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Former Corpus Christi leaders reject schism

NCR Staff

Rejecting suggestions that they’ve triggered a schism and excommunication, leaders of the approximately 1,000 former members of Corpus Christi Parish in Rochester, N.Y., who’ve been holding their own services in a nearby church building, say they intend to “stay Catholic.”

“We’re looking at a Catholic church in parallel, in exile from the church. We’re hoping that in 10 years, 20 years from now, we’ll be back,” said Fr. Jim Callan, the former pastor suspended by Bishop Matthew Clark.

Callan and Mary Ramerman, another former administrator at Corpus Christi, spoke at a Call To Action ecumenical conference here March 6. Held at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral on the edge of downtown Phoenix, the conference provided Ramerman and Callan a forum to tell their side of the conflict that has split the once thriving inner-city Rochester parish.

Clark declared Callan, Ramerman and 1,000 other former members of Corpus Christi to be in schism from the Catholic church on Feb. 25.

The group holds weekday Communion services at the nearby United Church of Christ as they ponder their next move. “We’ve been thinking now that we’re excommunicated, we might as well have Mass,” Callan said. As of March 5, however, they have yet to do so. The diocese has warned that if Callan does perform consecration, Clark may take the further step of defrocking him. That is a concern, Callan said.

Financially, the new faith community is in excellent shape. According to The Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, it has averaged nearly $12,000 in weekly collections and continues to offer support to social outreach ministries begun by Corpus Christi.

Events leading up to the notice of schism began in August 1998, when Bishop Clark transferred Callan, who had been at Corpus Christi for 22 years. In that time, the church had grown from 600 to over 3,000 parishioners.

Callan was transferred for violating church rules, specifically for blessing homosexual unions, giving Communion to non-Catholics and allowing Ramerman, a lay pastor, to perform functions on the altar reserved for priests, such as saying the Eucharistic Prayer.

Speaking at the question-and-answer session at the conference, Callan said of the transfer, “I thought I might continue this way from assignment to assignment. But instead of a second assignment, Clark asked for a signed retraction.”

Signing a retraction, Callan said, would be equivalent to saying, “Gee, I had a bad 20 years. What was I thinking?”

He refused the retraction and was not given another assignment.

After Callan’s transfer, Ramerman and other Corpus Christi staff members had entered into a series of talks with the diocese’s transition team about bringing the parish back into unity with church beliefs. “I was asked was I willing to compromise,” Ramerman said. She was willing to compromise on all but one point. Ramerman refused to agree to stay away from the altar.

Clark and Ramerman met Oct. 6 and agreed that some progress had been made. Despite those efforts, Ramerman said, she was fired Oct. 15 for “insubordination.” Other staff members were also fired, four of whom are suing the diocese.

Ramerman and 1,000 former Corpus Christi members, who had already begun collecting money separate from the parish treasury, began meeting outside the parish for Communion services. Callan found himself to be “a priest with no assignment,” he said. “So I decided to go to one of Mary’s eucharistic services. Then I was suspended.”

Several weeks later, the diocese issued a public statement that a schism had occurred. Callan and Ramerman read about it in the local paper.

The excommunication notice has also thrown into question Ramerman’s role in the church. Asked whether she would consider celebrating Mass herself, she said, “I’m not ordained. I think it’s very important to have prepared leaders. For myself at this point, it’s a question of whether I want to seek ordination or continue to do what I have been doing. ... But who could ordain me?”

National Catholic Reporter, March 26, 1999