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Parish lives an active Christianity geared to corporal works of mercy

NCR Staff
Rochester, N.Y.

Fr. James B. Callan has a woman problem. No, not what you think. The problem is women on the altar. He thinks they belong there and encourages them.

The downside is that the right-wing newspaper The Wanderer regularly hyperventilates about Corpus Christi parish. Catholics United for the Faith -- CUF -- has videotaped Callan's sermons. And Rome has intermittently rained letters on the head of Callan's long-suffering superior, Rochester's Bishop Matthew H. Clark.

Even Callan doesn't know the extent to which Clark holds a protective umbrella over him. The Wanderer says it's because the parish weekly collection is $12,000-$15,000. But the umbrella was up when there was little income -- and Callan was considered trouble from the day he was ordained: Support for the ordination of women was his first homily.

Then came his first assignment in Elmira, N.Y. He was 26, and it was 1974. He brought in altar girls, had women on the altar serving communion. "I felt [the then bishop, Bishop Joseph Hogan] gave me a mandate to renew the southern part of the diocese," said Callan. His Elmira pastor thought otherwise and gave Callan the boot.

Callan's parents were mortified. They'd been mortified before and would be again.

After Elmira, Callan refused to take up residence at his next assignment because the rectory with its cooks and cleaners was too posh.

The bishop suspended him from the priesthood. Mrs. Callan warned him, "Jimmy, watch out. The girls will be after you now they think you're no longer a priest."

But Callan kept turning up at diocesan functions. Hogan reinstated him and sent him to Corpus Christi, almost half a lifetime ago for Callan.

Even there -- well, this is how the pastoral team was listed in a recent parish bulletin: "Jesus Christ, pastor; Rev. James B. Callan, administrator; Mary Anne Ramerman, associate pastor; Rev. Enrique Cadena, associate pastor."

Cadena, whom Callan met in Tabasco, Mexico, during the one month he thought he might be a foreign missioner, has just moved to Vancouver to lead a Hispanic ministry there.

Cadena's Monday Mass will become a communion service led by Mary Anne Ramerman. She will preach as she does on Wednesday.

She and Cadena were responsible for one of Callan's larger flaps a few years back when Cadena asked her to hold up the chalice. There were meetings, theologians came, there were discussions, some people left, even more started to come. The upshot was that the parish presented Ramerman with a stole.

Things just happen at Corpus Christi.

The ministry to gays began in 1982 when Callan was asked to anoint a gay person dying of AIDS. "I went up there with fear and trepidation," he said. "I heard that you could get AIDS from bodily fluids and they asked me to say the blessing. His forehead was covered with sweat and I just figured, 'Okay, that's bodily fluids. If I touch that, that's it.'

"I remember his friends were around the bed and they were just being so normal about everything that they helped me," Callan said. "So, anyway, I remember taking a deep breath, putting my hand on his forehead and just saying, 'All right, this is it. If I get it, I get it. The hell with it.' That was a breakthrough. It's like you face your fears and you work through it.

"We were one of the very few churches that would even bury people with AIDS. I mean, it's sad to say but that's true," he said. "But that was no big deal for us to bury somebody, for heaven's sake."

Members of the local gay community kept showing up at funerals, "And we got to know them," said Callan, "and it was very sad because the community was diminishing. Anyway the word spread that this is the place you can count on to be anointed. A lot of times we used the funerals to apologize to them."

The priest said the community would apologize to the gay community and to the person that died that the church "wasn't there for you when you needed us. Please forgive us." Then one day a gay man said to Callan, "You know, Corpus Christi is getting the reputation for being a good place to die from. Why can't it be a place where we can live from?"

Callan responded as he usually does to anyone with an idea: Would you like to start the gay ministry to meet once a month, to welcome anybody -- homosexuals, heterosexuals -- just to talk about the issues that nobody talks about?

