The following interview was conducted in November 2008, part of a series of discussions called “44,” with people of varied background about their reactions to the 2008 election of Barack Obama. This interview was with Father John Galt of Peoria, Illinois.
Prior to my work in Peoria I was in Chicago, teaching at Loyola, and before that I served as a prison chaplain at Robinson, Illinois. Before that I worked in Decatur at Lady of the Lords, the parish. Then I taught—or entertained—at St. Teresa High School for six years.
Can you tell me about working at the Robinson prison?
It was one of my most favorite ministries of my fourteen years as a priest. For three years I served as the Catholic chaplain. Mass was held once a week, and I taught a class there once a week, an adult education catechized on scripture, on Catholic belief, thoughts. Coming from a high school to a prison, a chaplain ministry, maybe there is some correlation there.
The difference is the kids had to come to theology class as part of the curriculum. They had to go to mass when it was held. But going to the prison ministry, walking into that place, Robinson Correctional Center, the guys would come to mass—“class,” they called it—because they wanted to. I’ve had a few guys, after being released to society, they tracked me down, which is kind of spooky. They stopped by to say they had started their lives again, so they were reformed in some ways.
You get to know these people very well, and they would ask me what’s going on in the outside. And they did have the ability to watch television, and read newspapers. There wasn’t much internet. But they would ask me, and it wasn’t that they didn’t know. It struck me that they wanted to know it felt like again. Even though they had food, clothing, and were comfortable, the one thing that was lacking was their freedom. When I went in there I was locked in too, but I knew I could leave. When your freedom is taken away and you’re governed by particular situations or individuals or events, it’s a different feeling. You might have everything you need to sustain yourself, but when your freedom’s gone it’s almost devastating.
Is there a particular inmate or story that stays with you?
Oh yeah. Carlos. He was a Latino that started his prison time at nineteen. He was part of a gang that had killed a couple individuals. It was never determined if he was one of the killers, because there was a lot of gunfire. But he was nineteen, and haven been at Robinson for ten years he was discharged at twenty-nine. He had missed his entire young life, and he had to readjust to the climate and the culture again. If was on a different assignment at the time, and leading up to it he would send me notes. ‘It was coming up, it was coming up,’ they said, and he was finally getting out. When the time arrived he came to my assignment, to my rectory. He was heading to Texas. He had a job lined up, something for a cousin who was a landscaper. And now he’s practically running the business. He was given a second chance, and he has done very well. He continues to do very well and is getting married.
What led you to your career?
I was heavily influenced by a Catholic environment. I grew up on a small farm in east-central Illinois. Of my next door neighbor’s daughters, three were nuns. One of the sons was a priest. A neighborhood across the field had both a nun and a priest of the Franciscan lifestyle in the family. My parents made sure we were always involved in the Church. When I look back , though, a lot of the depth of the spirituality I received came after the fact. My parents’ participation we really about service. At the time we weren’t able to give very much to the Church, but we could give our time. And so I have probably mowed more cemeteries than anybody alive. We would mow the sister’s lawn, or the Church’s lawn; that was our family’s contribution to the parish. Sundays, holy days, or the weekends, it was really the hub of our life activities. And we had a small community, maybe three hundred families. It’s still there. My family still attends it.
But that’s how I got started. It was a late vocation. I wasn’t ordained util I was thirty. I started when I was twenty-seven, and went for nine months just to check it out. I was going to give God nine months, and after that I was going to go back to my job and get married and have a family. But twenty years later here I am,
It’s a real call to—I really believe in service, and in community service. I believe service is at the core of everything I do as a minister, as a priest. When I say service I don’t mean “mass,” or “prayer,” which is all important, but really serving God’s people, and people who may not believe they are God’s people. Trying to transform them, and have a conversation, a change of heart. And we can do that by action and our deeds. When we’re able to step into those moments with people who might not have enough faith of belief, we can show the depth of our service and care for them; that’s when grace can enter it. And grace is of course God’s spirit dwelling within all of us.
What did you do before being ordained—were there other avenues you considered, growing up? Did you pretend play something as a child?
I played church all the time. All Catholic kids play church—well, not all, but we would, all the time. We had a hay loft that we turned into a church for a couple summers, I remember. I was always the priest and my sister was always the bishop. That’s because the bishop always comes around occasionally, so I would say mass whether she was there or not. My cousins would always complain about coming out to our farm, because they knew they would have to go to church, because we’d play mass (laughs).
Later I went to Southern, went to college, did all the high school/college things. Dating, did all those things. But in the back of my mind there was something, I was also in a bit of a transition too, and I know you don’t make major decisions in transition. I worked at a printing company as a graphic designer lack in the Eighties, back when we would cut and paste, the old-fashioned way.
Tell me about the present Church here in Peoria. You’ve been pastor here since 2007.
