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Bishop: unity, quest both vital

During an NCR interview in which he described Corpus Christi as “a fine parish” and the situation as “tender and sensitive,” Rochester, N.Y., Bishop Matthew H. Clark spoke of a bishop’s pastoral balancing act as he weighs the local expressions of church on the one hand and unity with Rome on the other. Excerpts follow:

NCR: For years you have probably been subject to some searing inquiries from Rome regarding Fr. James Callan and Corpus Christi Parish. Previously you undoubtedly felt pressure from Rome over another priest of your diocese, Fr. Charles Curran. Even now, as you intend to transfer Callan, you are handling it as a discussion with him -- no suspension, no orders. At the same time that you convincingly state that “we have to ensure that we not even appear to defy the legitimate authority vested in the Apostolic See of Rome,” you are also illustrating that there is a companion legitimate authority vested in the local bishop in his diocese.

Could you expand the distinctions on the local bishop’s role as you see it?

CLARK: Anytime you have a situation like this or with Fr. Charles or any other event or occurrence that raises public questions or calls you to think about your ministry, one of the themes I always come to is the responsibility of the bishop to be an active agent in securing and developing the peace and unity, the bonds of faith and charity in the local church, for one, and the great community of churches of which the Holy Father is the principal agent and visible center. In the course of the life of a parish or diocese or the church universal, that’s a continuing challenge that emerges here, there and elsewhere -- and here occasionally.

I find myself challenged by that, wanting to be, as I must be, an agent of unity and at the same time to be a person who proclaims the Word with fidelity and care and honesty. The way human affairs go, it’s not always cut and dried, clear and precise and unequivocal.

So I do what I can on the one hand to support people in their inquiry and search and try always to be supportive of pastoral judgments as they’re made on the scene.

At the same time, I try as best I can to give the signal, give the word when I think it’s going beyond where I think we can support it as a community.

Fr. Callan was at Corpus Christi for 22 years, an extremely long time.


Both he and the staff I talked to believe there is not a Callan cult, that the parish can continue its mission even as he leaves. The next pastor, of course, is in an unenviable situation. What are your hopes for Corpus Christi? And do you have some demands of it?

I have tried to say to Fr. Jim and to the parish through him and in my public statements to date that I admire and wish to continue to support the range of very fine ministries developed. That the action I’ve taken now in no way should be read as a negative statement on those ministries. I think, short run, the person who replaces Jim will have a challenge. No question about that. It is a tender situation at the moment, very sensitive. My confidence is that the parish will receive the new pastoral leader with respect and cooperation. And if that’s forthcoming, I would anticipate that the person replacing Fr. Jim would have a wonderful experience of church with the Corpus Christi community.

Do you have some demands of the parish?

Yes. I mean we’re working now to make as precise and clear as we possibly can those adjustments I want made in the parish and adjustments I expect to be made. We’ve not finished the precise formulation of those, but they’ll soon be communicated to the parish leadership team so that (a) They have a very clear expectation of what I’m asking; and (b) They have an opportunity to make whatever decisions they feel they need to make in light of those.

My hope is they will accept them in good faith over a reasonable time. Secondly, I don’t want the successor to Fr. Jim to go in and look as if he’s laying his personal agenda on the parish. I want it to be clear he’s carrying out my pastoral directives. And if he’s able to do that, I think he’ll have a fine time. It’s a good parish. It really is.

Do you expect Fr. Callan to have another parish, and have you had to defend your right to make that decision?

My concern at the moment is, and pretty clear in all that’s been said, it will not be sufficient just to make the corrections at Corpus Christi -- I think it’s pretty clear, at least implicitly, that Fr. Jim will have to make some decisions himself that, wherever he goes, he will not fail to comply with the directives I’ve made in this case.

Corpus Christi’s team knows that the parish was pushing the envelope in terms of inclusivity and intercommunion. Is it through parishes and people such as this that historically the church looks at its options, makes its decisions to move this way and that and grows into the future? Is this a glimpse of an element of the sensus fidelium [sense of the faithful]? How do you see it historically?

Of course you have to look at it over a great historical sweep. Sometimes, you know, the church discovers that through the activities of persons whose views don’t carry the day at a given time, that they were planting the seeds of the things that the church gradually adopted and made its own.

I’m very much aware of that and mindful, even as we speak, that, you know, who’s to say? All I can say is that this is my best pastoral judgment in order to keep us at a reasonable stage of unity among ourselves and with other churches. I’ve tried to be careful not to denigrate or in any way personally assault people who hold a different point of view. I’ve simply said you have to live with the consequences of your actions, and we cannot sustain certain kinds of activity with the current self- understanding of the church, its disciplines and norms and still hold it together.

I wish I had a crystal ball to see the future totally. I know I am subject to judgment as to whatever I decide today by tomorrow’s reviewers. All you can do is try to meet best the demands of your conscience at a given time.

National Catholic Reporter, August 28, 1998