"Parents might come and say, 'How do I deal with my lesbian daughter? What do I say?' They're so happy to hear someone say, 'Here's what you need.' It's a lot of good exchanges. Just honesty. And just the fact that we announce that the gay ministry meeting will be on Monday night sends a signal to everybody that this is the place where everybody is welcome no matter what."

Although Jesus is the center of everything, said Callan, and although he looks for Jesus in everyone, he has a bit of difficulty seeing him in "people who want to spend a lot of time talking. I'd rather just give them a sandwich." Like the time he was rushing to get to Mass and a slow old man wanted to talk and delayed him and delayed him. And finally he realized the Jesus in this man was telling something. So he stopped rushing and remained listening. Prayer life has to include a cup of coffee.

"During Advent I light a candle in the morning and just look at the candle and drink coffee, of course. You've got to have coffee to pray. My favorite way to pray is to get a cup of coffee and walk around the church. I love that," he said. "All my problems disappear. There's a gospel song that says, 'Just a little talk with Jesus makes it right.' When the day gets worse and worse, I go out there and walk around with a cup of coffee. The coffee becomes a sacrament."

Later in the day Callan was leaning on the counter at the health clinic.

He loves this place.

"Ten dollars here, $15 there," he said, "It took like $104,000 all together over two years but we collected it slowly and opened it up with two nurses in charge. It's one of the few clinics run by nurses instead of doctors. It's a holistic health center. Serves 11,000 people right now -- Mostly people who fall through the cracks. People who don't have health insurance, basically the working poor. The lowest rung of people have Medicare."

There's also AIDS testing and blood pressure clinics, AA groups, NA groups and family therapy. There are 100 volunteers and a paid staff of only three people -- including Eileen Hurley, clinic director.

Hurley, recently engaged to Patrick Trevor, who founded and helped build Corpus Christi parish's clinic in Haiti, came aboard in 1991.

A registered nurse and a social worker, Hurley said that often the social situations the center deals with are more devastating than the health problems, although there are serious health problems.

"Last week a woman we've been treating for hypertension came in. She was on the edge and said she had no reason to go on living," Hurley said. "We were able to get her to emergency psychiatric care. When she called back later to thank us," Hurley said, "it wasn't for any words we'd said or our medical expertise. She said, 'Thank you all for your love.' "

Does God fit in somewhere?

"Yes, every day, every minute," Hurley said. "This center is in an impoverished city neighborhood. We've sat on this corner for 20 years, a place where poor meets rich, black meets white, all kinds of faith traditions -- staff -- people coming for care -- keeps a life force going.

"I'm disjointed," she said. "Let me try to find the words here." She paused for a while. "It's not to say it's not difficult at times. It is. But somehow there are people meeting and having experiences they might not otherwise have in ordinary life. In our joining there really is an abundance. There really is. I haven't quite figured it out yet."

Neither has Callan.

What if it all stops? What if Clark is named to succeed Cardinal John O'Connor in New York and a new bishop comes in and moves Callan out?

Callan was back at his tiny, jumbled house. Elderly Josephina Danieli left it to the parish when she died. There's a black-and-white picture of her and her husband, Benny, on the kitchen wall. Callan lives here. It's also a parish retreat center.

His piano is here. He likes Bach.

What if?

"We've had women preachers since 1976," he said. "Every other week a woman preaches. We try to balance off -- up on the altar visually. It's important to see balance. Blacks and whites, women and men, young and old."

There was no coffee in the pot.

"I've gone to plenty of funerals where you see 16 priests concelebrating, and a deacon and altar boys," he said. There was coffee at the parish center. Obviously we'd head back there soon.

"It's important to just do something good for the short time that we're here on this earth. Important to just do something beautiful," he said. "I think if you can do something for 20 years or 40 years and it's beautiful, does it really matter what happens after?"

Back at the parish center he filled his mug at the pot and wandered into the church to have his picture taken.

National Catholic Reporter, February 28, 1997