We’ve been celebrating our hundred-fortieth anniversary this year. I was offered three parishes, and after looking at this community, and the proximity to my parents and home, I chose here. This community has experienced so much growth, and I know the community is going to continue to grow, and I love to think of being part of that experience. I love that there is a college here [Bradley University] that brings a certain degree of culture, knowledge, and intellect into the atmosphere of the parish. It’s by far one of the fastest growing parishes in our diocese. When I came here we had just about a thousand families, and now we’re up to 1,325 in under two years. Eighty-some baptisms last year. Three-quarters of the people are under fifty, so it’s a very young parish, but still hangs onto its roots. The roots happen to be German, hardworking farmers. There are farmers still here, but now we have a great mix of all types of individuals. We also are seeing a lot more ethnic diversity too. It’s inspiring that other people are coming in, and we don’t have to be classified as all, well, white.
Did any of your parishioners come to you during the election seeking advice—what was on their minds?
Many people. In fact they are still asking if—whether they voted for a Democrat, for Obama—if they committed a sin. Because of the abortion issues. And I reminded them that it was their decision, as long as their decision was informed by their conscience. Then they would make a good decision.
There is a documentary called Faith and Citizenship. At the religious center, here at the university, we spent four weeks picking the documentary apart, using particular themes, and weaving them into our homilies. A sister asked me to take the Service portion of it, and of course I was eager to. The other two priests took care of the more—some of the issues—and not about abortion, but rather abotu the “life” issues, and what they are.
So it’s not just the abortion that is a Catholic concern. We have to look at the big picture, which includes unjust war, poverty, euthanasia, capital punishment, killing. Those are all life issues. And if we’re going to say we’re really pro-life we can’t just pick one—like capital punishment—and then not affirm the others. If not, then we’re not pro-life—we’re “pro-pick.” I’m not going to use “pro-choice,” because we’re picking the social issues we should back or stand for.
The war in Iraq is always another concern for many. I always give the party-line, as a Catholic. And the party-line is this: people need to continue to form a conscience. Educate yourself. Of course, to form your conscience you have to pray and deliberate, and sometimes wait. A lot of people are doing just that, now, because of the economy. It’s one of the big issues. When you have a weak economy you know there is going to be poverty and a lot more desperate people.
Someone came into the church and stole three collections just last night, so this is my second interview today. Tonight I’m going to be on the Channel 25 news. My headline, which I prefaced over this last weekend, was that desperate people do desperate things. The person was caught on the surveillance camera. So people are going to take a lot more risks. And the risk behaviors are going to cause a lot of consequences for people across the board.
I don’t think some have realized the change in the community. It was in some respects Pleasantville, or Mayberry, but it’s just not that way anymore. You have to lock your house. You have to lock your car. If you don’t you’re setting yourself up
You were speaking about service, and while waiting for you I noticed a picture of a Father Simmons, leading students against the Vietnam war in 1970. A few days ago, as well, there was a downtown protest here in Peoria for gays rights, spurred by the enacting, on election day, of California’s proposition eight. A priest was also there. Will you talk a little about activism?
Oh sure. In all of those gay-rights issues, it’s about equality. I don’t know why anybody… They need to change their end goals. Take that word, “marriage,” out of it. Marriage, really, belongs to religion. Its roots are in religion. They are two different things.
Protesters against Proposition 8, November 8, 2008, Chicago, IL
Men and women come to me as couples and say, “We’d like to get married in the Catholic Church.” Okay. But they need to get a civil license too. If they want the Church to bless their marriage, we’ll be happy to do that. The unions proposed for gays are really about the separation between church and state. I have friends that are gay and I’m not ashamed to say that. I’ve known them for many years, and I was friends with a few of them before I even knew they were gay. Big deal, they’re still my friends. I think they’re very much like all the rest of us. They want to be treated fairly and equally too. But I don’t think that “marriage” is a part of that relationship. I’m not saying God isn’t a part of that relationship they have. I’m not saying God isn’t a part of their lives. But in the context of Christian marriage, it’s a marriage between a man and a woman. Civil unions. If they want their marriage to be blessed by God it’s not going to happen. In the Catholic Church, I know that. But others can bless their marriages. But, first and foremost, it is a civil union, and I think all people have that right.
And beyond this issue, to wider social issues?
I have a niece who was in Iraq for two years, from 2006 to March 2008. She’s home now. I see a noticeable difference in her, from when she left and when she came back. It’s gotten better—I’ve encouraged here to get counseling. You see a lot of terrible things there, and she shared some of that with me. She was a very typical high school/college student. She started her Army career in the National Guard, so she went away for two summers before graduating high school. So she was exposed to the outside world long before she headed to Iraq. She served as a medic, so she didn’t see a lot of the other things that necessarily ended with fighting, but did with suffering. Due to war.
