“I wouldn’t say the world is my parish, but my readers are my parish. And especially the readers that write to me. They’re my parish. And it’s a responsibility that I enjoy.” — Andrew Greeley
By the halfway point in my tour in Iraq I was in the midst of a spiritual crisis that I could not comprehend. Nor would I understand the depths that the crisis would reach. However by November 2007 prayer was difficult if not impossible. As I tried to comprehend the distress that I was in I continued in a downward cycle, only being out with my advisors and our Iraqis helped, but when I returned to base between missions and eventually when I returned home in 2008 I felt alone and began to wonder about the existence of God.
Since I have always been a voracious reader, primarily of history, theology, military history and theory and more difficult subjects subjects such as ethics and philosophy I tried to use that to get through my crisis. My favorite authors included such men as Carl Von Clausewitz and Von Molkte the Elder, Sun Tzu, T.E. Lawrence, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Hans Kung, Jurgen Moltmann, David Galula, Roger Trinquier, Bernard Fall, Alistair Horne and a host of other authors that most normal Americans would never consider reading or do not know even exist. Fiction of any type was low on my list. About the only works of fiction that I had read were those of Tom Clancy and his Jack Ryan novels, W.E.B. Griffin and his Brotherhood of War series and the baseball fiction of W. P. Kinsella such as Shoeless Joe and The Iowa Baseball Confederacy.
I had a good number of books with me on the deployment. Some which I had packed for the trip and others which I had sent to me. However by November 2007 it was hard to read anything, much less pray. In between missions to Ramadi and the Syrian border I walked in the paperback lending library. I really didn’t know what I was looking for but I looked through every shelf in the small building. The non-fiction and biography sections were not worth the trouble, anything in them that I was interested in I had already read. So I began to look at fiction. I decided to look for authors that I knew, Jack Higgins and Frederick Forsyth who had written a lot of World War II mystery and spy novels including Higgins’ The Eagle Has Landed, Forsyth’s The Odessa File as well as Anton Myrer’s classic Once and Eagle.
The books were arranged alphabetically by author. Between Forsyth and Higgins there was the letter “G” and a number of books by one Andrew Greeley. I knew Greeley, at least I thought that I did. He was to be distrusted because he was a rather “liberal” Catholic Priest, sociologist and columnist for the Chicago Times. So I had been taught. However, I picked up a couple of the books, Bishop Blackie Ryan mysteries, The Bishop Goes to the University and The Beggar Girl of St Germain.
In spite of my inherent prejudice from so many years in conservative churches I decided to take both of them. That night as I prepared for my next mission I started reading The Bishop and the Beggar Girl of St Germain. There was a section where Bishop Blackie was talking about a French Priest, very similar to many American televangelists. Quoting the priest, the charismatic Father Jean Claude, Blackie noted:
“Do you exist? I think not. I have never seen you or touched you or felt you. Well, sometimes I think you’re present but that may be wish fulfillment. Intellectually, I have no reason to believe. Yet much of the time I act like I do believe …. Only when I have time to reflect do I feel doubts, and then after the doubts certainty that the universe is cold and lonely. I know that I am a hypocrite and a fool. Then I preside over the Eucharist in my unsteady bumbling way and I know that you are. I don’t believe but I know.”
The words reflected what I was going through. I believed, but I didn’t. Of course that would not only continue as my tour in Iraq progressed but got worse after I returned from Iraq. However, I discovered, much to my surprise that I was not alone. That there were a number of other very good, caring Chaplains, Priests and ministers going through similar doubts, fears and pain.
The irrepressible Bishop Blackie continued:
“Most priests, if they have any sense or any imagination, wonder if they truly believe all the things they preach. Like Jean-Claude they both believe and not believe at the same time.”
The words were an epiphany to me. Belief and unbelief co-existing and strangely congruent with the testimony of scripture, the anguished words of a man whose son was possessed by an evil spirit confessing to Jesus: “I believe, help my unbelief.”
I was hooked. I began to read every book by Father Greeley that I could find. Any of the lending libraries that I visited I scoured to shelves to find Bishop Blackie Ryan mysteries. When I returned to the Unite States I continued to read them. They were the only spiritual reading that I could manage. My Bible. Prayer Book, and other theological books were too difficult. In Andrew Greeley’s Bishop Blackie I found a kindred spirit and in his books, full of flawed characters, an often corrupt ecclesiastical structure I began to re-discover God. Now I admit that the books were an interim step. It did take an encounter in our Emergency Room at Naval Medical Center Portsmouth Virginia when I was the duty Chaplain in December 2009 administering the “last rites” to a dying man that faith much to my surprise returned.
