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The body of Christ torn asunder on ‘gray day’ in Rochester

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

Corpus Christi, the body of Christ, has been torn asunder, and the word around Rochester, N.Y., is “tragic, sad, but not surprised.”

The dissident group that split from Corpus Christi Parish, a parish that rose from the ashes of an all-but-abandoned downtown Rochester church to embrace thousands of worshipers and inspire dozens of ministries, has been declared formally to be in schism by the Rochester diocese. The diocesan notice, served Feb. 25, warns that those who join with the schismatic church, led by Frs. James Callan and Enrique Cadena and Lay Pastor Mary Ramerman, risk excommunication.

The community that once was Corpus Christi has divided itself into three nearly equal parts. One group remains at the old Corpus Christi, which is now served by Fr. Daniel McMullin and Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet Sue Hoffman.

A second group, led by Ramerman, Callan and Cadena, worship at their own services at the Salem United Church of Christ. The group has incorporated, is about to sign a yearlong lease and is sorting through issues such as settling on a name (166 proposals have been offered) and deciding if and how it will celebrate the Eucharist.

A third group of parishioners have gone off to find their own way -- either at other Catholic parishes, in Protestant churches or by staying home. “There are a lot of people left confused or angry or hurt,” said McMullin. “So many people here have either decided to seek another parish closer to where they live, to look for another community or simply not to do anything.”

The congregation’s trauma began in August of last year when Rochester Bishop Matthew Clark announced Callan’s transfer after 23 years as pastor. Callan went public with charges that the Vatican had forced Clark to move him, charges the bishop denied. At the same time, Clark’s insistence that the parish obey church teachings on the blessing of gay couples, eucharistic hospitality and the role of women in liturgy met stiff resistance. A diocesan-appointed team was sent in to manage the parish while the bishop pondered the selection of Callan’s successor. Cadena quit that transition team, backed Callan and then watched as Ramerman was fired without notice or severance benefits the same week that McMullin was named pastor. Callan was suspended and Cadena placed on leave.

In the ensuing months McMullin, with Clark’s support, fired most of the remaining pastoral staff, revamped the liturgy and watched as two-thirds of his parish walked away.

“Liturgy here is now recognizable as part of the Roman Catholic tradition,” McMullin said. “Some people say it’s rather staid, but we have a sung responsorial psalm, sung eucharistic prayer and lots of involvement.

“We’re keeping the boat afloat,” he said in a telephone interview shortly after the public announcement of excommunication.

“It’s a gray day,” he said, but the announcement was not surprising. “This is the result of a choice that people made to disassociate themselves from the bishop and the church.”

What hangs in the balance is not just the pastoral ministry but an outreach ministry that is vital to the lives of thousands of people in the community. While all the parish ministries continue to operate, participants on both sides have hinted that changes may be in the offing, suggesting that the struggles that took over the liturgical life of the parish may threaten to engulf the outreach ministries as well.

It is still not clear what exactly the impact of the excommunication notice might be. In fact, no one individual has been excommunicated; a schism has been declared. Neither diocesan officials nor several priests contacted could say precisely what practical impact this would have.

It may mean that Callan, who remains defiant, almost cavalier, in the face of this latest trial, will soon begin to celebrate the Eucharist with the new faith community. To date, the community has been holding eucharistic services with bread and wine consecrated elsewhere and has not held consecration at the altar.

Could the tensions that blew Corpus Christi apart have been managed any differently? Can a parish that takes its mission seriously and comes into conflict with the church hierarchy live out its faith and still remain within the church?

“I’m sure there were some tactical errors,” said Charlotte Bruney, who served for seven weeks last year as part of the transition team after Callan’s transfer. “But it was clear that the intent was to form a new church outside the structure of the Catholic church as we know it. I’m not sure that there was anything that could have been done differently. Especially after Mary Ramerman was fired. The only surprise is that it took this long.”

Bruney has since returned to full-time work as pastoral administrator of St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Churchville, 20 miles from Rochester, where she said that Corpus Christi is very much on people’s minds. “I have not held a conversation in the last six days that Corpus Christi has not come into. Even when I go to bring Communion to the homebound, that’s what they ask me about.”

For his part, McMullin said that he has not yet had the opportunity to look back at the experience and analyze it. “I can wish that I had been better prepared for the depth of emotion that was here,” McMullin said. “There is an incredible sadness, anger and confusion.”

A diocesan official who preferred not to be named put it more bluntly. Asked if the diocese could have done anything differently, he said no. “Callan made this decision and brought this upon himself.”

When asked if he had any plans to work on reconciliation between the groups, McMullin said that he believed that such reconciliation needed to take place on a personal level. “There are families, friends who have been torn apart by this. They need to begin to communicate, to heal.” Asked if a person who had joined the new faith community could receive the Eucharist at Corpus Christi, McMullin was uncertain but indicated that he believed that the sacrament of reconciliation would be a prerequisite.

Jim Ramerman, whose wife, Mary, has been central to the events, said at a recent dinner to benefit the prison ministry, attended by people on both sides of the controversy, that there was friendly conversation between people who have made different choices. “That’s how we want it to be,” he said.

Rochester’s Episcopal bishop, William G. Burrill, called the latest turn of events a “tragedy.”

“Obviously, Jim Callan acts in that prophetic role,” he said. “People who follow him think of him as a prophet. The tragedy is that this divides the church. ... Only time will tell whether the prophet or anyone is right or wrong.”

Some of Corpus Christi's parishioners maintain a Web site in support of Fr. Callan.

  • Friends of Corpus Christi Faith Community of Rochester, New York Web site http://www.corpus-christi-friends.org/

National Catholic Reporter, March 12, 1999