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Pastor of liberal parish blames transfer on Rome

NCR Staff

It was no ordinary announcement of a transfer of a popular pastor. In 22 years Fr. James Callan, 50, has seen Corpus Christi Parish grow from a church about to close to a church from which an energetic Christian community of several thousand reaches out to the poor, the dying, the incarcerated and the oppressed.

Within the parish, the ministerial team and community have built up levels of inclusivity and welcome that, they admit, have “pushed the envelope” on what it means to be Catholic Christians -- inviting the third of parishioners who are not Catholics to the Eucharist and making the gay and lesbian community full members of the parish family. On the altar, women -- most notably associate pastor Mary Ann Ramerman -- preside at Communion services (wearing a half-stole fastened to one shoulder) and they preach.

Callan, on instructions from his bishop, Rochester’s Matthew H. Clark, must now accept a transfer.

Clark, who has long been under pressure from Rome regarding Callan and Corpus Christi, said the transfer decision is his. Callan’s understanding is that the move follows a July 23 letter to Clark from Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Clark says not.

“Various Vatican congregations,” the bishop said in an Aug. 17 statement, have long inquired “about some of the liturgical and pastoral practices at Corpus Christi” and “it is true that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has expressed concerns about Fr. Callan’s recent book.” (Can’t Hold Back the Spring: the Blossoming of Corpus Christi Church, was published by Mercury Print Productions, Rochester, 1997.)

In the days following the decision, both Callan and Clark urged support for a successful transition to a new pastor. What isn’t clear is what was said Aug. 13 when Clark told Callan he has two months before his transfer. In the priest’s version, Clark told Callan, “You know the issues.” Callan agreed that he did. Callan said he did not see the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith letter. He said that apparently Rome wants his successor to be “trustworthy” and a priest, not a lay administrator.

Knew it was coming

Callan told NCR Aug. 17, “Deep in my heart I always knew this day would come -- and was always hoping it wouldn’t. We used to joke about it, and the longer I stayed here, I think, the more everybody hoped that Bishop Clark would just keep covering. He’s always been good [at] holding the umbrella over us -- I hope he continues doing that.” The priest believes the purported Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith letter was aimed as much at Clark as it was at him.

Callan first announced his departure at the 5 p.m. Mass on Saturday, Aug. 15. By Sunday morning, it was the lead story in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle. Sunday Masses were standing room only. That evening more than 1,300 parishioners spent from 6 till after 9:30 in a packed meeting, described by associate pastor Ramerman as “very beautiful, lots of tears but first of all a lot of love for Jim.”

“There certainly was anger, and we didn’t try to stop the anger at all,” said Ramerman, “but there was no vengefulness. People said, ‘My first thought was, “I’m out of here,” ’ but then then they realized how precious Corpus Christi is. They talked a lot about the outreaches to the people we serve -- story after story -- and said we cannot abandon those people.”

At the meeting, Ramerman said, “a lot of people said we should strategize ways for when a new priest comes in to let him know this is our church and this is what we believe.”

Callan described the Sunday night meeting as a “a wonderful display of community, from the the healthy expressions of outrage and sorrow, to the staff, one by one, saying, ‘I’m staying. This is not the church of Fr. Callan or the next priest, this is our church.’ The parishioners eventually said the same thing. ‘We’re not going to leave. Why should we leave? This is our dream, not just Father Jim’s dream.’ ”

The test of any community is crisis -- “and I’m real, real proud of the people,” Callan said.

“There was no sense of retribution. No nastiness at all. No bitterness. And it’s not as if they’re passive. There’s fight in them. The gay people got up and said, ‘Father Jim was our voice when we had no voice. Now we have our own voice.’ They gave testimony. It was the first time they’d ever gone before 1,300 people to do that. So already good things are happening,” Callan said.

Ramerman is one who will stay. “My heart is broken,” she said. “It’s very sad. We really work as a team -- the whole staff. We’re all devastated. It’s like losing a father.”

Ramerman and her husband, Jim, came to Corpus Christi from California to be parish ministers 16 years ago. Jim is now a self-employed consultant on conflict resolution. They have an 18-year-old son.

Ramerman said she knows why the Vatican is upset. “My role in the church. Particularly they’re upset that I wear an alb and a stole. In May there was a picture in the paper at a communion service with another staff member, and she was holding up the bread and wine. They’re upset about that.”

Parishioners have known for years that local Catholic reactionaries and national right-wing Catholic groups and publications have bombarded Rome with tapes, transcripts, newspaper clippings and videos concerning Corpus Christi.

Ramerman said, “We knew videos and things had been sent. I guess I didn’t realize the extent to which this very small group of people organized to get everything out,” she said. “My hope is to stay and keep working, depending of course on who comes in.”

At a parish meeting Aug. 18, members reaffirmed principles guiding parish life. Those present said Corpus Christi Parish is a community that supports full participation of women and homosexuals in the liturgy and administration of the church, full participation of Protestants and Catholics together in the partaking of the Eucharist, and is committed to nonviolence and peaceful action.

According to Jim Smith, staff member of 18 years, the group also decided on four guidelines for acting in light of Callan’s dismissal:

  • We are to act in every way as Jesus would have.
  • We are an inclusive community and will remain committed to this inclusivity, as well as to each other.
  • We will act positively, without hate, bitterness or undue interference in other people’s worship or lives.
  • We will make every effort to remain within the Catholic church.

‘My decision’

Clark did not attend the meeting. He issued a statement in which he said, “I was surprised to read about my conversation with Fr. Callan, which I considered a privileged conversation between a bishop and a priest about a personnel matter, in the newspaper [and] surprised this reassignment is construed as a ‘firing’ by Cardinal Ratzinger.

“The decision to invite Jim to new ministry is mine. My purpose is to make some adjustments in parish life. I judge these changes necessary for the stability of the parish, for ecumenical and interfaith relationships which honor both our church guidelines and the sensitivities of other groups to ensure that we not even appear to defy the legitimate authority vested in the Apostolic See of Rome.”

Told about Clark’s statement that the decision was his, not Ratzinger’s, Callan said, “Holy Cow! Did he really say that? Well, he told me Ratzinger wrote him a letter, and that’s my understanding. And that’s why I’m being ordered out.”

Clark in his statement acknowledged Callan’s “dedicated leadership” and “its extraordinary results in terms of social outreach.”

There is a “transition process” underway for Callan’s new assignment, and Callan said he hoped for another poor city church. Said Clark, “I recognize it is a difficult time for the parish.” How difficult may not be revealed until the new pastor arrives.

Margaret Whittman, supervising sacristan, described Corpus Christi as “the only church where a lot of people found acceptance for who they are and where they are. This community is built on the people’s stories of why they’re here.”

She continued, “Jim [Callan] asked them, ‘Don’t follow me wherever I go. It’s your church. Stay here. Don’t let the things fall apart we spent so long putting together.’

“Jim said to the people, ‘Our whole mindset and soulset, don’t let that be destroyed. Don’t go running off somewhere and say you’re leaving the church. Don’t do that. Stay here. It’s not about me, it’s about the church, because we’re a little further ahead of other parts of the church -- it’ll catch up eventually.

“Jim said, ‘In 10 years this will all look silly,’ ” Whittman recalled. “He said, ‘In 10 years we’ll have married priests, we’ll have women priests, we’ll have interfaith communion.’ ”

The elderly sacristan said she was “trying to be as optimistic as Fr Jim.”

But she was crying when she said it.

National Catholic Reporter, August 28, 1998