It wasn’t the same faith, or shall I say the same form of faith that returned. It wasn’t a faith of absolute orthodoxy, but rather a faith that still questioned, God and the Church, especially the very culturally American Church that I could find little solace in or honesty, a church consumed with the need to be in political power which derided those not like it. Eventually as I continued to write on this site I began to voice how faith had returned but how it was different. One of those posts in September 2010 got me asked to leave my old denomination. It seemed that I had become in the words of my former Bishop for the Armed Forces “too liberal.”
At first that hurt. It was traumatic, not only was I dealing with PTSD, a crisis in faith and the loss of my father just a couple of months before, but then being cast aside. I knew that it would eventually happen but it was a shock. Thankfully tow things happened. First I was helped to find a denomination in the Old Catholic tradition that was really where I needed to be. Second, those people that were friends in my old denomination remained my friends, including many current leaders in that denomination as well as chaplains. The funny thing was that the man who threw me out was himself removed from his episcopal office for an act of duplicity against his church and his brother bishops that involved every member of the military diocese. That happened barely three months after I was asked to leave. Some friends have speculated that the real reason for my dismissal was that he did not trust me to keep his secret. That I do not know, just that it was speculated by others that knew him and me for many years.
As it was it was a good thing in the long run and through all of it the writings of Father Andrew Greeley, fiction and non-fiction, theological and sociological helped me through the crisis.
Father Greeley died today at the age of 85. For the past five and a half years he had been struggling to recover from a traumatic brain injury incurred when entering a taxi-cab in Chicago in November 2008. The injury curtailed his writing and speaking but he lives on through those writings and in spirit through the many people that he inspired. However, before that happened he was a spokesman for the truth who did not hesitate to critique the church and care for God’s people.
I am one of those people, like Blackie Ryan a “miscreant Priest” who has learned to believe yet question but most of all realize that the people that I meet in person or those that meet me on this forum are God’s people. That being said I realize that as imperfect and flawed as I am that I might be the only Priest, minister or Chaplain that they ever meet. A quote from Greeley’s last novel, The Archbishop in Andalusia sums up my understanding of ministry, both in the sacraments of the church and the sacrament that we call life.
“Every sacramental encounter is an evangelical occasion. A smile warm and happy is sufficient. If people return to the pews with a smile, it’s been a good day for them. If the priest smiles after the exchanges of grace, it may be the only good experience of the week.” (The Archbishop in Andalusia p.77)
I have had ministers like the fictional Bishop Blackie in my life as well as those that did not embody that ethic that he represented. I had someone tell me recently that I was able to relate to anyone of any rank or position. In the military that is a big thing. Too often the higher we go in rank the more detached from lower ranking people we become. Thankfully, I think in large part to my dad, who was a Navy Chief Petty Officer, and my wife Judy, whose dad was a truck driver and who never lets me get too big for my britches have a lot to do with that. I think another part is how we have gone through many difficult times in our life and know what it is like to be on the bottom rung or society and the at times quite unfortunately, the church.
Father Greeley inspired me in many ways since I returned from Iraq and I am forever grateful. In another book “White Smoke” Greeley has a fictional papal contender named Luis Emilio Cardinal Menendez y Garcia make a speech which I find particularly inspiring. While it speaks of the Roman Catholic Church I think that it speaks to most churches and reflects how people see us, the Christian Church, no matter what denominational tradition we claim. Likewise it speaks of what we can become:
“So many of our lay people believe that ours is a Church of rules, that being Catholic consists of keeping rules. They do not find an institution which is like that very appealing. Nor should they.
In fact, we are a Church of love. Our message from the Lord himself even today is the message that God is Love and that we are those who are trying, however badly, to reflect that love in the world. I find that in my own city that notion astonishes many people. How we came to misrepresent that which we should be preaching above all else is perhaps the subject for many doctoral dissertations.
More important for us today, however, is the reaffirmation that we exist to preach a God of love, we try to be people of love, and we want our church to be, insofar as we poor humans can make it, a Church of radiant love.
Does such a Church have a future? How could it not?”
I have missed Andrew Greeley’s new writings ever since he was injured. However, when I read how many lives that he touched, especially those who struggle with faith or have been hurt by the church I know that the Spirit of God will still use him and that as of today that freed from the bonds of his earthly infirmities that he will keep us in his prayers. That being said, I will always be grateful to Andrew Greeley. When I was despairing of life itself, his writings, particularly the fictional ministry and work of Bishop Blackie Ryan helped me rediscover an authentic faith.
Greeley and the wonderful characters that he created will continue to help me and I’m sure from the comments I have seen many others. I also know that through them that he and his witness of Jesus will live on.