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Priests, parishioners excommunicated

NCR Staff

Two Catholic priests and hundreds of former members of Corpus Christi Parish in Rochester, N.Y., have been excommunicated by the Rochester, N.Y., diocese following an announcement that they are starting a new church.

The excommunication order was issued by Bishop Matthew Clark on Feb. 24. The priests were also warned that continued disobedience could get them defrocked.

One of the priests, Fr. James Callan, was removed from Corpus Christi in August for violating church rules and suspended in December for failing to comply with a diocesan directive to avoid his former parishioners.

Callan and Fr. Enrique Cadena, another priest associated with the new church, said they were disappointed by the excommunication order but would not change their course.

“I am upset that it has come to this extreme,” Cadena said. “I think that we in the Catholic church have always had room for conservatives and liberals. Now our community, which was looking for a new model of church, is considered out.”

Cadena said he and Callan would follow their “commitment to walk with the people.” He said the priests would defy the excommunication order and begin celebrating Mass. Previously, the priests had led Communion services, distributing already consecrated hosts.

“By doing only the Communion services, we were hoping for reconciliation,” Cadena said. “Now we don’t have to be bound by the regulations of the institution.”

Excommunicated Catholics are officially barred from receiving the sacraments of the church.

Chava Redonnet, one of the excommunicated Catholics, said she felt “profoundly peaceful” and grateful for her faith community. Redonnet stressed that the group are not Callan’s followers, as they are often described in news reports, but initiators of the new church. “Jim is coming with us,” she said. “If we were not doing this, Jim would not be doing it.”

Lee Vester, a leader of the new church, said the group will soon vote on a new name. A significant percentage of Corpus Christi parish are among the approximately 1,100 members of the new congregation, she said. Vester estimates that at least 30 percent of the new group’s members are, like herself, non-Catholics who had been attracted to Corpus Christi by its vibrant ministries. Over 22 years, Callan had built a dying inner-city parish into a large, thriving congregation.

Callan was removed as pastor of Corpus Christi in August after ignoring orders to stop such practices as distributing Communion to non-Catholics, blessing same-sex unions and allowing a female pastoral associate, Mary Ramerman, to perform some functions at the altar.

He was suspended in December when he began worshiping with the former parishioners.

The excommunication order was issued 10 days after the announcement that the new church would begin holding Sunday services in space leased from a Protestant church. The order came the same day as the filing of a lawsuit by four former staff members who were fired from Corpus Christi in December.

Fr. Kevin McKenna, chancellor of the Rochester diocese, said in a statement that Callan and others who had joined the new church had brought the excommunication penalty on themselves. “By starting this new church, a schism has occurred,” he said. Seventy percent of the group are Roman Catholics.

“For the priests involved, a further step could be dismissal from the clerical state,” McKenna said. He said Bishop Clark would be “very reluctant” to take that step.

“We continue to pray for Fr. Callan and his followers to return to the church,” McKenna said.

The four former Corpus Christi staffers who sued the diocese, Corpus Christi Parish and the bishop, accused the defendants of wrongful breach of contract. Before leaving Corpus Christi in September, Callan had approved one-year contracts. The plaintiffs are seeking 10 months of pay and benefits.

National Catholic Reporter, March 5, 1999