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Rump groups do ministry on church steps

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

Bridget Mary Meehan of Falls Church, Va., located ironically in the heart of the very conservative Arlington, Va., diocese, is the president of the Circle of Directors of the Federation of Christian Ministries. Born in Ireland, she came across the pond at the age of 8 and received her education in Catholic schools.

At 18, she entered the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Philadelphia. Still later, she spent an interim period in another congregation. She is now a member of a new form of religious life, an international, non-canonical group of over 500, who in her words “are responding to the spirit that was in Jesus,” which is also a vision of the Federation of Christian Ministries.

Meehan has Mary’s faith and Martha’s work ethic. She hosts a TV talk show broadcast over 14 stations and has just published her 18th book, Praying with Visionary Women. At the urging of federation member Mike McFadden of St. Cloud, Fla., she joined the federation “just three or four” years ago and now heads the 650-member nationwide group. Like many other members, she often worships at her parish church on Saturday evening and then takes part in a federation eucharistic home liturgy the next day.

A church in transition

The Federation of Christian Ministries has had several lifetimes that speak to a church in transition. Founded in 1968, just three years after Vatican II, it was first christened The Society of Priests for a Free Ministry. It was intended to give a voice to the thousands of Roman Catholic priests who were resigning, perhaps somewhat impatiently, because the vaccination of Vatican II hadn’t taken quickly enough.

The group’s primary purpose was to lobby for a married priesthood but it soon involved itself in a bewildering variety of issues, ranging, in one former member’s observation, from “everything from the peace movement through the grape pickers to disposable diapers.”

Initially, the group met with cautious indifference, but when some members took part in a eucharistic liturgy with clergy of the Episcopal church at an ecumenical gathering at Elmhurst College in Elmhurst, Ill., the official church blew a sacred gasket. It issued a timpani of warnings.

However, according to Joseph Ruane, a resigned Philadelphia priest and a sociologist teaching at the University of the Sciences, the group survived, partly because the church had done its job so well.

“Now, the dutiful son has a pierced tongue,” said Ruane, who is now the chairman of the federation. “People are more interesting, more confident, less hidebound and uptight. They are better educated, more creative and -- most important -- unafraid.”

Years later, Marquette University theologian Daniel Maguire wrote that “the only authority the church has is the authority we give it.”

The federation and similar groups won’t be found in diocesan directories. However, the authority lines have become blurred and the boom of the ecclesiastical timpani has softened. Indeed, many pastors and some ecclesiastics are quietly supportive of the federation and other fringe groups. They are doing ministry on the church steps, ministry that would not have been accomplished because of personnel shortages and canonical restrictions.

In 1973, in an effort to reflect the collective experience of the group, The Society of Priests for a Free Ministry became the Fellowship of Christian Ministries. At their 1981 gathering, the name Fellowship was changed to Federation to include people of various religious traditions and to affirm women as equal partners in ministry.

Low-visibility organization

The group is currently 80 percent Catholic. The low-visibility organization models the early church by not engaging in wearisome theological analysis but rather by encouraging a diversity of gifts. “We’re catholic with a small c,” Meehan says. “We minister on the margins to the marginalized. We’re living church like [St.] Clare and [St.] Francis.

“We have a lot of love for our church,” she continued, “I love the church. I couldn’t be anything else but Catholic. But during this period of transition, we do not hold back from serving. After all, in the heart of Jesus, no one is left out.”

Another commentator, still involved with the institutional church, said: “I would die for my faith but not my church.”

The Federation of Christian Ministries enrolls a bewildering mix of Christians (and a few non-Christians) who offer a potpourri of services that meet the needs of the institutional church’s throwaways. The roster lists a medley of traditional and offbeat ministries. Many members will preside at baptisms, weddings, funerals, retreats and so on, and do pastoral counseling.

But they are also involved with prison and hospital ministries, food pantries, shelters for the homeless, support groups such as Gamblers Anonymous, “soul retrieval,” infant massage instruction, clergy tax preparation, immigrant assistance, support for military personnel, women’s liturgies -- in short, a supermarket of services once associated with the cradle-to-grave parishes of the past. During a period when the church above the parish level has turned in upon itself, yearning for an unending yesterday when the past is never gone, the federation provides windows of opportunity for needy souls.

Church observer and federation member Martin Hegarty of Chicago, labels it a “rump” group. (Rump is a middle-English legislative term referring to a small part of an original group that is considered unrepresentative and therefore lacking in authority.) Yet, the federation and dozens of other rump groups continue to influence just how the faith is lived out where the rubber meets the road.

