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Stories are Fr. Quixote's bread and wine.

Andrew Greeley, novelist, is a whiskey priest. So what if he doesn't write like Graham Greene. If the old man had lived long enough, he would have put Greeley in a novel called The Power and the Story. It's about a priest addicted not to what his all-too Irish-American characters would call the "Creature," but to God stories, "comedies of grace," as he calls them, something of an ecclesial reprobate, this fellow, but a priest nonetheless, first and always.

That may be the most remarkable thing about this remarkable man. At a time when the church sometimes appear like a mossy rubble on a moor, abandoned by so many of her priests and nuns, Greeley the reluctant renegade persists as priest.

We see him silhouetted above the heath, a lonely slip of a man atop his bony nag, Don Quixote with a Roman collar instead of plate, laptop computer for a lance, while just over the horizon a windmill clanks. What could be more romantic, for this son of romance, than to be one of a dying breed?

Suddenly he is everywhere, has been for years. We catch sight of him in The New York Times, on Phil Donahue or in TV Guide, crossing the Chicago Loop or St. Peter's Square, dressed still in holy black but no heron's hunch upon his back (thanks, W.B.), or in a classroom or one of those Tucson patio restaurants cooled with mist, collar splotched with sweat. Selling 15 million books may have left him with a Tribune bank account, but he's still a Sun Times kind of guy, not near as snooty, it seems, as a lot of characters he creates.

As sociologist and novelist both, he's tracked a lot of trends in the church, but seldom followed them. A square peg of a priest, he has called himself. Even the University of Chicago has taken him back, after once rejecting him in a spate of snotty academic flimflam. Not so the Archdiocese of Chicago. The Catholic Directory still lists him as "on special assignment," has been for years.

Success has been his unmaking. He would tell that himself. From a pintsized parish to world councils, the one thing the church cannot tolerate in her clerical sons is success. Mediocrity is the measure, envy the rule. Priests are even more envious than journalists, says Greeley, and that's saying a lot. But, then, for all his dancing on the cutting edge, he was trained in the old school.

Almost everything Greeley touches turns to success, if not to sacrament, though not without a work schedule that would put Sisyphus to shame. Words and stories are like bread and wine in his hands. The books pour out and every year millions of the faithful line up to receive, half of them not even Catholic.

In the 1960s, Chicago Cardinal Albert Meyer, God be good to him, gave Greeley leave to study sociology at the University of Chicago. By the 1970s, Greeley was turning out studies on the U.S. Catholic church and the sociology of religion that some now regard as definitive.

But Meyer was long dead by then and Greeley was too prominent for most bishops to trust. Ironically, the University of Chicago didn't trust him, either. He was a Catholic priest, after all, and an uppity ethnic Irishman to boot. So, while the university was turning him down for a faculty spot, the infamous Cardinal John Cody was trying to stuff him into the back of the clerical closet, like a smelly pair of shoes.

The current prince of that city, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, of far fairer mind than Cody, apparently still won't let Greeley back into parish work until he stops writing novels with all that sex in them, because their existence is a scandal to a number of traditional Catholics who have not read them. Wrap your head around that one, if you can.

Anyway, Greeley got to do weekend parish work in Tucson, after the University of Arizona hired him on as a sociological top gun. But Greeley, in his 60s now, like a faithful son set on pleasing his father, still yearns to be accepted as a parish priest in his spiritual heartland, Chicago--not stuffed from sight in the clerical closet, a skeleton at best, if not a smelly pair of shoes.

In a characteristic move, Greeley did a study of his own readership. The novel a scandal, are they? He would show them. And guess what. Most of those millions of readers, the majority of them women, don't find the novels scandalous in the least. Even the notorious sex scenes were generally thought to be in good taste. Many readers, as opposed to reviewers, recognized them for what they were created to be, signs of God's love. Sex and all, the stories have lured many lapsed Catholics back to the church and affirmed the faith of others.

What drew this perennial tilter of windmills into writing stories? "If I am Don Quixote," he writes in his autobiography, Confessions of a Parish Priest, "then it is Don Quixote the novelist. It was precisely the argument which got me into most of the other [church sociology] hot water that led me to try to write theological novels, stories of God, comedies of grace: Someone ought to do it; if you don't, no one else will."

