e-mail us
Lines drawn, issues clear, hearts ache in N.Y. parish

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Rochester, N.Y.

The doors were closed with deadbolt locks, lay ministers went on strike and angry parishioners took control of the pulpit during at least one Mass in what been the most tumultuous week to date in the ongoing crisis at Corpus Christ Parish here.

The week that began with the appointment of a new pastor at Corpus Christi ended with the firing of pastoral associate Mary Ramerman, a new challenge to the bishop’s authority by assistant pastor Fr. Enrique Cadena, and the emergency hospitalization of Rochester Bishop Matthew Clark.

Clark, 61, was taken to Park Ridge Hospital Oct. 16, after falling ill during a racquetball game. Doctors ruled out a heart attack, but discovered an irregular heartbeat and installed a pacemaker Oct. 19 to regulate his heartbeat. Hospital officials said the bishop’s condition was stable.

The bishop had visited Corpus Christi Oct. 6, and spoke to the congregation and staff. “I have been concerned for some time . . . that the norms of our church had been set aside and replaced by norms devised by Corpus Christi,” he told them. “Three practices have received most public attention. They are certain aspects of Eucharistic hospitality, parish outreach to gay and lesbian persons, and some liturgical practices.“ Parish practices had included inviting non-Catholics to receive Communion and blessing homosexual unions. He also noted that the congregation has intentionally omitted the Nicene Creed for several years.

Bridging the gap

On Oct. 10, Clark appointed Fr. Daniel McMullin, a former Benedictine monk , to fill the pastor’s job, effective Nov. 1. In published accounts McMullin indicated that he wanted to bridge the gap between Clark and Corpus Christi, which he called a “prophetic community.” Regarding Ramerman’s role and the controversial half-stole she has worn at the altar, he insisted that she would have to obey the bishop but expressed a desire for dialogue. However before the two had the chance to meet, Ramerman was fired.

Two days before McMullin was to say his first Mass at Corpus Christi Oct. 17, Ramerman was asked to meet with Charlotte Bruney and Kathleen Cannon. Cannon and Bruney are both diocesan administrators assigned to a transition team to administer Corpus Christi following the transfer of Fr. James Callan in August. A third member of the transition team, Fr. Enrique Cadena, resigned in late September, concerned that the team would fire other staff members, Ramerman included.

At the end of the meeting, the diocese issued a statement saying that Ramerman was no longer on the staff at Corpus Christi. She was given 24 hours to empty her belongings from her office at the parish house. While Bruney agreed that the treatment was harsh, she noted that it was in accordance with diocesan policy. “When someone is fired for insubordination, this is what you expect,” she said in a telephone interview. Bruney also said that Ramerman would not be allowed to work at any church in the diocese.

According to Ramerman, who had worked at the parish for 15 years, she was willing to comply with Clark’s order not to say Eucharistic prayers, and had come to an agreement with the bishop regarding the half-stole. “They went on to ask if I would go nowhere near the altar at all,” said Ramerman. She said she could not comply with that. “I expressed my concern about that, because historically women were not allowed to go near the altar because they were [considered] unclean. I said that ‘as a church, we need to counteract that attitude toward women.’ ”

Bruney said that she and Cannon had only insisted that Ramerman stay away from the celebrant’s position on the altar, and refrain from gestures and words that indicated concelebration or participation in the Consecration.

In protest, Cadena invited the entire congregation to participate in the Eucharistic Blessing at the evening Mass Oct. 15. Referring to Ramerman’s dismissal, he said, “They have taken one from me, now I need 100 more to help.” It has been the custom at Corpus Christi for the congregation to crowd around the altar for the Consecration. At this Mass, nearly 200 women did so. Earlier two teenage girls were asked to hold chalices during the offertory prayers. “These are the next generation,” Cadena said.

Cadena told the congregation that soon they would all have to learn the prayers of consecration, because there would not be enough priests to go around. Then the congregation joined in saying the prayers of consecration in unison. Ramerman’s controversial alb and half stole lay draped over a chair on the altar.

Bruney suggested that the honorable thing for Cadena to do would be to resign. “I just wish he would handle this honorably,” said Bruney, who had not been at the Mass. Bruney said when she and McMullin arrived for Saturday night Mass Oct. 17, they found the church locked with dead bolts and had to “scramble around” to find keys to get into the church.

Talk of schism

By week’s end, talk of schism was more and more in the air. Months of dialogue, meetings and an educational series on the three major issues have not helped the community find common ground. The “Spring Committee,” a group within the parish, is raising funds separate from the parish treasury. Ramerman suggested in an interview that while she would like to continue in ministry as a Catholic, she saw few possibilities now that she had been fired.

During his Oct. 6 presentation, Clark addressed the issue of schism, asking the congregation, “Is your identity as a worshipping, serving Roman Catholic parish near and dear to your hearts? I have always thought the answer to that question was a strong yes. But is it not true that there has been some talk here of a post denominational church? By that I understand one in which love of Jesus becomes the sole requirement for membership... I certainly hope and pray that this is not the case.”

McMullin’s first weekend at the parish was overshadowed by anger over Ramerman’s dismissal. Somber organ music replaced the usually lively musical arrangements. Black ribbons replaced the yellow ribbons parishioners had draped about the church calling for Callan’s return. Cadena did not participate in liturgy, and was unavailable for comment.

Bruney described the behavior of some parishioners as rude and awful, and said that she had been personally insulted by people as she distributed Communion. “It was church at its ugliest,” she said.

However,Bruney saw signs of hope in the response of parishioners to the disruption of weekend Mass. “My phone was ringing off the hook Sunday night with people calling to offer support, saying that they were outraged with what had happened at Mass,” she said. “Even reasonable people can see that their methods have gone too far. I hope that this is a turning point and that the voices that have been silenced by the mob rule that has been going on at Corpus Christi may now begin to speak up.”

Ramerman found room for hope by looking to history. “I can’t stay in the Catholic church as a minister if I can’t speak out on conscience,” she said. “I’m a Catholic convert. I chose Catholicism. What I’ve always loved about Catholicism is that for every moment like this, what I would call a moment of darkness, there are always moments of light -- St. Francis, Teresa of Avila and Archbishop [Oscar] Romero, who call the church back to what it can be. My preference is to stay Catholic. If I’m forced to give up my religion, I plan to keep my faith.”

National Catholic Reporter, October 30, 1998