hours of surgery to treat an undisclosed medical condition.

In his long, predictable, headline-grabbing career, it's Father Pfleger's "do-not-touch-this-man" grandstanding that leaves one slack-jawed with disbelief. Doesn't he realize that he has virtually invited every trigger-happy nut case with a Lee Harvey Oswald complex to look on Barack Obama as a target? The senator's people should call Cardinal George's people -- maybe the guys in the chancery can offer some pointers on Pfleger damage control.

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About the Author
Thomas J. Craughwell is the author of "Our Sunday Visitor’s Patron Saints," and of the forthcoming "St. Peter’s Bones: How the Relics of the First Pope Were Lost and Found, and Then Lost and Found Again."