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Uproar over Chicago Mass: Did this Christmas Eve liturgy go too far?

Shannon Mullen By Shannon Mullen for CNA

Father Michael L. Pfleger celebrating the Dec. 24, 2021 evening Mass at St. Sabina Church in Chicago, where he has been the pastor since 1981. (Image: Screen shot of St. Sabina YouTube video)

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Dec 30, 2021 / 13:28 pm (CNA).

Outraged by a freewheeling Christmas Eve Mass that featured jazz musicians, choreographed dances around the altar, and theatrical lighting effects, some Catholics are calling on Cardinal Blase Cupich to crack down on liturgical abuses in Novus Ordo Masses in the Archdiocese of Chicago, rather than imposing severe restrictions on reverential Traditional Latin Masses.

Father Michael L. Pfleger, a well-known social activist in Chicago, celebrated the Dec. 24 evening Mass, which was live streamed from St. Sabina Church, a predominantly Black parish on the city’s South Side. Pfleger has been the pastor there since 1981.

Many of those upset by the Mass say it crossed the line from worship to entertainment. That view is fueled, in part, by the fact that it is not clear from the nearly 2½ hour video of what was billed as “Christmas Eve at Sabina” when the liturgy actually begins. There is no apparent greeting, penitential act, or opening prayer, all required Introductory Rites of the Novus Ordo liturgy.

In the video, posted on YouTube, Pfleger does not appear on the altar until after nearly an hour of musical and dance performances. A band plays a mix of religious carols and secular music, including Stevie Wonder’s “Overjoyed” and the Vincent Guaraldi Trio’s “Christmas Time is Here” (best known from the Peanuts Christmas special, “A Charlie Brown Christmas”) while colorfully costumed dancers swirl around the altar.

In one of the video’s most jarring segments, prior to Pfleger’s arrival, a woman reads a reflection on racism, gun violence, and other social ills. The woman shouts at some points, while figures near the altar, including some dressed in hooded cloaks that resemble Ku Klux Klan robes, dramatize her words. (You can watch the segment at the 38:00 mark in the video below.)

“‘The people who walk in darkness have seen a great light.’ But have we? We look around and all our eyes can see is destruction and chaos, division, and even death. … Hate is sweeping across the nation in ways like we’ve never seen before. Racism has become just as natural as the air we breathe.”

Flashing lights and the loud beeping of a heart monitor sound effect add to the bleak litany of evils, which nevertheless ends on a positive note: “Heaven has heard your cry and responded by sending Jesus, the Light of the World, to renew your strength. Emmanuel, God is with you.”

During his homily, Pfleger, wearing a peace sign dangling from a beaded necklace, urges members of the congregation to lift up their illuminated cell phones in the darkened church, as is often done at concerts.

“It’s Christmas. It’s Christmas. Jesus, the Light of the World, is with us,” he says. “Now go turn on the damn light and curse the darkness! Come on, wave your lights! Wave your lights!” (You can watch Pfleger’s homily at the 1:26:00 mark in the video above.)

Lightning rod for controversy

Pfleger, 72, has been a prominent anti-violence and social justice advocate for many years. A Chicago native, he has been outspoken against the epidemic of gun violence in the city’s South Side and oversees a host of active social ministries at St. Sabina’s. Volunteers from the parish planned to distribute nearly 1,000 meals at homeless shelters in the city on Christmas Day, he says during the Christmas Eve Mass video. On Jan. 1 Pfleger will lead a parish “Peace Walk” commemorating the lives lost to gun violence in the area this year and calling for more government action to stop the bloodshed.

Pfleger adopted an 8-year-old boy in 1981 and another son in 1992. In 1997 he became the foster father of another city youth who was killed in a gang shootout in 1998.

The popular priest also has been a lightning rod for controversy.

In 2008, the late Cardinal Francis George asked Pfleger to go on a two-week leave of absence after he publicly mocked then-Sen. Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama’s rival in the Democratic presidential primaries that year.

George suspended Pfleger in 2011 after the priest threatened to leave the priesthood if George reassigned him. The cardinal later accepted Pfleger’s apology and reinstated him as St. Sabina’s pastor.

In 2019, Pfleger ran into more trouble, this time with Cupich, who publicly denounced Pfleger’s decision to invite controversial Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan to speak at St. Sabina.

More recently, Pfleger was removed from ministry at St. Sabina on Jan. 5, after a man came forward and alleged that he was abused by Pfleger as a child more than 40 years ago. Two other men, including one who is the brother of the first accuser, later alleged that Pfleger had abused them, also. Pfleger denied the accusations.

Cupich reinstated Pfleger in May, stating that the archdiocese’s review board “has concluded that there is insufficient reason to suspect Father Pfleger is guilty of these allegations.”

Father Michael L. Pfleger, senior pastor of St. Sabina Church in Chicago, gives his homily during the parish's Christmas Eve Mass on Dec. 24, 2021. Screenshot from St. Sabina YouTube video.
Father Michael L. Pfleger, senior pastor of St. Sabina Church in Chicago, gives his homily during the parish’s Christmas Eve Mass on Dec. 24, 2021. Screenshot from St. Sabina YouTube video.

Contacted by CNA, Pfleger declined to answer questions about the Christmas Eve liturgy.

“These are some of the same people that attack Pope Francis and Cardinal Cupich and have ignored the gift and value of Black Catholicism in the Catholic Church, so I am not responding to their attacks,” Pfleger said in an email.

The Archdiocese of Chicago did not respond to a request for comment prior to publication.

Critics cite Latin Mass restrictions

The latest round of criticism comes months after similar complaints were raised in response to a pair of controversies in the archdiocese this summer.

In August, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, a non-Catholic who is in a same-sex marriage, received Communion from a city police chaplain at a funeral Mass Cupich celebrated for slain police officer Ella French. The chaplain said he made a mistake and publicly apologized.

Just days later, a Chicago pastor said he consulted with Cupich prior to prohibiting the public recitation of the Prayer to St. Michael and the Hail Mary after Masses, claiming the public prayers, which take less than a minute to recite, can distract those wishing to pray privately in the church.

Criticism of St. Sabina’s Christmas Eve Mass gained steam on social media earlier this week, after the archdiocese issued a new policy that sharply curtails the celebration of the Traditional Latin Mass and the use of liturgical texts that predate the liturgical reforms of Vatican II for other sacraments.

Under the policy, Masses using the old rite cannot be celebrated on the first Sunday of the month, Christmas, the Triduum, Easter Sunday, and Pentecost Sunday. Additionally, priests cannot celebrate Traditional Latin Masses in parish churches without permission from both the archbishop and the Vatican.

“If the Bishop really cares about his faithful,” one commenter on YouTube wrote, “he’d put a stop to this abomination, not the Latin Mass.”

“I’m a former evangelical Protestant, who is now Catholic, and this service reminds me so much of the ones that I once attended as an evangelical Protestant for many years,” another post reads. “I’m both shocked and horrified that this claims to be Catholic, Lord have mercy! No focus on the Blessed Sacrament at all.”

“The Latin Mass? No. This, Yes,” conservative Catholic commentator Taylor Marshall said sarcastically in a Dec. 29 podcast live streamed on YouTube. “It’s not fair.”

Focus should be on the Eucharist

The archdiocese’s new policy on the Traditional Latin Mass comes in response to Pope Francis’ motu proprio Traditiones custodes, released July 16, and a related explanatory document the Vatican published Dec. 18. Together, those documents  place strict curbs on the use of Latin liturgical texts that pre-date Vatican II, which a small minority of Catholics still prefer.

The pope lamented the prevalence of liturgical abuses in a letter accompanying his motu proprio.

“I am saddened by abuses in the celebration of the liturgy on all sides,” he wrote in the letter. “In common with Benedict XVI, I deplore the fact that ‘in many places the prescriptions of the new Missal are not observed in celebration, but indeed come to be interpreted as an authorization for or even a requirement of creativity, which leads to almost unbearable distortions.’”

A leading Catholic liturgist contacted by CNA said he was reminded of the pope’s words while he was viewing the video of St. Sabina’s Christmas Eve Mass.

“Many of the abuses in the celebration of the Mass come from a wrong understanding of the nature and good of the Eucharistic celebration, and particularly from a distorted application of the concept of active participation in the liturgy,” Father Daniel Cardó, Benedict XVI Chair of Liturgical Studies at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver, observed in a written commentary he shared with CNA.

“The Second Vatican Council called the Church to promote a ‘full, conscious and active participation in liturgical celebrations.’ (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 14). The irony is that when activities foreign to the liturgical celebrations are inserted in the Mass, actual participation does not grow — most people remain spectators of dances or other cultural expressions, which cannot be performed by everyone,” he continued.

“The dances, songs, speeches, and light effects show a lively celebration of a Christian community, but not the Eucharist as described and celebrated uninterruptedly since the beginnings, as already perceived in the passage of the disciples going to Emmaus (Lk 24:13-35) or in the descriptions of St. Justin (mid-second century),” Cardó observed.

“What the Church wants for everyone is participation in the rites themselves, and for this, we have a safe path: the approved rites and rubrics of the liturgical celebrations.”

Cardó stopped short of saying that the St. Sabina liturgy was not a valid Mass, as some have alleged on social media. Pfleger uses the proper words of consecration during the Eucharistic Prayer, he noted.

Instead, Cardó said such liturgies risk overshadowing the Eucharist as the central focus of the Mass.

“When so much novelty and creativity take place in the celebration of the Mass, the community can grow in self-expression and human comfort, but might lose the ‘real presence’ of Jesus Christ, certainly less spectacular than concerts and choreographies, but the awe-inspiring power of God made man, of God becoming present in bread and wine,” he said.

“There is no greater pastoral good for the faithful than simply to allow God to come to his people through the rites of the Church. The relative good of self-expression of a given community can never be equal to the supreme good of receiving Christ himself in the Sacrament,” Cardó continued.

“Bethlehem reminds us that God chooses the simplicity of what’s hidden to the world to become present. In the same way, Jesus comes to the world at Mass through the simplicity of a few words and gestures, given to the apostles and faithfully transmitted by the Church,” he stated. “When creativity leads to abuses and distortions, then we are very far from the liturgical reform intended by the Second Vatican Council.”

CNA correspondent Joe Bukuras contributed to this story.

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  1. Totally disgusting. This priest should be removed permanently for sacrilege.Dances and secular songs may be appropriate entertainment at another time but not during Mass. The Bishop who has tolerated these abuses should be removed as well. Maybe someone should clue in the Pope that there are MANY Catholics who will refuse to financially support this garbage and flagrant disrespect. . But Chicago is a broken down mess on all levels anyway, so why should this be a shock?

      • Darling, I wouldn’t live in Chicago if THEY paid ME!! I live some distance from Chicago and am an active participant in my parish, as well as supporting it financially. If I DID live in this Chicago parish, I would pull the pull the financial immediately. If your suggestion is that because it’s not my parish I have no right to voice an opinion, I disagree completely. Web sites such as this exist for free expression of the state of the Church.That includes Catholics objecting to the Holy Mass being turned into a circus act, wherever it may happen.

      • Blah,blah, blah, it’s a black parish run by a self hating hippie white guy. Nothing will be criticized or corrected by the uber PC archbishop. That’s the RCC in 2021.

      • Your question is irrelevant. Your first problem, of course, is that you don’t know that to be the case. And that is probably only the beginning.

    • so disrespectful i cannot believe that the bishop let this go on.. its the sacrifice of the mass .. if they want to praise God in another way do it in a theatre or gym…
      and to go after the catholics who want a traditional latin mass is utterly ridiculous.. its a beautiful form of the mass .. what is wrong with that.. just lopsided thinking for sure

  2. Thank you Cardinal Cupich for remaining loyal to the Spirit of Francis. The same award you gave to Cardinal McCarrick you more than merit in 2021 for your enormous service to Real Deal Catholicism!! Persecution in line with the ugly Moto Proprio of Francis, coupled with demonic distortions of the Bugini Masonic rewrite of the Sacred Liturgy and Pow! You are chasing serious Catholics away from the Politicoglio Rupture into the arms of Sacred Tradition. God works in mysterious ways… But the collective Judas plays an essential role in the Passion of the Bride of Christ.

  3. He won’t answer the ‘attacks’ because he is unable to…reframing the Mass as a societal protest piece is probably the best reply to the Pope who attacks the Traditional Mass as a ‘problem’.

  4. Gee. Back under Cardinal George, we lost our popular pastor after 16 years, I believe–because in the Archdiocese of Chicago, there are no “pastors-for-life.” That’s been the policy since Cardinal Cody, who retired our then-pastor in the late 1960’s after 20 years. But Golden Boy Michael Pfleger is special. There’s no one in the world like him! He and he alone gets to rule the roost from 1981 through 2021 and on into 2022. He just keeps on going like the Energizer Bunny! He’ll be pastor at St. Sabina until he dies, even if that’s at age 120! St. Sabina can’t do without him, you see. He is the indispensable man. He cannot be expected to follow the same rules as everyone else, because he is so socially-just.

  5. There’s a Catholic joke that’s made the rounds about a bishop visiting a parish and concelebrating a Mass with an eager young pastor.

    Anxious to impress, the pastor marked the occasion with an extended, very dramatic, liturgical dance number performed by an enthusiastic nun.

    The bishop was definitely not impressed.

    As the pageantry neared its conclusion, the pastor leaned over and asked what the bishop thought of the dance.

    The bishop paused for effect, then answered, “If she asks for your head on a platter, I will grant it.”

    After reading the above story about the notorious Fr. Pfleger, I can only add, “Please do.”

  6. My heart is full of sorrow and disgust watching this video. I can only pray our church Hierarchy to step in and bring some order.

    • Perhaps it is the hand of God rather which is to be expected? Archbishop Lenga on Polish Youtube videos has stated recently he expects to witness the Fatima vision of the destroyed City within 2 years. (By end of 2023). DAILY Rosary is our weapon, and every house needs to honour Our Lady of Fatima. Fr Gabriel Amorth recommended a decent sized statue. Otherwise an image. I ordered our immaculate heart statue from Holy Art when, after Pachama, Covid was allowed to be launched. God bless.

      • Hector, I would add to my above comment. Is the vision of Fatima not already spiritually being realized? Is there not already a City in ruins? A Martyr Pope – the title Cardinal Sarah gives PPBXVI in interviews? At the Fatima Canonisation homily, when reading the vision the Celebrant said ” second bishop in white – that’s me.” It is in the official write up. The second bishop in white stated on an airplane when asked what is Magisterium “when I speak it is magisterium”. And yes, I am as serious as Archbishop Lenga appears also to be. God bless.

  7. What can I say? I am so frustrated and yes angry!!! We do away with the Mass and sacraments that had once made civilization as well as saints for this garbage!!! At least the Charlie Brown reference contains the MAIN MESSAGE OF CHRISTMAS when Linus goes to the centre of the stage and retails the message of the angels to the shepherds. It one looked at that and meditated upon it it would be more spiritually enriching that what this event proposed to offer.

  8. Cupich is leading the Chicago Church to perdition. He will be held accountable by the Lord who is the Supreme Authority. No different for the Pontiff Bergoglio.

    This is the Christmas Season – a reminder that those who recognize Christ as the Head of the Church and its Ultimate Authority are promised peace. We see Cupich and Bergoglio for who they are; we are at peace.

  9. Too far? Honestly, it isn’t about Pfleger and his ilk and their violent narcissistic theatrics, its about the thoughtless mutilation of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass which was engineered during and after the last council. Obviously that itself went too far given its fruit.
    How close to the edge of a cliff do you have to go to go too far? Is “Traditionis custodes” too far? Is Cupich’s post-Christmas “instruction” too far?
    One is left with the impression that a significant portion of the episcopate and their clergy substituted an ego enhancement spa for priestly formation. We’ve been dealing with this substitution for Roman Catholicism far too long.
    It is too late to ask “Too far?” when you are mid-air over perdition.

  10. Cupich at some point gives an award of some sort to McCarrick, even though McCarrick is already known as a molester of young men, then Cupich puts up with a disgusting spectacle like this, in the next breath he makes another move to suppress the Latin Mass, and THEN he wonders why there are less and less people in the pews.

    Do the math.

  11. Fr. Pfleger spends an inordinate amount of time trying to be the coolest priest on earth with his Mass of “what’s happening now”. But what I really find disturbing is the fact that he has adopted sons and then is accused of abuse 40 years ago which couldn’t be proved. There’s just something off here.

  12. I am appalled, what’s happening to our beautiful faith. God help those who want to keep our true faith, make us stronger Lord. There was nothing Catholic about that at all!!!! I’m lost for words!!!

    • I was born and raised in a devout RC family, I converted to Eastern Orthodoxy. Thanks Be to God. I do pray for my Catholic friends and Family

  13. Pfleger should have been laicized decades ago. For that matter, he never should have been ordained in the first place. Instead, he remains a priest in good standing in the Diocese of Chicago, while Fr. Luke Kalchik was not only removed as pastor of his parish but was forced to flee the city rather than submit to being sent to the notorious St Luke’s “treatment” facility. His crime was having a gay “pride” flag found in a church storage room burned. That is the state of affairs in Cupich’s Chicago.

  14. Could’ve been worse – could’ve been an LGBTQ Mass or a Pachamama Mass. And while we’re at it, why not a Save the Planet Mass or a Unite with Islam Mass? Do you see where this is going? This is not about Christ anymore; it’s about humanism, syncretism, and dare I say hedonism. The problem isn’t that the Church needs to change in order to reach the world; the problem is that the world has infiltrated and perverted the Church, making it ineffective as salt and light, rendering it useless and inactive against the ruler of this present darkness…not just the Catholic Church but everywhere among those who profess to be Christians do we see this infiltration of the spirit of antichrist – man lifting himself up as God and denying the rightful Kingship and Lordship of Jesus Christ. May God have mercy and deliver us from evil.

  15. This type of so called “celebration” should not be at a mass. The focus should always be on the the body and blood of our savior . It could of been on a different day/night close to Christmas as a”Christmas celebration show”.
    It’s one thing to have happy uplifting christian music during a Christmas eve or Christmas mass,but this was uncalled for.Shame on this pastor!

  16. This exactly the kind of charasmatic evangelical church services I attended as a protestant before converting to Catholicism 8 years ago through what was RCIA!!!! This so so disgusting and this garbage should be immediately stopped at the HOLY MASS!!!!!! Lord have mercy, Jesus!!!!! Where has the reverence, awe, respect and reverential fear of the Lord gone???? But yet the Latin mass is to be discontinued???? How about this priest’s priesthood be discontinued and the archdiocese of Chicago be given a lesson in the symbolisms of the Latin Mass, the reason it is done the way it is and the holiness and reverence behind it!!!!!

  17. I have to wonder whether Cardinal Cupich will cite this event as part of the “eucharistic renewal” that requires the suppression of the EF of the Mass. I guess this is an example of “unity,” under a single lex orandi, right?

  18. In these times of lawlessness, immorality, and general amnesia it is even easier to determine where the true light resides.
    Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.

