Priest wrote more than 60 novels often featuring hypocritical clerics

Fr Andrew Greeley, an American priest, novelist, journalist and sociologist, died on Wednesday aged 85.

Fr Greeley was perhaps most widely recognised for the more than 60 novels he wrote, some considered scandalous with their portraits of hypocritical and sinful clerics. But he also wrote more than 70 works of non-fiction, often on the sociology of religion, including 2004’s Priests: A Calling in Crisis. The title notwithstanding, the research he presented in that book found that priests are among the happiest men in the United States – a conclusion that mirrored his own experience.

Fr Greg Sakowicz, pastor of St Mary of the Woods parish in Chicago for many of the years Fr Greeley filled in at weekend Masses there, said: “Andy loved being a priest, and he spoke very positively about the priesthood.

“His Masses were very personal. He would name the altar servers and have the people applaud for them,” the priest told the Catholic New World, Chicago’s archdiocesan newspaper. “Families with young children loved his Masses, because they almost had a backyard picnic flavour to them, it was so personal and warm.”

On the other hand, Fr Sakowicz said, people who prefer their liturgy to have more structure did not enjoy them so much, but that was all right with Fr Greeley.

“You either loved him, or you just shook your head,” Fr Sakowicz said, repeating a line often said – and acknowledged by Fr Greeley – that he never had a thought that went unpublished.

Born in Oak Park, Fr Greeley attended St Angela School on the West Side, was ordained a priest for the Archdiocese of Chicago in 1954 and served as assistant pastor or Christ the King Parish from 1954 and 1963, while pursuing postgraduate studies in sociology at the University of Chicago.

In later years, he taught sociology both at the University of Chicago and the University of Arizona.

He maintained a relationship with the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago from 1982 until he stopped working following a 2008 accident in which his coat caught on the door of a taxi cab in Rosemont, leading to a fall that caused a traumatic brain injury. While he returned home after a long hospitalisation and rehabilitation, and enjoyed visitors, he no longer appeared in public.

His final book, Chicago Catholics and the Struggles Within Their Church, was published in 2010.

He was released from archdiocesan duties to pursue his academic interests in 1965, and he remained a priest in good standing. He published his first novel, The Magic Cup, in 1975, although his most popular books may have been The Cardinal Sins (1981) and Thy Brother’s Wife (1982). In later years, many speculated that his priest/bishop detective Blackie Ryan was a stand-in for Fr Greeley himself. Fr Greeley denied that, but acknowledged that the “little bishop” was his “spokesman”.

In a 2003 interview with the Catholic New World, Fr Greeley spoke of the importance of story to the religious imagination, saying he tried with his novels to do what the stained-glass artists of Renaissance Europe did with their windows: to spark the imagination and lead it to faith. For him religion – like life itself – was at root a story. It’s the story of the Creator, who loves the world so much he gave himself up for it. In his novels, he once said, he attempted to convey the way the love and grace of God operate in the world and the Church.

In 1986, Fr Greeley established a $1 million Catholic Inner-City School Fund, providing scholarships and financial support to schools in the Chicago archdiocese with more than half of students belonging to minorities.

In 1984, he contributed a $1 million endowment to establish a chair in Roman Catholic Studies at the University of Chicago. He also funded an annual lecture series, “The Church in Society”, at St Mary of the Lake Seminary in Mundelein, from which he received his licentiate in sacred theology in 1954.

He received numerous awards, including the 2006 Campion Award, given by America magazine on a regular basis to a noted Christian person of letters, and the 1993 US Catholic Award, recognising him for furthering the cause of women in the Church.

During the Second Vatican Council he wrote “The Yardstick” for what was then National Catholic News Service, while its regular writer, Mgr George G Higgins, was in Rome to assist at council sessions. Mgr Higgins, who also was a Chicago priest, started the weekly commentary on economic, labour and social problems in 1945.