Curé, sociologist, novelist: the many imaginations of Father Andrew Greeley


One of the great advantages of working for a magazine with a history as long as that of America is that one becomes privy to a lot of wild lore about past dramas – the wins and losses, feuds and alliances of a more colorful journalistic age. Such stories are almost always entertaining and usually largely untrue, but editors don’t need fact-checkers when they’re not on time; the story is all that matters. One of the liveliest characters in AmericaThe oral history of is a priest who first wrote for America in 1957 and last wrote for the magazine in 2008, one with an outsized reputation in the worlds of sociology, church life and even pulp fiction: the Reverend Andrew Greeley.

friend of many America editor, sometimes the sworn enemy of a few, Father Greeley was a prolific and pugnacious author and a natural storyteller, whom he detailed in detail for a sociological report on the American Catholic Church in his important scholarly works or that he chronicles the juicy twilight activities of the inhabitants of a Catholic parish in one of his many novels. His long-standing feud with Cardinal Cody of Chicago in the 1970s and 1980s is a legend, and he was also a vocal critic of the American bishops and the Vatican at times. His personal wealth – a novel about a corrupt prelate, cardinal sins (was it about Cardinal Cody? Greeley denied), sold over 3,000,000 copies – also allowed him to be a generous benefactor of Catholic charities and educational institutions.

friend of many America editor, sometimes sworn enemy of few, Father Greeley was a prolific and pugnacious author and a natural storyteller.

“Father Greeley could be irritatingly intelligent and a bit fair, and some of his romantic novels border on the ridiculous,” said eminent American Catholic historian David O’Brien. told Reuters when Greeley died in 2013, “but he dreamed of a very particular American Catholic Democratic dream and we Catholics would have done well to listen to him more carefully”. Greeley’s notion of a “Catholic imagination”—which saw our reality as analogous to a celestial banquet—that distinguished American Catholics from the predominantly Protestant culture also had a significant impact on studies of Catholic culture and literature. . “As Catholics, we find our homes and our world haunted by the sense that everyday objects, events and people are revelations of grace,” he writes in his book. The Catholic Imagination.

Father Greeley’s first contribution to America happened in 1957, when he was a 29-year-old vicar in a Chicago parish (his pastor at the time chastised him for writing it, probably because he hadn’t asked permission). Seven years later, at the Second Vatican Council, America published one of his classic articles, “The New Breed,” describing the attitudes and psychological profiles of priests who seemed markedly different from their predecessors. Greeley described this new generation as idealistic and obsessed with authenticity, but also resistant to authority and coldly confident in the inevitability of the triumph of their ideas. They were, in retrospect, perhaps everything one would expect of ordained priests in the 1960s. Here is Greley:

The non-ideological coldness of the New Race does not make them easy to deal with. Those in positions of authority and responsibility over them certainly deserve sympathy. The New Race frequently gropes and does not speak out on exactly what they want, but they know they want change. Often they almost seem to hope that their superiors will refuse their demands so that there is a clear issue to fight over, a definitive change around which they can rally. They want freedom now, whatever that means.

Greeley’s stark but honest assessment met with the agreement of many baffled bishops and superiors at the time; it also captured the concerns of a new generation of alumni 40 years later, when The Atlantic published its 2004 article, “Young Fogeys.” In this article, Greeley described a new generation of young priests much more comfortable with trappings and assuming clerical priesthood authority than their immediate ancestors. “Older priests today often complain that their younger colleagues are arrogant, pompous and rigid, and that they like to show off in office attire,” Greeley wrote. “The image that comes to mind is of youthful versions of the older Depression-era ethnic monsignors.” The story did not win him many friends among the young priests, but again more than a few bewildered bishops and superiors agreed with his stark prognosis.

“As Catholics, we find our homes and our world haunted by the sense that everyday objects, events and people are revelations of grace.”

Over the years, Greeley has published articles on countless other topics in America, from book reviews to eyewitness reports to lengthy analyzes of sexual abuse and clerical celibacy, among others (including this deep dive into the Catholic imagination of Bruce Springsteen). His latest contribution to America was in 2008: “The Last Catholic Novelist: The Graceful Fiction of Jon Hassler.” Two years ago, America had honored him with the Edmund Campion Prize. Founded in 1955 by Harold C. Gardiner, SJ, then literary editor of Americathe Edmund Campion Prize was awarded in the decades that followed to luminaries of Anglo-American literature, including Jacques Maritain, Frank Sheed and Maisie Ward, TS Eliot, John Courtney Murray, SJ, Karl Rahner, SJ, Walker Percy, Shusako Endo, Annie Dillard, Chinua Achebe, John Updike, Muriel Spark and Rowan Williams, among many others.

After receiving the award, Greeley described himself not as a writer, but as “a curate who writes”, but for a long time America literary editor Patricia Kossmann objected to this description. “Endowed with a keen intellect, a keen Irish wit, a penetrating insight into popular culture and an unfailing love for the church he serves, Father Greeley is numbered among America‘s best friends,” she wrote in 2007. “With his books also available in more than a dozen foreign language translations, it’s safe to say that Father Greeley’s audience is indeed global. It is quite a large “parish”.

“With his books also available in over a dozen foreign language translations, it’s safe to say that Father Greeley’s audience is indeed global.”

Ready to read some Andrew Greeley? Start here:


Our selection of poetry for this week is “Discernment of Spirits”, by Mia Schilling Grogan. Readers can see all America‘s poems published here.

In this space each week, America features literary reviews and commentary on a particular writer or group of writers (new and old; our archive spans over a century), as well as poetry and other offerings from America Media. We hope this will give us the opportunity to provide you with more in-depth coverage of our literary offerings. It also allows us to alert digital subscribers to some of our online content that does not appear in our newsletters.

Other sections of the Catholic Book Club:

Good reading!

James T. Keane

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