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A shooting star


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The best thing about Father Andrew M. Greeley was that he made you want to be Catholic. Being Catholic was the best thing in the world. It was not a heavy burden, and it made family, marriage, even sex, all fall in order. It made it beautiful. It was all of a fabric.

Father Greeley, who died a few weeks ago, was a close friend. We met him at the University of Chicago during our baby-professor days there. He had a truly great capacity for friendship, and a fierce loyalty to those he called friends. He insisted that his friends call him Andy. We felt special to be included. Once in his clan, you were a lifer. He helped our careers both inside and outside of the university, assisting our getting a publisher for our first book and then writing the introduction.

Andy's clan starting forming when he was a newly ordained priest assigned to Christ the King Church on the South Side of Chicago. It was the era when Catholicism flourished and this young, vital priest with exuberant energies draw young people to the sacraments and then the parish hall. There were parties, games, clubs and catechism. After eight years at Christ the King, his bishop, recognizing his talents, sent him to the university for a year of further study. He turned out to be an academic star and stayed on for a doctorate, then a research position and the launching of an academic career. All this time, his clan grew, now to include students, professors, fellow priests and Chicago politicians.

Andy had a home in Grand Beach, Michigan, not far from Chicago. On weekends and summers he was continually hosting gatherings. Some weekends were seminars where presidents of colleges, visiting politicians and theologians gathered over food and drink. One weekend it was Father Theodore Hesburgh, President of Notre Dame, and theologian Father David Tracy, discussing the state of the Church and rubbing shoulders with Andy's Chicago pol friends. The next weekend Andy was spent out on Lake Michigan teaching our daughter how to water ski. That weekend he held our new born son in his arms and chided us when we told him our son's name, "Justin." "It isn't Irish," he announced, but Andy was mollified when he heard his middle name was "Patrick." For Andy, being Irish was only trumped by being Catholic.

Father Greeley's career began doing survey research at the National Opinion Research Center in Chicago. He dedicated himself to interpreting data from the General Social Survey on Americans' religious opinions and practices. He researched Catholic primary and secondary education and the stabilizing effect it had on the lives of children. At the time, urban Catholic schools were in transition, struggling with the mission of educating largely non-Catholic, minority students. He demonstrated the benefits of this policy and in his later years donated over $1 million to those Chicago Catholic Schools serving the poor.

Andy had been denied tenure in at least three departments of the University of Chicago. While widely acknowledged as a gifted and productive researcher, he was blocked from receiving a tenured position. The university's senior faculty, those who make the final decisions about who will or will not become permanent members of the faculty, could not conceive of giving tenure to a man who spoke words over a bread wafer and a cup of wine and thought it became the Body and Blood of Christ. And how could a Catholic priest be unbiased in his research? So much for professorial integrity and academic liberality.

A prolific writer, he once said he wrote 5,000 words a day, producing two or three books a year. In all, he wrote a staggering 72 nonfiction books, 66 novels, and hundreds and hundreds of newspaper columns. Such energy caused some wags to say he never had an unpublished thought. In typical Greeley fashion, he answered. "Why should I practice contraception of my ideas?"

Somewhat frustrated by the academy, Andy began writing popular fiction. Still, he continued his social science research, but his novels brought him to national attention. In the 1960s, the new openness about sex was the elephant in the room and Andy wasn't afraid to charge right at it. He saw human love as a reflection of God's divine love and sex as an important part of human love. Many readers said he helped them with his steamy novels filled with sexually-charged characters. He drew them to the notion of God's passionate love for us and how it was manifest in sex. He made sex a metaphor of God's love for us.

While popular, many saw his novels as formulaic. Also, many readers, Catholic and non-Catholic, were curious about how a Catholic priest could know so much about sex and write so candidly about it. This was part of Andy's Irish, pixie charm. His sharp wit and piercing eyes defied doubters. Although he wrote about sexy bedrooms, he said he never violated his vow of celibacy. The books were all part of his rich imagination. He had decided to become a priest in the second grade and never wavered.

His novels made him a media marvel. Early on he recognized television was sucking the attention out of Catholic life. He used his many appearances to explain the Catholic world view to television's secular audience. He was a true "happy warrior," enjoying debate in his combative way. But he charmed the same way Bishop Fulton J. Sheen pierced the screen with penetrating eyes. But Andy was more fun.

Andy was not perfect. He was pugnacious. He liked and often provoked controversy. He liked a fight, but he fought clean. He was driven by concern for the Church. He wanted to make it the magnate of the world, drawing everyone to it. While he became rich, he didn't live "richly." While he became famous, he kept his focus on the love of his life, our Church. Typical of Andy, he wanted his grave stone to read: "Andrew Greeley--A Loud-mouthed, Irish Priest."

RIP.

Kevin and Marilyn Ryan, editors of "Why I'm Still a Catholic," worship at St. Lawrence Church in Brookline.

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