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My favorite priest

/ 11:17 PM March 15, 2013

My favorite priest is also a storyteller. I strongly recommend his works of fiction as the most enjoyable way to understand the message of Jesus, and to learn about Christianity and Catholicism—which are not the same—in the world today. I am referring to the fantastically prolific (66 novels), earthy, funny, romantic, and saintly Irish-American priest, Andrew M. Greeley.

Fr. Andrew Greeley, now 85 years of age, is also a brilliant sociologist (PhD, University of Chicago) and university professor, with many of his 79 nonfiction books based on his survey research.  But he doesn’t like being called a hyphenated priest-anything. He says that he is just a priest, and doesn’t telling stories make him a better priest, and didn’t Jesus teach by telling stories?  (The Irish love question marks.)

It’s been my great fortune to have been Father Andrew’s friend since 1990, when I met him in Graz, Austria, at my first meeting of the International Social Survey Program. ISSP had only 12 member-countries then, so survey questions could be crafted around a table in plenary session, with much camaraderie, argumentation, joking, etc.


Father Andrew (who was in the Irish delegation then) was “father” to the ISSP religion surveys, done in 1991, 1998 and 2008—the best source of data for comparing Filipinos with other peoples in terms of religiosity.

Images of God. Father Andrew designed the “images of God” question of ISSP. It goes like this: “On a scale of numbers from 1 to 7, where would be your image of God, if 1 stands for MOTHER, and 7 stands for FATHER?” As surveyed by SWS in 2008, 18 percent of Filipinos chose No. 1, 40 percent chose No. 7, and 25 percent chose No. 4, i.e., midway between MOTHER and FATHER.

This survey shows that God has many images. Twenty percent of Filipinos see God as a MASTER, 37 percent see God as a SPOUSE, and 20 percent see God as both. God is a JUDGE for 29 percent, a LOVER for 25 percent, and is both for 22 percent. God is a KING for 34 percent, a FRIEND for 29 percent, and is both for 17 percent. None of these images is wrong.

What Filipinos want from a new pope. In 1996, Father Andrew organized, through his ISSP friends, national surveys of the desires of Catholics in seven countries for pluralistic reforms from the next pope. Thanks to this project, we know that Filipinos are the most conservative.

Here are comparisons between Filipinos (surveyed by SWS) and the Irish about what a new pope should do: (a) to show more concern about life for ordinary people than about religious issues: Filipinos 47 percent, Irish 75 percent; (b) to permit priests to marry: Filipinos 21 percent, Irish 82 percent; (c) to allow bishops to be chosen by priests and people from their own diocese, instead of appointed by the Vatican: Filipinos 51 percent, Irish 63 percent; (d) to let more lay people serve as his advisors: Filipinos 68 percent, Irish 82 percent; (e) to give more decision-making power to the bishops: Filipinos 37 percent, Irish 63 percent; (f) to allow ordination of women to the priesthood: Filipinos 18 percent, Irish 67 percent; (g) to be more open to change: Filipinos 41 percent, Irish 73 percent.

The average percentages of “pluralistic” responses, by country, were: Philippines 41, Poland 48, Italy 61, United States 65, Ireland 73, Spain 74, and Germany (West) 78. (See my column “Why the Vatican likes Filipino Catholics,” Manila Standard, 9/29/1997.)  The project was led by Father Andrew and Prof. Michael Hout of the University of California at Berkeley. The SWS survey was partly sponsored by Manila Standard. Father Andrew sponsored some of the other surveys, from earnings of his best-selling novels; he has many other philanthropies, too.

So I knew Father Andrew first as a survey researcher, and later as a story-teller, starting with “The cardinal sins” (1981). Try “White smoke” (1996), about how a person who had been married before becoming a priest gets to become pope. Next I shall read “The priestly sins” (2004).

A Father Andrew homily. When Father Andrew says Mass, he tells a story. Here is one from an ISSP meeting in London, where his Sunday Mass was attended only by the Filipinos:


Once upon a time there was an Irish king who was very old and close to death. He confessed his sins, said goodbye to his family, and had himself carried in a litter to the green fields, to see his beloved country for the last time. There he reached down to the ground, grasped some earth tightly in his hand, and died.

He opened his eyes to see Saint Peter at Heaven’s gate. “Just put down whatever is in your hand, and you may enter,” said Peter. “But this is all I have,” said the king. “I can’t enter without my little bit of Ireland.”

Then a little boy came up, saying, “Grandfather, they want you. Throw away whatever you have, so you can enter.” But the king said, “I left my grandson alive back in Ireland, so you’re only a magic trick! I’ll just wait.”

Then it thundered and heavy rain began to fall.  “Drop what you have and come in, or you’ll get soaked,” said Peter. But the king said, “Rain doesn’t bother me; I’m used to it in Ireland. I’ll stay here.”

Then the rain got really hard, and it soaked up his hand until all the earth in it got washed away.  Having nothing left, the tearful king surrendered.  So Peter opened the gate, and the king saw Heaven for the first time—and it was all GREEN, just like his beloved Ireland. “To enter Heaven,” said Peter, “you need open hands.”

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TAGS: Catholic, Fr. Andrew Greeley, Priest, Religion, survey
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