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Additional Q & A with Father Andrew Greeley

Here is a transcript of excerpts of further conversation between John Callaway and Father Andrew Greeley, recorded in October 2001.

Andrew Greeley, Author

I want to [discuss] Andrew Greeley as a writer.

GREELEY: It's a good subject, I'm willing to talk about it.

CALLAWAY: You are, of course, seen through the lens of many writing these erotic, powerfully erotic books. It's dirty books to some people. I have my own view that they're very beautiful erotic and human stories.

GREELEY: You have great good taste.

CALLAWAY: But I'm gonna make an accusation about you and you may want to walk out of this interview, but I'm going to accuse you this evening. We've established that you're a novelist, and we've established that you're a teacher and a poet and a priest. But I'm going to make a public accusation against you tonight, that you are a major league closet historian. That you've been masquerading as a novelist when what you've given us in story after story is the history of Chicago.

GREELEY: Yeah, you noticed, most people don't.

CALLAWAY: And your reviewers don't.

GREELEY: No, they miss it completely. I mean I've talked about the Civil War, I've talked about...

CALLAWAY: Prairie Avenue.

GREELEY: Prairie Avenue. About the Camp Douglas business.

CALLAWAY: The 1968 Convention. All the stuff we deal with on Chicago Stories, you scooped us on. So you're pecking away at the history of this city, and of this world I might add.

GREELEY: Well, it's a rich history. And most people don't know anything about it. And so it's great raw material for storytelling.

CALLAWAY: Well, I just wanted our viewers to know that about you, that you are writing, without much note as we said, you're sneaking in all of this history in between love scenes.

Father Greeley as Priest

CALLAWAY: Do you still do parish work on the weekends?

GREELEY: I certainly do.

CALLAWAY: What do you do?

GREELEY: Say mass, preach, hear confessions and do weddings and baptisms. St. Mary of the Woods Parish in Edgebrook is my regular place of working. Our Mother of Sorrows in Tucson and then some Sundays I go out to Christ the King in Beverly.

Father Greeley as Sociologist

CALLAWAY: Now I want to turn to Andrew Greeley the sociologist. For the last 25 years, you've been working on really a kind of opus theory, that is, if I've got it right, that religion is story. Tell us about that.

GREELEY: Well, religion has been passed down through the years by stories people tell around the campfire. Stories about God, stories about love. Stories about good spirits and evil spirits. And I began to think that, well, maybe this is the way religion really gets passed on today. That religion is story before it's anything else. And after it's everything else. A major book on this is called The Catholic Imagination. Or there's also one called Religion is Poetry. And that's the thesis, that if we can get at people's stories, stories they tell about what their life means, then we'll know what their religion is. Because practically speaking, your religion is the story you tell about your life.

CALLAWAY: And how you deal say with the really tough questions of life and death. If I tell you how I come to that you can then probably tell me the religious tradition that I come from.


CALLAWAY: And do I understand you then, Father Greeley, to say, that a Roman Catholic couple in Chicago has nothing whatsoever to do with Rome's authoritarian view, say on the intimate lives that they lead. Whether it's birth control or whatever the issue is, that they go beyond that to the story of the Roman Catholic Church. Or their story, and that connects them to their faith.

GREELEY: The Catholic Church's basic insight into reality is that it's sacramental. That God is everywhere. And God dis-closes Himself, Herself in the moonlight, and the frozen lake in the wintertime. And the touch of a friendly hand in reconciliation in human love. We have never been afraid of contaminating God by putting right down into midst of the human tradition, human experience. Our Protestant brothers tend to try to keep God away from these things because they think we'll make Him into an idol. There's something to be said for either position, but the Catholic position is that God is everywhere.

CALLAWAY: Why do you refer to God so often as She or Her?

GREELEY: Well, partly to make trouble. But also because in God, the characteristics of men and women that we admire in men and women are combined. That's been a traditional Catholic teaching that God is the combination of opposites. And Pope John Paul I, in one of his audience talks, said we must think of God as our powerful Father, but also and even more as our gentle and loving Mother. He might have gotten in trouble if he'd said that today, but I think that it's been a minor key insight in the Catholic tradition. The role of Mary the Mother of Jesus is to reflect the woman and the love of God.

Father Greeley's Parents

CALLAWAY: I want to go back. I don't want to make this a study of genetics, but tell us about your father. I don't have much of a feel for who he was. We know that he was a stockbroker, and that everything went south during the Depression and he came back. But what measure of man was he? Tell us about him.

GREELEY: I think the thing that stands out in my mind, possibly because my mother told me and all of his friends told me, was he's a man of enormous integrity. There was a time in the '30s when he was in the position where he could arrange a tax warrant sale to the City of Chicago, out of which he would have made two million dollars. And Mayor Anton Cermak demanded the 50% split. And my father said no way. Now that's integrity. And that's maybe why on some things I just don't compromise because he wouldn't compromise.

CALLAWAY: Was he an educated man?

GREELEY: Grammar school. Maybe a year or two of high school.

CALLAWAY: Was he a reader?

GREELEY: Yeah. He read everything.

CALLAWAY: If one walked into your home, was it a reading home?

GREELEY: It was, yeah.

CALLAWAY: What about your mother? Tell us about her.

GREELEY: She graduated from high school at 15 and went to work at Sears. She was very witty. Some people think I have some wit and I suspect I got it from her. She's quite reckless. She was flying airplanes in the 1920's andÑ

CALLAWAY: Flying airplanes?

GREELEY: Flying in them.

CALLAWAY: In them.

GREELEY: I have a picture of her standing in front of a bay, of a bi-plane.

CALLAWAY: Do you get your loveÑand this is judgment that I'm making, that you love women. . .

GREELEY: Yeah. Oh, I'm sure that's through my relationship with my mother. It was a very healthy and happy relationship. And so, yeah, I love women.

CALLAWAY: And I get the sense also that you must have seen something in their marriage that you liked. Do you have a memory of affection being shown?

GREELEY: Well, the Irish aren't much into showing affection. But, nonetheless, yes, there was affection. There was crisis when we were wiped out in the Depression and my father went into the gloom. But surely in the years when I was an adolescent during the war years, there was, I would say, a rebirth of affection there.

CALLAWAY: I'm still not sure. I mean, is there anything else you could tell us about them that you're not telling? Because I don't have a raft of information about your parents. I want to press you on this.

GREELEY: Sometimes people say to me, "Your mother would be ashamed of you if she knew the things you were writing in your novels." And I say, "No, she wouldn't." Because if I was doing them, she'd justÑby definition they were good. And she'd be proud of them.

CALLAWAY: Well, what about your father? Tell me more about him. You say he's a man of integrity. Was he a man of wit? Was he a man who could speak and you would listen to him?

GREELEY: Oh yeah he was, he was very, very articulate. Extremely articulate. He was very active in the Knights of Columbus. He had a kind of a special work for the Knights and that was taking care of alcoholic priests.

CALLAWAY: And he had a theory about who would be an alcoholic priest did he not?

GREELEY: Well it was the mother's vocations and the guy's vocations, that was who would become an alcoholic. So he warned me, he said, "Now, you know, if you want to be a priest, be a priest, but don't do it because you think we want you to. Because I know too many priests that have done that and they're not happy. And they are drunks."

CALLAWAY: Did he stick up for you once when some nuns came after you?

GREELEY: Ooh, ooh, a nun. I have terrible handwriting, John. I now say it's a learning disability...but a nun who was a very troubled woman hit me over the fingers with a ruler because my writing was so bad. Boom, [my father] was over to the rectory that evening saying, "I don't want anybody hitting my son's fingers."

Father Greeley's Doctoral Dissertation

CALLAWAY: What did you do [your Ph.D.] dissertation on?

GREELEY: It was on the relationship between religion and career choice among people that graduated from college in 1961. It was generally believed that Catholics were not interested in arts and science graduate schools. They weren't going to be intellectuals. And so I put the theses to the test. And they all collapsed. The first one Jim put on my desk showed that Catholics were more likely to go to arts and science graduate schools than Protestants. And he wrote across the top, "this year Notre Dame beats Southern Methodists."

Regarding Women

CALLAWAY: Why do you love women so much?

GREELEY: Because they're neat.

CALLAWAY: Comes out in your writing.

FATHER: Yeah, I guess it does, but it surprises me. I'm not afraid of 'em. I like them, I admire them, I can – no, I almost made a terrible mistake of saying "and deal with them as an equal," but you can't. But at least I don't feel too inferior to them. They don't threaten me.

CALLAWAY: Is it true that your sociological studies show that older Catholic men are the unhappiest about the role that women in the Catholic Church are not permitted to play?

GREELEY: Oh yeah, that's true. The Catholic men are more upset about women not being able to be priests than are Catholic women.

On Writing and Storytelling

CALLAWAY: What is at the core that makes you such a prolific and interesting writer?

GREELEY: Interesting, I don't know. I guess I'm a good story teller. What makes me a prolific writer is two factors at work. Celibacy; I don't have a family to distract me. And I'm glib. I reached facility with words.

CALLAWAY: "Glib" is a word that denotes lack of depth. Are you sure that's a word you want to use on yourself? Because the characterizations in many of your novels go deeper and deeper and deeper. They go deep into story. They go deep into character.

GREELEY: Facile. Will that do instead of glib? I write easily, let's put it that way. And in a novel particularly, the characters take over. And they tell me what to say and they tell me what they're doing. And I'm a third of the way into a novel and then I just let the characters finish it for me.

CALLAWAY: You hear their voices don't you?

GREELEY: Hear their voices.

CALLAWAY: You can't control what they say, can you or do you sometimes?

GREELEY: Oh, what to do. No, and the storyteller is like God, the storyteller creates these characters. Falls in love with them, and then they won't act right. I was water skiing a few years ago in Michigan. And one of the teenagers said to me, "Father Greeley, are you writing another one of your novels?" I said "Yeah, how did you know?" "cause you're not paying attention to how you drive the boat."

CALLAWAY: Would the same thing be said if we saw you swimming?

GREELEY: Oh yeah, oh sure, because swimming I don't have to worry about anybody getting hurt.

On Working With Young People

CALLAWAY: Did you find yourself, [as a young priest], feeling cramped by the pastor that ran that parish?

GREELEY: Yeah, I felt cramped, but there were ways of finessing things. I mean, I'm a Chicago Irishman, I know how to finesse things. So at least, working with the young people I was able to accomplish pretty much what I wanted to.

CALLAWAY: Did you enjoy working with kids?

GREELEY: Yeah. Maybe because I was never a teenager myself, I enjoyed going through the teenage experience with a lot of these kids.

CALLAWAY: What do you mean, you were never a teenager? You have contradictions there. You're saying you were never a teenager yourself, but on the other hand, in some of your writings you say you're still a teenager.

GREELEY: Well, that, yes, I was never a teenager. I became a teenager in Christ the King and I never grew out of it. More seriously, John, as I'm always serious as you know, there weren't teenagers in the late 1930's and early 1940's. There were adolescents. But by the time I was ordained and was dumped into Beverly, there were teenagers.

CALLAWAY: What's the difference between adolescent and a teenager?

GREELEY: Well an adolescent is somebody who is in between things. A teenager is somebody who's kind of permanently there. And so living with them through the various teenage hopes and sorrows and joys was curiously enough a maturing experience for me.

On The Future of the Papacy

CALLAWAY: You're a long time student of the Papacy and of the politics of the Papacy. When this Pope passes on, do you see any change with respect to that authoritarian sexual view from Rome?

GREELEY: Well, I think the question isn't about what Rome says. Now it's a question of what goes on in the parishes. And I think that authoritarian view has vanished in most parishes, both among the lower clergy and among the laity. I don't know what the next Pope is going to be like. I do know this, the Catholic laity all over the world have made up their mindsÑwe have data from 37 countriesÑhave made up their minds the Church is not going to interfere in their sex lives. That may be wrong, but that's the way it is.

Of Tragedy and Faith

CALLAWAY: You write, I think in effect, that God is a lover and a giver. And we're talking at a time when thousands have been killed. Innocent lives have been taken. Innocent families have been totally uprooted if not destroyed. How can anyone believe in God the good, God the lover, God the giver at a time like this?

GREELEY: Well, the issue is not mass murder John, the issue is the death of a child. Death of a premature kid that's fighting desperate for life but doesn't quite make it. Once you've had one unjust death, then the problem is there. Why does God permit us whom he loves to die? And you know what I say, where was God at the World Trade Center? He was there weeping for his fractured children. That's not a direct answer to the question but it's the best I could do. God suffers with us. That's the example of the life of Jesus is that God suffers with us.

CALLAWAY: So if you were counseling someone who had lost family there, that you could put your arm around them and say, God is weeping with you and us.

GREELEY: Yeah, I could say something like that depending on the person. But that's something certainly that one can say.

CALLAWAY: Has your faith ever been shaken? Have you ever had a moment when you said. . .

GREELEY: Only when Michael Jordan left the Bulls. No, no. All kinds of questions, John. Every day, there's questions. "This is all silly." But no, not ever really shaken to its roots.

Of Idiots and Eejits

CALLAWAY: In your columns, you frequently refer to people whose behavior you do not approve of as idiots. And I thought that harsh until I began to read more deeply into your fiction. And I saw the Irish "eejits" referred to over and over again and I thought, well, that's where that comes from.

GREELEY: Yeah. Well the Irish have lots of other more colorful names for the "eejits." "Amad‡ns" is one and the others, well, you really can't say on a family television channel. There's plenty of it in my books though.

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