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Corpus Christi breakaways thrive in new community

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

Holy Week observances brought a new twist to the saga of Corpus Christi Parish in Rochester, N.Y., when for the first time the New Faith Community celebrated a full Mass, including the consecration of the Eucharist by two suspended priests, Frs. James Callan and Enrique Cadena.

The New Faith Community, formally created in February, grew out of alternative services held at various sites since last October. Its members are largely former Corpus Christi parishioners dissatisfied with the August 1998 transfer of Callan and the subsequent insistence by Bishop Matthew Clark that the parish change certain practices to bring them into conformity with Catholic teaching.

The key disputed issues were the role of women at the altar, blessing gay and lesbian unions, and inviting non-Catholics to receive Communion.

Creation of the New Faith Community led the Rochester diocese to declare a schism in the church and warn that the leadership of the community had excommunicated themselves.

By all appearances, the new community is thriving. The group has rented a sanctuary at a local Protestant church, hired a staff of 10 people, and are in the process of selecting a permanent name. More than 1,000 people regularly attend their services, and weekly collections regularly surpass $10,000.

Until this week, the New Faith Community had been celebrating eucharistic services with hosts “consecrated elsewhere.” But during Holy Week the suspended priests began saying Mass. On Holy Thursday, as they consecrated the Eucharist on the stage of a recital hall at the Hochstein Music School, Callan and members of the new community raised the stakes in the struggle with the Rochester diocese and with Rome.

A buzz of excitement filled the Harro East Ballroom, rented by the New Faith Community for its Easter morning services, as people greeted one another. A music group 27 strong warmed up on stage, and a parade of two dozen children waving palms prepared to join the opening procession.

The folding chairs on the dance floor and balcony were full. Mary Ramerman, greeted the crowd and led opening prayers wearing a white alb and the half stole that played a crucial role in her firing by Corpus Christi where she had served 11 years as a pastoral worker. Ramerman is now the pastoral administrator at the New Faith Community, listed above pastoral associates Callan and Cadena and below pastor Jesus Christ on the community’s letterhead.

In his Easter homily, Cadena told the story of a little girl who always wanted to climb a tree, but was not allowed to do so by her father. She watched for years as her brothers climbed the tree and built a clubhouse but was told that this was something for boys to do, not little girls. One morning she woke up before everyone else and climbed the tree by herself.

‘We are in the tree’

“You must have a vision,” Cadena said. “You must have a dream. Like the woman walking toward the tomb on Easter morning who had a vision and a hope that had been maintained for thousands of years. In order to walk toward a new reality, we need a new vision.” Right now, he said, “we are in the tree.”

At the consecration, Callan, holding the ciborium and flanked by Ramerman and Cadena, each raising chalices, invited the congregation to join in saying the words of consecration. In a strong voice the gathered flock recited:

“Take this and eat it, this is my body.”

“Take this and drink from it, this is my blood.”

“The Eucharist was consecrated by ordained ministers,” said Cadena, a former Missioner of the Holy Spirit who was undergoing transfer to the diocese until the upheaval of the parish. “The idea that we are trying to represent by having everyone share in the prayers is that we are all the church. We are adhering to the Catholic theology that this is Eucharist because we are ordained, but we are joining the theological discussion that asks whether it is the presence of the community of the faithful that, in fact, brings the Lord into our midst. That idea is not accepted by the Catholic church but that is the question we are raising.”

After a eucharistic prayer that included prayers for “Our pope, for Bishop Clark, for people of all religions and no religion at all,” Callan invited everyone to the table, “in the name of Jesus Christ, the most inclusive person who ever walked the face of the earth. If you need the healing and the love of Jesus Christ and you are willing to take that love to others, you are welcome at this table.”

That sort of invitation had been another issue that Clark had called upon Corpus Christi to change.

The diocesan reaction to the consecration has been surprisingly mild. In an interview with NCR prior to Holy Week (see related story), Clark said that he “deeply and sincerely” hoped that the new church would not consecrate the Eucharist, adding that “it would seriously aggravate the situation.” Asked what he would do, he said he would “have to wait and see, and look at the totality. I would have to weigh its impact on the community.”

In a statement released before Holy Thursday, Diocesan Chancellor Fr. Kevin McKenna warned that Holy Communion offered at the New Faith Community could be valid but illicit.

“They’re saying that it’s valid, that it is the Body and Blood of Christ,” said Callan. “But they say it’s illicit, that we didn’t get it the right way. It’s as if you went to a reservoir and scooped a pitcher of water out and you drank it. It’s pure water, it’s good water, but they don’t want you to get it that way. They want you to pay for it at the pipe.”

A diocesan spokesperson said that the community’s Easter Mass had widened the rift, but mentioned no further action to be taken.

A middle-aged man who had attended Corpus Christi for 15 years said that it was “the feeling I get when I’m with these people” that made him decide to stay with the New Faith Community. “There’s been a lot of rhetoric and a lot of politics, but it comes down to the feeling.”

A school administrator who would identify himself only as Karl was attending the New Faith Community service for the first time. He also attends Mass at Corpus Christi. Like every one of the dozens interviewed for this article, he supported the goals of the New Faith Community. He had been reluctant until today to come to the new service because of resentment at how people had treated the new pastor at Corpus Christi Parish, Fr. Daniel McMullin.

On Easter, however, he said he was glad he came and would probably return. “What happened here today, for me, was Eucharist. It was the body of Christ.”

