CHICAGO (CBS) — Three weeks of silence were broken on Sunday when Father Michael Pfleger returned to the pulpit at Saint Sabina on his birthday, full of energy and with an apology to his congregation for the public ordeal that stemmed from his dispute with Francis Cardinal George.
“God gave me the greatest gift of all: to be back this morning,” Pfleger said. “I am grateful.”
As CBS 2’s Vince Gerasole reports, Pfleger was back at the pulpit two days after the cardinal ended his suspension as pastor of Saint Sabina, following a series of conversations about his future with the Catholic Church.
The sometimes controversial activist pastor indicated weeks ago he might leave the church if the cardinal forced him to leave Saint Sabina and he was suspended as a result.
The cardinal had been considering moving Pfleger from Saint Sabina, where he’s served for more than 30 years, to nearby Leo Catholic High School.
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On Sunday, for the first time, Pfleger explained to parishioners the true intent of his words.
“It’s good to see you, family. I love you,” Pfleger said to a cheering congregation as he took the pulpit for the first time since his three-week suspension was lifted.
Later, Pfleger had a personal message for those supporting him through his latest conflict with the archdiocese.
“I am sorry to have to put you through this and you going to work and having to defend me,” Pfleger said.
The cardinal suspended Pfleger three weeks ago and asked him to pray about his commitment to the priesthood after Pfleger indicated in a radio interview he might leave the church if reassigned to nearby Leo Catholic High School. For the crowd today there were many apologies.
“I am sorry if in any way my words left a possibility of interpretation that I was giving a threat (that) if I can’t stay here, I’m leaving the priesthood. That’s not what I said,” Pfleger said. “I apologize if my choice of words let anybody feel that or think that. I love being a Catholic priest.”
Parishioner Delores Wedgeworth was so moved, she snapped several dozen pictures of Pfleger’s return.
“I wanted to capture the moment,” she said. “It feels like Easter, Christmas, everything put together. It’s a great day.”
Equal parts priest and outspoken – and at times controversial – community activist, Pfleger has spent 36 years at St. Sabina, far longer than most Catholic priests are allowed to stay at one parish.
His restoration includes a promise to present the cardinal with a transition plan for his departure by December.
“I want to thank Francis Cardinal George. I thank him for lifting the suspension, I thank him for our conversations,” Pfleger said. “Give Cardinal George a great big thank you because he made it possible for me to be here today.”
The lessons were not lost on the faithful on Sunday.
Michelle Wong-Scott said she didn’t have any ill feelings toward the cardinal for suspending Pfleger.
“I am a Christian, so I practice forgiveness,” she said.
Fellow parishioner Raesella Banks said, “No, I am not mad at the cardinal. No, not at all. I mean, he thought he was doing what he needed to do, but, you know, he was wrong. And he’s human too, anybody can be wrong.”
Members of Saint Sabina parish said that this latest conflict brought them together and made them stronger.
One woman said it was a chance to pray and be there for Father Pfleger in the same way he’s been there for them for more than 30 years.