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Peace talks in Rochester

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

As Rochester Bishop Matthew Clark prepared to announce the selection of a new pastoral administrator for Corpus Christi parish, signs were emerging that the conflict enveloping the church since mid-August may be headed toward resolution.

Pastoral associate Mary Ramerman met with Clark for an hour Sept. 29 and said afterward she was feeling “very hopeful.” Because of her role in liturgy, and her use of a stole that some view as priestly garb, Ramerman has become a central figure in the controversy. In a telephone interview shortly after her session with Clark, Ramerman said that it was a “very good meeting” that produced a “great dialogue.”

“We agreed to work together to work with the parish through these issues,” Ramerman said. “He agreed to come meet with the parish and staff.”

In a written statement, Clark characterized the meeting as “cordial and positive,” adding that he “is hopeful that progress will continue to be made.” Neither Ramerman nor Clark was willing to discuss specifics of their conversation.

The session comes just five days after Fr. Enrique Cadena, the sole priest on the bishop’s transition committee at Corpus Christi, resigned from the group. Cadena has worked on and off at Corpus Christi for the past 12 years. The committee was appointed to prepare the parish for a new pastor and to assure future compliance with the bishop’s guidelines on three issues: the blessing of gay unions, women wearing sacramental robes and non-Catholics receiving the Eucharist.

Cadena, according to published reports, resigned because he believed that the diocese was not open to dialogue. He feared that he would soon be asked to participate in firings of his friends and associates, including Ramerman.

Diocesan Vicar General Fr. Joseph Hart asserted that the diocese has no intention of firing anyone or forcing staff out of their jobs. Cadena’s decision to step down from the transition team, said Hart, does not affect his work at the parish.

The conflict at Corpus Christi surfaced in August when Clark removed Fr. James Callan after 22 years as pastor. During his tenure Callan brought the 110-year-old parish back from the dead and expanded its ministry to embrace the marginalized in the city, including gays and lesbians, women who felt ignored by other churches and non-Catholics. As many as 3,000 people attend Mass at Corpus Christi each weekend, and thousands participate in eight different outreach ministries.

What began as a parish battling to retain a beloved pastor escalated into an ecclesiastical tug-of-war between a bishop known for progressive views and a parish that had gone beyond what even he would allow. Callan blames Rome for Clark’s stance. Clark has maintained all along that the decision to remove Callan was his alone.

Until Clark’s meeting with Ramerman, positions appeared to be hardening. The transition team had been holding continuous meetings with staff and parishioners with few signs of progress. The parish issued a “Statement of Faith” in August, staking out ground on all three issues clearly at odds with the bishop’s position. Weekly parish meetings and standing-room-only crowds at Masses have affirmed that stance.

Charlotte Bruney and Kathleen Cannon are the remaining members of the transition team. Bruney is a pastoral administrator at St. Vincent de Paul Church in Churchville, N.Y., and Cannon is diocesan director of parish support ministries.

Though she still fears a split in the church, Bruney holds out hope for compromise. “This is a very special, precious community,” says Bruney, who came to the diocese in May from Hartford, Conn.

“They are a praying people, and that is the hope, that something creative will come out of this. But I tell them that part of praying is openness to the fact that you may not have all the truth. They feel that to compromise is a question of their own integrity, that to change would be to destroy their very selves.”

In an interview the day before the Ramerman-Clark meeting, Bruney said that the possibility that the parish would separate itself from the diocese “is a very real danger.”

“But to continue to defy the bishop leads them to that point. They continue to talk about this being their crucifixion, and I remind them how hard Jesus prayed that if there were any way this cup could pass from him, let it be done. There is a certain rigidity here that sometimes almost reeks of fundamentalism. When they quote from the Bible, they tell you that they know what Jesus wants. Some of us think that maybe Jesus is a little more complicated than that.”

One point of unity, ironically enough, may be Ramerman herself. When asked about the possibility that Ramerman might be dismissed, Bruney says, “I hope it won’t come to that. It would be a great loss. I listened to her preach (last) week, on the story of Lazarus. Ninety-five percent of priests who preached that gospel could look to her for lessons on how to do it.”

The outlines of an agreement that would avoid a split within the diocese but allow Corpus Christi to continue its ministry is by no means clear. Just hours before her meeting with the bishop, things were so polarized that Ramerman described the bishop’s transition team as “an occupying force” in the parish house, and tension was high.

On Oct. 24, the parish will be celebrating Callan’s 24th anniversary of ordination, on the feast of St. Francis. Callan, who is on temporary assignment in the small town of Elmira, will be in the pews. “I’ve been asked by the diocese to come to the party but not to celebrate Mass,” he said.

Ramerman plans to speak to the congregation about her meeting with the bishop. In the coming weeks there will be a series of three meetings, each one bringing in outside experts to talk on the three major points of contention.

The parish staff has suggested that a mediator be brought in to assist with ongoing discussions, a step diocesan officials have welcomed. “This agreement in itself,” says Ramerman, “is a hopeful sign.”

Bruney, who has long worked for the cause of women in ministry, is still working, praying and hoping for some sort of compromise. “It is very ironic that the ultraconservatives who have been writing to the Vatican and sending videotapes are sitting back and watching the liberals tear one another apart. Those of us who believe in the issues that this parish stands up for but not the methods it is using are very saddened by this.”

National Catholic Reporter, October 9, 1998