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I’ll keep the vision alive, but from inside the church


I was born into Catholic confusion. When I was 7, I stood before the coffee table altar in our living room and received my first Communion in a home Mass. I didn’t find it at all incongruous that I should be wearing white from my tiaraed veil down to the tips of my patent leather Buster Brown shoes: the perfect picture of a 1950s first communicant.

A product of my parents’ changing experience of Catholicism, my religious upbringing was spirit-filled and not a little bizarre -- a hodgepodge of tradition and renewal.

I am a child of Vatican II. My education as a Catholic was a mixture of old loves and new hopes. I was taught not just the rules but the possibilities. When the church speaks of the struggle between old and new, between unity and reform, I understand the conflict. As a dedicated, liberal 20-something Catholic, I embody it. This has never been more clear to me than in the last six months I’ve spent at Corpus Christi Parish in Rochester, N.Y.

After grappling with the events that tore my parish apart, I feel called to reassess and share my experience. I am part of a lay community that lives in the Corpus Christi rectory, serving as receptionists for the parish. As a result, I have been in a unique position to observe the crisis from the inside.

When Fr. Jim Callan was removed in August, I joined the protests that soon attracted national media attention. We held rallies, wrote letters (I even sent an E-mail to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, which was for me cathartic), and held back our money. We prayed and we made mistakes and we tried to listen to the Spirit.

At one point, someone said that Mary Ramerman would be the Rosa Parks of the American Catholic church. We thought we had a revolution. Where are our dreams of renewal now?

By December, grief plus anger at the actions of the diocese led parishioners to leave in droves. The parish we knew as Corpus Christi died. The parish goes on. We still have Masses and we have a prayerful new pastor, but the heart of Corpus Christi Parish has been broken. Some parishioners undoubtedly switched parishes, opting for stability and a liturgy free from protest and anger. While protest and anger are necessary catalysts for change, they become divisive and modify the character of the liturgy if they become ever-present, as many of us discovered.

About a third of the parish left to form what is temporarily called the Corpus Christi Faith Community, celebrating Communion services with Ramerman and Callan at a local Protestant church. Recently deemed schismatic, they vow to continue the community and vision of Corpus Christi Parish outside the authority of the Rochester diocese.

So where does this child of Vatican II stand? In the middle of the wreckage, mostly. I grieve for a vision of church that, with all its faults, represented a challenge and a promise to the body of Christ. I grieve for a hierarchy I am often embarrassed and ashamed to call my own but that administers my beloved tradition. I grieve for a faltering parish, struggling to create a new vision while haunted by the past. I grieve for parishioners split against each other, watching their parish disintegrate piece by piece on the 11 o’clock news. I grieve for my friends who are prayerfully trying to create a new worship outside the church’s fellowship -- a worship I cannot join.

I can’t join them because I am still in the middle, just as I was 18 years ago at my first communion. I wonder how to reconcile the Catholic pieces on both extremes. When I’m feeling disheartened, I feel like I have to choose between Cardinal Ratzinger’s pronouncements on the Latin Mass and joining a schism when all I really want to do is to wear my frilly white dress to the coffee table altar, attend holy days of obligation and challenge church hypocrisy.

At 7, tradition and renewal coexisted peacefully for me and made my worship beautiful. At 25, they cause me to ask, in the midst of my grief, what my role is in this church and what the merit is of being born a Catholic in-between.

Being raised with a love for both aspects of Catholicism, the traditional and the yet-to-be, affords me a unique view. It is we in-betweens who will be called upon to guide the church through the coming years of crisis. The church will need us to be mindful of the Catholic hodgepodge within us while we listen to the Spirit.

Through this experience at Corpus Christi I have evaluated my relationship to the church and I have made my choice. I have a new determination to keep Corpus Christi’s vision alive within the church, although I’m not quite sure how to do that. That’s fine. I’ve learned to accept Catholic confusion as my birthright.

Mary Henold writes from Rochester, N.Y.

National Catholic Reporter, April 16, 1999