‘Christ defeats our fear’

Across town at Corpus Christi Church, Sr. Sue Hoffman of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Rochester preached to a church half-full. She reassured the congregation that as Easter people “we proclaim God’s love in a world bent on violence. We proclaim that death is defeated. Christ defeats our fear of death, even the fear of the death of our own parish, of the death of all the wonderful ministries we are able to do for the poor. Christ has defeated this fear.”

With his fine singing voice, ready smile and enthusiasm, McMullin appeared determined by sheer force of will to keep up the spirits of his dwindling and shell-shocked parishioners. He invited the children to encircle the altar for the Lord’s Prayer and wandered the sanctuary embracing parishioners during the Kiss of Peace.

He has sought to form a parish council, held home meetings to engage families and parishioners and listened to the pain of hundreds of current and former members. At the conclusion of Mass he announced the institution of a coffee hour beginning next week.

But there is no disguising that beneath the Easter joy there is a well of pain in both congregations at the divisions that have taken place. At the New Faith Community, there is a hint of triumphalism; at the old church a sense of struggling against all odds. McMullin, who says he sought out the job as successor to Callan, in spite of all the controversy, said he takes 30 to 40 phone calls daily from people upset at the division in the church. “All I can do is to listen and to define a vision for the parish.”

What frustrates him most is that people wrongly assume that he is here to undo the work of the past two decades at Corpus Christi. He plans to welcome anyone who attends the New Faith Community services (there are perhaps a few dozen such “commuters”) and not to make an issue of the Eucharist being consecrated there. “The sad conclusion that people make is that I’m here to correct all these things or that I don’t share some of those same points of view.

“The problem that came about here was in part because this became a very isolated location. At times they viewed themselves as the only ones concerned with these issues, when in fact it is the rare parish that isn’t involved with [the poor and social justice].”

Offenses given and taken

Interviews with dozens in each community made it clear that more than a battle over issues, the dispute comes down to methods, timelines and, frequently, the personalities of key players. It is also about offenses given and taken last autumn when things got ugly. Callan was removed, Ramerman fired and McMullin appointed. Masses were disrupted, insults traded and tensions boiled over in the sanctuary. Diocesan officials fired staff en masse; staff sued for damages and, in at least one case, reinstatement.

Nathan Hetherington is a college sophomore who leads a youth group at the historic Corpus Christi but attends services at the New Faith Community where his father is a lay leader. How does he feel about the split?

“It angers me. It gets tiring, how the whole thing has turned into a pissing match. Everyone agrees on the goals, but the fighting is over how to get there. My anger is pretty much directed squarely at both sides.”

He adds that he, like most of his youth group, is loyal to Callan, Ramerman, and Cadena and resents the way they were treated by the diocese. Yet he plans to keep working with the youth at the old church, which he describes as “dead -- like some of the spirit has gone out of it.”

Efforts like his to reconcile this house divided appear few and far between. Most people who spoke about the topic for this article said that they were either out of touch with people who had decided against them or were simply avoiding the topic when in “mixed company.” Most people felt reconciliation, were it to occur, would have to begin at the family level and in the numerous Christian communities and prayer groups that Corpus Christi has spawned over the years. So far, most agreed, feelings were too raw.

Ramerman took hope from the fact that Clark still referred to himself as their shepherd. For her part, she was burning no bridges. “We see ourselves,” she said in a phone interview on Holy Thursday, “as part of the Roman Catholic church. We respect the bishop and the pope, but we have to, in conscience, respectfully disagree and pastorally follow a different direction. We are not trying to break with the Catholic church or leave the Catholic church. We don’t see ourselves as a schismatic church. We admittedly broke some rules that we didn’t think were serving the people, rules that were discriminatory. We did that in the hope of reforming the church.

“It’s kind of strange,” she added, “to be fired and then blamed for leaving the church.”

Outreach ministries at risk

The ultimate tragedy, all sides agree, would be if the outreach ministries, built up over two decades, become caught up in the divisions that have torn the community apart. The dozen or so ministries are the children caught in this divorce.

Everyone agrees they want what is best for the ministries, but no one is sure if they can find a way to share custody or even if joint custody is viable or desirable. Most of the outreach staff has been fired by the diocese and is now with the New Faith Community. The funds available for Corpus Christi are so diminished that, by McMullin’s own figuring, the parish can only afford three to four staff members. Already Sr. Margie Henniger and a committee of New Faith Community members have been scouting real estate and accepting donations for a new Recovery House, a ministry to people struggling with addictions. The original Recovery House at Corpus Christi has suspended admissions.

A foundation formed several years ago, the Friends of Corpus Christi Outreach Foundation, is now largely in the hands of New Faith Community supporters, and according to McMullin, its board of directors has not shown him its financial statements despite his repeated requests. Two days after Easter, the parish planned to meet with McMullin to hear a status report from each of the ministries.

A group representing the foundation has been meeting with the parish to discuss the future of the ministries, but some fear a tug of war is emerging. Said Mary Ramerman, “We are very interested in continuing as a Catholic church in the inner city. We don’t want to be a church that is not living with the poor.”

Fr. Cadena put it this way, “If they don’t give us back the ministries, we will have to open new ones.”

Sr. Sue Hoffman said, “I think the ministries will keep on going. We need to be attentive to the voice of the poor, and at the same time be good stewards.”

National Catholic Reporter, April 16, 1999