I am a dedicated ecumenist, and have found much to be savored in a number of faith communities. Thirty-five years ago I was a Baptist seminarian and in the years since that time I have found much benefit by worshiping within Episcopalian, Unitarian, and Roman Catholic communities. For that reason I must stop to honor two great champions who have departed this life within the past week: Andrew Greeley, and Will Campbell. Will Campbell showed me how to live the faith as a Baptist. Andrew Greeley likewise gave me great encouragement within the Catholic community. Both men demonstrated how to live faithful authentic lives without mindlessly caving in to convention.
Will Campbell’s book Brother to a Dragonfly was published while I was in seminary in Mill Valley, California. A couple of my friends were reading it and speaking high praises for it, so I bought a copy for myself. As I began reading, that book quickly took precedence over all of my official studies that I was involved in that term. Will Campbell’s eloquent memoir was monumental in helping me to understand what it means to be a southern white Christian having grown up during the 1960s. It remains one of the handful of books that I count as landmarks in my own pilgrimage of faith.
Will Campbell was a renegade among Southern Baptists, standing up for the oppressed black community in the South but also recognizing that the white bigots were just as much slaves to the system as were the blacks they tried so desperately to keep down. Campbell was an outlier whose life was a prophetic call for justice, love, equality, and redemption.
You can read a Campbell’s compelling account of his spiritual awakening as recounted in Brother to a Dragonfly in a Sojourners magazine article here.
Andrew Greeley was a priest, a sociologist, a writer, a teacher, a newspaper columnist and a novelist. He was often controversial in his critique of the Catholic Church and clerical culture, advocating such things as equality for women and ordination of married priests. As a sociologist, he dared to conduct research to find out what Catholics at large actually believed and how they lived. He met with the expected ire of the Church hierarchy for reporting such sociological data. Many also wondered how a priest could write such steamy novels which often pointed out the hypocrisy of church officials.
Several years ago I picked up a copy of Greeley’s autobiography, Confessions of a Parish Priest and found it to be a warm and delightful read as well as an encouragement in my desire for the authentic expression of faith. He was obviously at heart a parish priest who cared about people and cared about the faith. One of my favorite quotes from Andrew Greeley is from The Catholic Myth:
“Catholics differ from other Americans in that their imaginations tend to be more ‘sacramental.’ By that I mean that Catholics are more likely to imagine God as present in the world and the world as revelatory instead of bleak…”
To me, that quote is reflective of Greeley’s unflagging delight in life itself. As a Protestant turned Catholic, I appreciate that brightness and that hopeful aspect of seeing the world as a sacramental revelation of God. My own spiritual pilgrimage has been a continual stepping into broader and brighter places. Father Andrew Greeley was always a welcome voice along that path.
You can read an article by Andrew Greeley in which he discusses his novels, his audience, and his Catholic critics here.