  19. Very sad. This is not a mass. It is wrong.
    I appreciate enthusiasm and up beat music but only in the proper place and time. The mass is about Christ not a priest, not man, not women. It is about the Eucharist which is simple and holy and nothing should overshadow it.

  20. Obviously the man is an infiltrated wolf, brainwashed by Saul Alinsky communist minions. Most Catholics don’t know that our Church started being infiltrated in early 19th century by ecclesiastical freemasons [the permanent instructions of the alta venditta] and by communist agents in the 1930s [the jewish peril paris 1936+ Bella Dodd + AA-1025: the diary of an anti-apostle]… all the scandals have been caused by them. Most Catholics don’t know these are the end times – Our Lady warned us enough times for about 300/400 years…

  21. St. Sabina is one of my parish’s “sharing parishes.” This disgusting spectacle clarifies for me finally that I have to cut ties.

    • If you truly appreciate our Lord’s mission and his Church nothing will make you cut ties with Him and his Church. If you do, you will be the loser forever. I pray you do not.

      • Of course I would never cut ties with the Church. However, I will attend and support another parish, one that doesn’t financially support Fr. Pfleger. I take seriously my obligation to support and work constructively within my proper geographical parish, and I have done so for years despite the appalling Broadway show liturgical music and other irritants. Now, my conscience does not permit me to support, through my parish, what I discern as Fr. Pfleger’s extremely offensive and destructive ministry, which is only getting more egregious as long as people don’t take action to show their disapproval. Perhaps my action will encourage my pastor and parish council to disaffiliate with St. Sabina, or stimulate Cardinal Cupich to take the matter in hand. I cannot just do nothing about this outrage when I have a chance to do something I apprehend as being for the good of my diocese and the Church.

  22. If this is okay, why does Apostolic succession make a difference? Why bother with being Catholic? What’s the point of Catholic apologetics? There was never a moment of silence or the sign of the cross.

  23. I think it’s time you folks considered sedevacantism and stopped hoping that a hierarchy aligned with Francis is going to change anything. The reason this is permitted is because Vatican 2 destroyed the Mass and the faith in the hearts of many clerics. They are modernists and religious indifferentists

  24. Some things stood out to me when the video starts. Everything that took place at Christmas was billed as a service. St. Sabina was billed as being “The Faith Community of St. Sabina.” This continues when they list New Year’s Eve services. The NYE Weekend listing said that there were no services on January 1, 2022. The Unity service on January 2, 2022 is listed as being the first service of 2022. With January 1rst being the Solemnity of Mary – the Holy Mother of God, and the World Day of Peace, this is a very glaring omission, particularly when there was an onscreen appeal for a peace walk. Mary is the Queen of Peace. Not much Catholicism in evidence in their introductory listings.

    • Bulletins for St. Sabina also designate community worship as a ‘service’ rather than the “Mass.” The bulletins DO request a Mass stipend ($10) for intentions, and the bulletins publish the “Mass intention” for the same ‘service.’ Thus, the ‘Mass’ correlates with ‘service’ but vaguely. The word “Mass” appears only in relation to intentions and stipends, not in the listing of “Services” times.

      God in the service of Man rather than man in the service of God?

      NB: A full one (perhaps there were two pages in some of the bulletins checked) perhaps two pages were dedicated to pleas for tithes and increased donations.

  25. It’s funny and sad as well that these extremest get the attention while the truly Good and Holy Clerics go unheralded. As soon as I saw the picture of this setting I knew the area and circumstance, ethnics,etc. God only knows

  26. Most of us have witnessed these liturgical antics before, to varying degrees. Why, for the love of God, can’t pastors and administrators divorce the uber, not appropriate theatrics from the Holy Mass. Good gosh, just set up 60 min before mass begins to host a respectful performance of sorts (akin to musical prelude). Then stop, then welcome and begin a real Holy Mass. Why is this so difficult to accept? My only opinion … is it is coming from the movement to weaken and destroy the meaning of a sacrificial mass. Ugh.

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