By Ray O’Hanlon
Fr. Andrew Greeley is rarely stuck for words. But he hesitated when asked recently if he knew how many books he has written. He seemed surprised for a moment when told: 149.
But Greeley is not one to be struck dumb for long. "I don’t count," he said before moving the conversation on. On to the next book on the way, out in March, and the one after that, late in 2000.
The man doesn’t stop. And being 70 years old isn’t going to change anything.
Greeley is on tour promoting his latest tome, "Furthermore! Confessions of a Parish Priest." It is Volume Two of his memoirs, yet another platform for Greeley’s restless mind to explain itself to the world and to explain the world to itself.
The bestselling Volume One, "Confessions of a Parish Priest," first saw the light of print in 1986. That’s a 13- year gap. A lot of confessing.
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Greeley is a critical man. His own Catholic church is often the target. But he’s not a total cynic. If he were, he would have given up long ago and would be mumbling to himself in obscurity by now. Obscurity, however, is not for Andy Greeley.
Confrontation is. And yet, unlike some outspoken priests of our time, Greeley has not been banished to the clerical wilderness. Far from it.
"That’s because I don’t pontificate on theology," he said. "I’ve stuck with sociology and I think that’s one of the reasons why they’ve left me alone.
"I said to [the late Cardinal] Joe Bernadin that as long as I live I’ll be a priest and I’m going to be a writer. And he says, ‘Andy, I know that.’ So they know it. Leave him alone, don’t make a martyr of him.
"He also said to me once, ‘We’re not going to condemn your books,’ and I said Joe, make my publisher’s day, condemn them. And he said, ‘Ah no, no, no,’ let them succeed on their own.’ "
The Irish in America
Thirty years ago, Greeley penned a piece for the New York Times magazine entitled "The Last of the American Irish Fade Away." In his essay, Greeley described how the Irish had become mainstream in America, "respectable," like WASPS, but at the same time risking the loss of something of value, their very Irishness.
"I remember the piece," he said. "As I remember it, the notion that they were losing their identity was ironic because I don’t think that’s true and never thought it was true. We’re different. I can do now what I could not do then, and that is to demonstrate statistically the whole range of different things we [Irish Americans] have in common with the real Irish, and what we are in relation to the whole range of our non-Irish American counterparts.
"In family structures, the way we relate to parents and siblings is very distinctive. We’re more likely to talk to people and family members on the telephone than any other group in America and that’s true of the real Irish too. We love to talk."
Greeley’s "we" is interchangeable. It can mean Irish Americans or the entire Irish diaspora, including the Irish-born. He is clearly fascinated by the fascination each part of the "we" has for the other. The fascination is not his alone, he is quick to point out.
"I did a sociological essay on this thing years ago — ‘The Real Irish and Irish America: The Talk Goes On,’ " he said. "You offer a course in Irish studies somewhere now and you get 150 kids turning up. So among people, there’s a fascination with the subject.
"It is fashionable to be Irish, though not in some media circles, where they still have the stereotypes, and not in some of the great universities; but we’re becoming more and more fashionable even there."
Greeley divides his academic time between the University of Chicago and University of Arizona in Tucson. He spends a lot of time in planes. He writes a lot in planes and would leave you the impression that the laptop was almost personally invented by God for his writing habits.
"Writing is not for me something dependent on moods," he said. "Nor do I keep strict hours. It’s all ad hoc, when I’ve time to write it. When flying I use my laptop. Writing is kind of a discipline but not a schedule. It’s seizing the opportunity. I don’t write every day. I won’t quit not as long as I’ve good health."
The church’s future
So what of his church in the coming century? The church he loves to criticize and the one he clearly loves.
"The church will probably change in the next papacy, or the one after. I think in this country there’s not much stress between being Irish and Catholic. Most Irish Catholics are content to be Irish and Catholic. They like being Catholics and wouldn’t think of being anything else. In Ireland, there’s more stress because of the overthrowing of clericalism and the pedophile business."
Greeley is just winding up another sociological study in conjunction with University College Dublin.
"We have data from Ireland in ’91 and ’98 about religion," he said. "There are four findings. First is, there’s no real change in faith. Nor is there much of a change in church attendance. There was a decline before ’91 but not since then. There’s a notable erosion in support for the church’s sexual ethic, a catastrophic decline in confidence in the clergy, but then a surprising increase in what I would call gracious images of God — seeing God as mother, spouse, lover and friend. I wish I could account for it. It may be that the stuff they are doing over there on Celtic spirituality is having more of an effect than I had anticipated.
"So the Irish are still Catholics, but now, like most of the rest of us, they are Catholics on their own terms and they have been very badly led by the hierarchy and some of the clergy. Utterly unprepared, utterly unprepared." Greeley frowns for a moment. He is talking more with himself, thinking, winding up for a swing at something or someone.
"With a couple of exceptions, you’ve got a brain dead hierarchy," he said, finally.
So much for the Catholic Church in Ireland. What about the American version, more specifically, the Irish American version?
"It’s different. Different in different parts. In both Boston and New York, the Irish were latecomers and were treated badly and even still in Boston, where the Irish are a majority, they seem often to have a minority mentality. In Chicago, we were there pretty much at the beginning, have run the city since, and have none of that sense of inferiority at all. So there are variations.
"I think the church leadership is less important in this country than in Ireland because this country is so much bigger and there’s so much distance between us and the chancery office. So if you have a good cardinal, like we do now in Chicago, that’s fine. But if otherwise, then it comes down to the parish priest. I would say we’re doing well at the grass roots, but leadership is caught on the one hand keeping Rome happy and on the other keeping the troops happy, that is the clergy and the laity."
And what about his latest book, "latest" being a very temporary term in Greeley’s world.
"It’s the story about somebody who stayed in the priesthood," he said. "So many people who have left are writing about it and why they left, so I am writing about why I stayed. The first volume of memoirs ended in 1985, so this is since ’85. It’s what I think now, but is also going back and recapitulating on the past as I better understand it now."
You get the feeling with Andrew Greeley that he will never fully understand anything. But that’s by his own choice. He doesn’t want to reach the end, achieve total enlightenment. It’s the process of getting there that fuels his life’s work, indeed his very life.