She’s more distracted now. It almost seems that when yo’re talking to her she’s in another world or other land, and she’s thinking about something else. And her friends have said that too. Her mother, my grandmother, they are very, very close. When my mom and I have talked about it, it just doesn’t seem like she’s always with us. She’s someplace else. But distracted describes her best. I don’t see being angry; she doesn’t talk much about it.
I have a nephew that is now in Afghanistan, and I hear some of those same things coming back. The horror of that experience. These are two kids that are coming from very comfortable, central-Illinois home lives, and now they are international. It will benefit them in the future, for being able to broaden their horizons, but—
I do believe all people should have the right to freedom. I’m not sure however if we need to be so terribly responsible for everyone trying to acquire freedom. I feel like we’re governing the whole world by our own ideas for freedom, and I don’t think you can project it onto a particular culture. Democracy. Christianity. Because cultures have existed much longer than we have.
Can you talk about some of your conflicts, if any, when you speak?
I’m pretty moderate, actually. I don’t even like to use the word “moderate.” I just… normal? Is that it?
I would never say anything that is contrary to the Gospel. And I do this because it’s how I live. When I say I believe in equality, I mean it. Jesus made it very clear that the outcasts of his society—Gentiles, Samaritans, tax collectors, and prostitutes—could sit at the same table, and enjoy his friendship. He was meeting them. I believe that if we profess we’re following Christ Jesus, as Christians, we need to fling open the doors too invite people in to be saved. No matter their sexuality, no matter their race. No matter their creed. Invite them to be part of this gospel life that we’re all called to live. The great consequences of that are blessings for me, that his spirit it still alive.
We have a tendency in the Catholic Church, whenever something goes wrong, like the scandals or other events in the past, we always retreat into rigidity. We always retreated to rigidity. The Church typically will. After the Inquisition, after the Reformation, we called councils and then returned to a very black-and-white, rigid world. Some people like that, but the majority of people can’t live that way. Then you’re voiding out a person’s own thought process, and their conscience.
We form our own conscience, influenced by our faith, our culture, our environment. We have to be able to make the right decisions for ourselves. If someone is telling us what to do, it’s like telling a child that you can’t have that. The child is always going to want it, and then the child—as an adult—is going to get it. And maybe they really should’t have it —if they knew the why—because it will harm you.
You were in Springfield in February 2007. What led you to be there, at the State House, when Obama announced?
I was in town for a meeting, but I don’t remember what meeting it was. And I knew I was staying, so I was curious, mostly. It was so cold that day. It was like zero or something. I had met him, Obama, a few years before that—actually, I met his wife first, and then him. So just the curiosity of all that. And I had read his other book, too. So that’s why I was there. I fell into it a bit.
Barack Obama campaigning for Illinois State Senate, 1996
Of meeting Barack, it was 1997. Like I said, I met his wife first. She was in a class I was taking. Very intelligent. She articulates herself very well. I would guess, looking at the relationship, she probably runs the household. And then I had the chance to meet him through another priest. I met them at the same time, then , actually. It was at a dinner party in Chicago. He was curious about my job and learning about those types of things. He was very normal. He could sit around and play the best poker, drink three or four beers, smoke two cigarettes, and was just like everyone else. Very common, but on the flip side there was a real depth to the individual. I’m always impressed with people who say they do a lot of reading. I wish I had more time to read. I can’t imagine how he has any time to read! I have a hard time just reading the newspaper in the morning.
But I certainly wouldn’t endorse anybody. Politically— theologically, in regard to the Church—I’m not about to shoot myself in the foot. Even if I were voting for Mickey Mouse, I just don’t do those things.
These are awkward times for Catholics. Because of the whole abortion issue; the Church is speaking out now against Obama. I have said to people, “He’s our president. We want him to succeed because we want the country to succeed.”
I’m writing him a congratulations letter. I’ll wait until January to send it, of course, but in the letter I want to say to him that he and I do that agree on the abortion issue. But throughout the whole campaign he talked about change, and how this administration would bring change to our country. I believe it’s going to happen. But I also know the word “change,” translated into many Catholic minds, is “conversion.” Change of heart, basically. I’m praying that he’ll have a conversion on that whole life issue.
Saint Francis Assisi at Prayer, by Bartolome Esteban Murillo, 1645–1650
I’m going to give him some inspiration, too. We Catholics, you know, have all these saints. My favorite saint I honor, from my childhood to now, is St. Francis of Assisi. At his time of the 13th, 14th-century his culture, his country, and the Church was in great turmoil. He was a man that gave away all of his wealth, riches, and inheritance—and his father’s respect. He began to live a simple life and profess the Gospel by offering service to others in need. And then he began to transform other people by what he was doing. So there was a tremendous conversion by this Italian kid from Assisi.
***For more oral history interviews concerning the 2008 election of Barack Obama, click here: