UPDATED 04/28/11 11:28 a.m.
CHICAGO (CBS/WBBM) — Forty years of ministry, and more than 30 at St. Sabina parish, are in doubt now for the officially suspended Rev. Michael Pfleger.
Pfleger has not spoken publicly about the issue, except during an address to parishioners Wednesday night when he said he “found out from the media” that he had been suspended by Francis Cardinal George.
But as CBS 2’s Derrick Blakley reports, St. Sabina parishioners are furious, and a couple of busloads of those parishioners headed several miles north Thursday morning to protest in front of the Cardinal’s Residence, 1555 N. State Pkwy.
The parishioners gathered for a prayer circle at the foot of Lincoln Park, across North Boulevard from the Cardinal’s residence.
LISTEN: Newsradio 780’s Regine Schlesinger reports
The cardinal took particular issue with Pfleger’s repeated statements in both local and national media that George was trying to remove him from St. Sabina and transfer him to Leo High School as president.
“Our private conversation was misrepresented publicly as an attempt to ‘remove’ you from Saint Sabina’s,” George wrote. “You know that priests in the Archdiocese are ‘removed’ only because they have been found to have sexually abused a minor child or are guilty of financial malfeasance.”
Earlier this month, Pfleger told the public radio program “Smiley and West” that if it came to a choice to become president of Leo High School, to become pastor of another Catholic church, or to leave the church, he would look at the third option.
But he also said he wanted to stay in the Catholic Church. In his letter, George said that Pfleger had told him on several occasions that he did not want to stay at St. Sabina’s for the rest of his career.
In the letter, George said the opening at Leo High School “gave us the possibility of offering you a transfer that would keep you in the neighborhood and among the people to whom you have dedicated much of your life and also give you a position from which to continue to espouse the cause dear to you: education in the African American community.”
George went on to say that Pfleger left open the possibility of serving at Leo, but that Pfleger’s public comments dictated otherwise.
“That process has now been short-circuited by your remarks .. that you will leave the Catholic Church if you are told to accept the assignment other than as pastor of St. Sabina. If that is truly your attitude, you have already left the Catholic Church and therefore are not able to pastor a Catholic parish.”
At the protest Thursday, two Sabina parishioners said the loss of Pfleger from St. Sabina would be devastating.
“I’m supporting my pastor. I don’t like what’s going on, but I’m still going to support my pastor,” said parishioner Lonny Washington.
When asked if parishioners envision a time when Pfleger would no longer be the pastor at St. Sabina, parishioner Reginald Morris said: “Yes, there will be a time when that will occur. That goes without saying. The problem here, I think, is the issue of timing, and there’s not an orderly transition.”
Back at the St. Sabina parish in the Auburn-Gresham neighborhood, parishioners were equally upset.
As CBS 2’s Susanna Song reports, many people who poured into the St. Sabina rectory, at 1210 W. 78th Pl., do not belong to the church. Some do not even go to church.
But they said they turned out anyway because they live in the community, and feel strongly about Pfleger’s positive influence to the area.
Many headed to the protest at the Cardinal’s residence afterward, but first, they prayed and shared concerns with one another. They said they are united behind Pfleger, and will do whatever it takes to get him back on the pulpit.
“I just know by Father Pfleger being here, he’s helping his community and the people in it, so it’s like at the end of the day, he should want to support that, and anybody who wants to be behind him should support that,” said neighborhood resident Isaiah Wilson.
“We love him, and we’re going to support him any way we can, you know,” said parishioner Robin Hayward. “Ultimately, it’s left up to God.”
Robert McClory, a former priest who’s written a biography of Pfleger, warns that part of the Cardinal’s legacy is just as much on the line, as Pfleger’s.
“I don’t think the Cardinal wants to have in his legacy that he tried to bust up the strongest and biggest black Catholic church in Chicago,” said McClory.
Rev. Jesse Jackson Weighs In
The Rev. Jesse Jackson is also talking about the issue, saying he regrets Cardinal George’s decision to suspend Pfleger.
LISTEN: Newsradio 780’s Lisa Fielding reports
Jackson even compared Pfleger’s mission to that of Mother Theresa and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“He’s in the tradition of activists who walk amongst the people, sleeps amongst the people, he’s not afraid to communicate. He doesn’t just ride there, he lives in the neighborhood,” said Jackson. “He’s an authentic gospel preacher.”
Jackson says Pfleger has dedicated his life to the church and he’s earned the trust of his people.
“He has a huge following and he’s earned the trust of the people. He’s preached to them, he’s presided at funerals, he’s walked the streets, he’s so necessary and he’s needed there. We hope that somehow these men of God can find reconciliation and redemption.”
Jackson said he and Pfleger even went to jail together for their cause. They were arrested for trespassing at a gun shop in 2007.
Jackson says he regrets his friend’s suspension and can only hope Cardinal George will reconsider.
Cardinal George has not made additional comments since issuing his letter to Pfleger. He is flying to Rome Thursday afternoon for celebrations and ceremonies surrounding the beatification of Pope John Paul II this weekend.