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Sunday, June 2, 2013

Appreciating Fr. Greeley

The passing of Father Andrew Greeley this past week will generate a lot of newsprint and bandwidth, especially in the Catholic press. For five decades, Greeley was a player on the national stage as the Catholic church went from a burgeoning blue-collar ghetto demographic to a policy-shaping plurality in the United States. A sociologist by trade, Greeley was able to observe as a Catholic was elected president in 1960, and then from the years of the Second Vatican Council forward became more and more influential as the children and grandchildren of immigrants got college degrees and began to helm the business and government structures of the nation. He was interested in the relationship between the church and American society, and in the self-image of American Catholics, and his meticulous sociological reporting on Catholic attitudes about and within the priesthood, over Humanae Vitae and liturgical reforms, and immigration and ethnicity was highly regarded especially in the last decades of the 20th century.

But it was in the area of Catholic identity and imagination that Greeley was most provocative, and probably best known by the widest audience. Greeley fearlessly looked to fiction and story to convey what was most important to him about the Catholic ethos, and his best-selling novels, not pretending to be great literature, celebrated human relationship and sexuality while exploring both the heroism and the dark side of our Catholic life. 

Me, I never knew what to think of Fr. Greeley. To be honest, I always felt that his distrust of liturgist especially was misguided and based on (apparently) a few bad experiences, but I never heard him say anything good about us! I know from experience that he was frequently a presence as a presiding celebrant at Old St. Patrick's in Chicago, and seemed to be happy at at home in that role. But in print, at least, he seemed to want to blame liturgists (and he always seemed to use the word derisively, as though he were spitting it onto the page) for running roughshod over popular devotion and ignoring the sensus fidelium as he experienced it. While I felt that we should have been allies, and that we might have informed each other's labor in the Church through dialogue, his writing left me (not personally, but as a member of the profession he deplored) feeling professionally rejected and generally misunderstood.

Nevertheless, when, in 1987, I was finishing my third collection of songs, entitled Mystery, I could think of no one else who might understand better what I was trying to do in these songs than the priest whose imagination was unafraid of confronting "tradition," and even tipping some sacred cows. Fr. Greeley was splitting his time between the University of Chicago and the University of Arizona in Tucson, as I recall, and after a couple of letters of inquiry and a phone call I was able to ask him to write an introduction to the songbook, and he generously agreed to do so. Since that book is now out of print, I thought I'd reproduce Father Greeley's introduction here. It provides a snapshot, at least, of his thinking about music and art vis-a-vis the Church as people of God at a particular time in his life and mine, and at a particular time in Church history. 

I hope his vision and courage can inspire all of us who are artists to continue to work for a beautiful and true symbology of divine agape, in spite of obstacles in the hierarchy and the obstruction of our own egos. As I mentioned in a recent post, this may require that we take a view of church that sees beyond the years to a fruition millennia from now, but it's God's church, and God's time. For today, I just want to say I'm grateful that he shared his celebrity 25 years ago with a musician whom he didn't know, and took the time to write these words.

This is Fr. Andrew Greeley's introduction to Mystery. May the angels lead him into paradise—a paradise that looks suspiciously like Ireland.

It is no exaggeration to say that the liturgical changes of the Second Vatican Council astonished the American Church. In 1959 when I gave an address at the annual Liturgical Convention at the University of Notre Dame-one of the great tent shows of the era-all of the speakers were warned beforehand not even to mention the vernacular because the subject was offensive to the Holy See, and the bishops, who had only recently more or less adopted liturgical movement, did not want to be embarrassed. The Vernacular Society had its meeting immediately after the Liturgical Convention and was viewed by most of the "moderates" in the liturgical movement as being a group of quaint but charming cranks. 
Two years later, by almost unanimous vote, the bishops of the world reversed fifteen hundred years of history and put the vernacular into the liturgy. Not long after that, they also put the liturgy into the vernacular. 
My friend, Father John Shea, periodically reminds me that a hundred years would not be too long a time for the sudden changes in the Catholic community instigated by the Vatican Council to be absorbed. At first I thought this was the council of despair. Then I realized that Father Shea was in fact giving me a message of hope. He was telling me that while we must do our best, we cannot expect our generation to accomplish all the goals, to seize all the potential, to develop all the possibilities in the extraordinary events that have happened to the church in the last quarter century. At this time when the Church seems to be gripped in a half-hearted thermidor that honors the council but attempts to repeal it, it is good to be reminded that the energies unleashed by the Holy Spirit in the early '60s are far too powerful to be turned aside. Pope John's window will not be closed. The lid will not be put on his Pandora's Box. We must make our contribution with all the faith and hope we can and leave what comes after us to the next generations and to the Holy Spirit's continued energy. 
It is in this context that I listened to Rory Cooney's songs—being quite incapable either of reading music or singing them myself. The American Church has gone from singing, badly, in Gregorian Chant the Mass of the Angels (as it turns out, a particularly difficult Mass to sing) to vernacular hymns almost overnight. The astonishing thing is not that we made mistakes and that some of the hymns we tried to teach our people were terrible. Rather what was astonishing is that so much good work has been done in such a short time, that so many enthusiastic musicians like Rory Cooney have dedicated themselves to producing good music that can be sung by congregations in church, congregations which haven't sung much in church for at least a thousand years! 
I can only endorse with all the power of my command the work of men like Rory Cooney and urge the Church to see that, like all laborers, they are given the just wages that their efforts merit. Church music composers have to be men and women of special faith and special hope because all too often they are treated like luxuries that we'd rather like not to be able to afford instead of the sacrament makers that they really are.  
Musicians, you see, are men and women who see the wonders of God's graceful love in patterns of sound, the splendor of the form of God's beauty manifested and revealed in the proportioned parts of the matter with which they work. They do God's work and are worthy of the respect, the encouragement and the payment due in justice to all God's workers.  
Those who know me will find it amusing that I write a preface to a book of songs for they know well that I am the kind of person who was warned in grammar school not to sing with the rest of the class because I dragged all the voices down to my own level. I am at best a mental hummer and the only instrument I play is a phonograph. So I don't dare endorse Rory Cooney's hymns as music—anymore than I would expect him to endorse my sociology as sociology!  
All I can say is I enjoy listening to them and I am sure congregations will enjoy singing them.  
And because of him and the other hard working, dedicated Catholic musicians of our era, the work for the next hundred years is at least well begun. 
Sometimes I think that those who come after us will be extraordinarily grateful for the artists and musicians and poets and writers and sculptors and painters and architects who laid the groundwork for the New Church. 

Rev. Andrew Greeley
University of Chicago
January 7, 1987