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‘We have to name what has happened’

Rochester Bishop Matthew Clark has long been considered a progressive voice in the church. Like his upstate New York colleague Bishop Howard Hubbard of Albany, Clark is a frequent target of right-wing publications and groups. Clark has been known as an advocate for the rights of women in the church and a strong voice supporting ministry to gays and lesbians. Many think it is ironic that he now finds himself in the position of clamping down on a parish that has taken gay and women’s issues to the limits. NCR reporter Ed Griffin-Nolan spoke with Clark by telephone March 19, shortly after the diocese issued its statement declaring the Corpus Christi breakaway group to be in schism and its leaders excommunicated.

NCR: What has it been like for you to watch the coming apart of such a special parish?

Bishop Clark: It has been very painful. This was something I would never choose for any diocese, parish or church community. It is a rupture. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t feel the wound. We would want nothing more than a healing or restoration.

What is the status of those who have chosen to join the New Faith Community?

I would like to make the point that the decision to attend a service at the new church does not mean excommunication. I have tried to distinguish between the leadership and public spokespersons and those who may be following their lead. Jim [Callan] and others in leadership have a public spoken record of their intentions. In effect they established another church. We have to name what has happened and recognize what it is. I have encouraged those who may have followed the leadership to do two things: to think of the implications for them and for the next generation. I can do no more than to encourage them to think about that and I hope that those involved will lay out those implications carefully. And I have asked them to seek out some pastoral person not involved in the emotions of all that has happened to help them sort this out.

What will happen when they say Mass and consecrate the Eucharist?

I deeply and sincerely hope that does not happen. If it does, to the best of my knowledge, it would seriously aggravate the situation and put a new dimension on it. But I would have to wait and see and look at the totality of the action. I would have to weigh the impact on the entire community.

Was there anything you might have done differently?

I have not stopped thinking about that. It is the kind of question that the situation keeps in front of you all the time. I’m not saying that we acted perfectly, but given the impetus and initiative in the parish in terms of publicity and of rallying people, our every attempt to deal with this off camera was thwarted at every turn. In light of that, I don’t know if anything would have [made a difference].

You are known around the country as an advocate for the very groups of people that the former Corpus Christi leadership defends. Does the irony of that strike you in any particular way?

I’ve been asked that a lot of times. In 20 years of experience as a bishop, I would identify two of the most difficult charges as: 1) to ensure tranquillity of the local church so that we can do the work we are called to do; 2) to be sure that we do that work in a way that leaves us in obvious, clear harmony with the larger community to which we belong — specifically in harmony with John Paul, our pope, and the bishops. To accomplish that is a challenge. I have communicated that I want our pastoral staff to have as much leeway as they need to meet today’s very difficult challenges. I have always said that I will stand by you when you make a judgment that, upon later review, was not the wisest. But if I call your attention to something, it does need correction. In meetings with priests, with Jim present, I have said, “I want to back you in all ways that I can, but please do not take me to places that I cannot go.”

It is often said that this is a tragedy and that there are no winners in this situation. ... Now you have hundreds of people who share, in many ways, a very open view on issues of women and of same sex unions left outside the church. Active people. Does this not make for a more conservative diocese?

Until it becomes clear over time, I would be reluctant to conclude about the number of people who have left our communion. One is too many, and I mourn the loss of their constructive voices. Some have made it sound that the ones at Corpus Christi are the only ones who have sounded these issues. We have all sorts of mature pastoral leaders in this diocese. We have a very strong body of people to continue in this conversation and that conversation continues.

In a recent interview with the diocesan newspaper you made this statement that “to be Roman Catholic is sometimes to be patient with our own sinfulness, our own injustice, our own slowness.” Could you say more about what you mean by that?

I’ve thought a lot lately about a way in which that thinking is enshrined in our most precious prayer, the Eucharistic Prayer. Our people pray for Matthew our bishop and John Paul our pope. We’re not there yet. Help us, we pray, to grow in faith and love. It is painful when we become so painfully aware of our need to grow. It is a struggle, but we have to do it together. We can regroup around our common ideals even as we have to forgive each other for our failures.

Do you think Jim Callan is a prophet?

Personal references that I make can fall on people’s ears in different ways. I think Jim knows that I want to be supportive, that I have the greatest respect for things he has done, that I miss his presence.

National Catholic Reporter, April 16, 1999