Whatever you think of the literary merit of Greeley's attempt to write theological novels, it would be mean not to take him at his word. However overwrought the fiction might be, with its romantic excess and musclebound plots, the impulse is genuine, the premise real.

What premise? That stories are not only essential to religion, they are at the core of it. Before Greeley's novels began multiplying like loaves and fishes, he had come under the influence of another Chicago priest, John Shea, whom Greeley once described as "a towering genius, the most gifted human I've ever met." Shea had developed a theology of story in which Jesus is "the undying dancing man," the storyteller of God.

During the 1970s, Greeley, by then contemplating the Castilian starkness of the Arizona desert, got to know Shea and took all that story theology in and it was enough to spin his spurs. He, too, would become a storyteller of God. And what came cooking into the Sonoran sun were all those tall tales about priests and nuns, bishops and underworld grunts, Chicago/Irish politicos and their voluptuous women, tales so incorrigibly romantic that God herself ends up as a romantic.

One of Greeley's stock responses when asked how he sees God is "She's a comedienne." Not only that but she's Irish, a loving, comic God, the passionate lover that, when the last chapter is written, will win. That is the vision informing Greeley's fiction. Most critics persistently fail to get it. Other readers do not.

And along the way Greeley has explored and sometimes illuminated nearly every major issue facing the church. Even a casual list would include financial scandal, birth control, Vatican II reforms (or lack thereof), clerical politics, feminism and the feminine nature of God, patriarchal tyranny, the making of saints, the sexuality of priests and nuns, homosexuality, the nature and pervasiveness of grace, seminary dilemmas, ethnic diversity, liberation theology, charismatic religion, to name a few.

His latest novel, Fall from Grace, tackles the recalcitrant menace of pedophilia among priests, which is a vastly deeper and more damaging scandal in the U.S. church today than any novel by anyone will ever be. But Greeley's attempt to dramatize the issue, with all its sickness and sin, callousness and cover-ups, is didactic and lame. The clerical pedophilia problem is all but strangled in a tangled plot that includes, in addition to some of the elements mentioned above, a satanic cult, Chicago politics and the local Mafia, the rekindling of old flames and a homosexual wife-basher.

But the word will go out nonetheless. Greeley has dramatized the church pedophilia crisis that Jason Berry documented so thoroughly in Lead Us Not into Temptation (he dedicates Fall from Grace to Berry). For better or worse, there is no doubt which account will be the wider read.

Novels, for Greeley, are a form of evangelization, a way of being priest. The result is a kind of Catholic Upton Sinclair. Too bad the church doesn't change as fast as the meat-packing industry.

Don't get the idea, though, that Greeley is a raging revolutionary. He is an essentially conservative, rigorously moral romantic, with an abiding love for and loyal attachment to the institutional church. He even believes in a celibate priesthood, although he thinks no one should have to commit to it for more than five or 10 years at a clip.

In fact, he may be one of the few celibate priests left in the land. By his own testimony, "celibacy and hard work" are the keys to his prodigious output. There may be no surer evidence for that than the sex scenes in his novels, so oddly chaste even when they are not being overtly sacramental, even at their most voluptuous or violent. They seem far more the fantasies of a frenzied adolescent than the confessions of a clandestine debauchee.

So why the fuss? For 2,000 years, Catholic priests have been everything from tent makers to circus clowns. Why not a popular novelist? Should Greeley be like Hopkins and never publish his work? Surely that would violate his sense of himself and his mission as priest.

Those who have looked through the voluminous correspondence from Greeley's readers confirm that his parish is his mailbox, and a big parish it is. The church ought to be celebrating a son so loyal when so many others have walked, a writer whose novels, whatever literary judgments one makes about them, do no one any harm and many people a lot of good.

Maybe Cardinal Bernardin should hang a couple of reminders in his office. One might be the lonely silhouette of Don Quixote de la Laptop pondering the rubbled heath. Another a sign copped from the Clinton campaign: "It's the story, stupid."
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Title Annotation:author Father Andrew M. Greeley
Author:McCarthy, Tim
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Interview
Date:May 28, 1993
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