Like portabella mushrooms

Since Vatican II, rump groups have been multiplying like portabella mushrooms. Although minuscule in comparison to the core church, they have succeeded getting the attention of the institutional church.

Some examples:

1. The Catholic Worker. Founded by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin in 1933, the Catholic Worker became the American church’s conscience on peace and poverty issues. Although it was labeled communist by some bishops, others quietly subscribed to the Worker’s one-penny newspaper and distributed it in schools. Day died in 1980 and is now a candidate for canonization, enjoying the support of Cardinal John O’Connor of New York. The unstructured movement still has 130 houses of hospitality throughout the United States.

2. The Christian Family Movement. Now only a shadow of what it once was, the movement grew out of a discussion group organized by Paul Hazard and promoted by Patricia and the late Patrick Crowley. Unlike other rump groups, it has a link with local chanceries. By 1949, it was in over 100 cities, and by 1956 it boasted over 41,000 members. However, with the appearance of Paul VI’s encyclical, Humanae Vitae, in 1968 -- the encyclical that reaffirmed church discipline on birth control -- its numbers began to dwindle. The Crowleys, who were delegates to the papal commission on population growth, were incorrectly seen as promoters of untrammeled birth control -- even abortion, which wasn’t even mentioned in the encyclical. The clergy withdrew in haste.

Pat Crowley died of cancer in 1974. Patty Crowley now devotes herself to a women’s shelter, a discussion group for women named Genesis and to Call to Action.

3. Call to Action. Founded in 1976 out of the ribs of a Call to Action meeting held in Detroit under church auspices, it quickly spread to 22 other dioceses. But the bishops were threatened by the articulate and insistent lay voices. Within its first decade, all direct diocesan support evaporated, and Call to Action was reduced to one diocese: Chicago. It still leases a former convent in Chicago for its national headquarters and boasts over 20,000 members in 40 groups throughout the country.

“We have no urge to dust the church,” a Call to Action spokesperson said in a telephone conversation. “We don’t spend a lot of time and energy protesting the institution. There is a feast of issues. We are initiating reform.”

During its annual meetings, which have been held in Milwaukee in recent years, Call to Action has become an umbrella group, hosting smaller organizations such as the Federation of Christian Ministries. The rump groups are bundled under the heading of the Catholic Organizations for Renewal, which coordinates their efforts.

Call to Action

Call to Action reminds one of a group of soldier-scouts, who ride out ahead of the core group, check the horizon and report back. The late Jesuit Fr. John Courtney Murray, one of the most influential theologians of Vatican II, described such groups as being at “the cutting edge.” As with other institutions, its members transmit ideas from the cutting edge to the center. In time, the center adopts the ideas as their own and takes credit for them.

One poll showed that 73 percent of Call to Action’s members are practicing Catholics in spite of the widening gap between church teaching and the choices that Catholics make in their lives.

Meanwhile, however, the hierarchical church remains remote and threatened. Even today, at least 15 canons in the new Code of Canon Law stress that the laity “are bound to obey declarations and orders given by their pastors in their capacity as representatives of Christ.” In spite of this, a recent poll commissioned by The New York Times demonstrated the increasing independence of Catholics, a trend that most church experts say began with Vatican II and has deepened throughout John Paul II’s return to a stricter, more hierarchical tradition.

4. CORPUS, the national association for a married priesthood. Founded in 1974 as the Corps of Reserve Priests United for Service, the majority of its more than 1,600 members are resigned married priests who seek reinstatement to active canonical ministry in the Latin Rite of the Catholic church. They also press for the ordination of women. CORPUS was founded out of the Federation of Christian Ministries. Many of its resigned priest members celebrate liturgies and preside at baptisms, weddings and funerals. A number are employed by the institutional church in a variety of apostolates and services.

5. Friends of Creation Spirituality. Once connected with a small Catholic college in California, it is the brainchild of Matthew Fox, a former Dominican priest, who has published extensively on New Age Christianity. If these rump groups are at the cutting edge, Friends of Creation Spirituality is out in space. Fox’s group really pushes the envelope, but his ideas are refreshing and imaginative. There is room to breathe.

6. Dignity USA. A group of homosexual and lesbian Catholics who seek wider acceptance by the institutional church. It is one of only a few rump groups to be officially banned by the church. Recognition by one archbishop, Raymond Hunthausen of Seattle, nearly led to his removal.

7. Celibacy Is the Issue. Founded by Louise Haggett of Framingham, Mass., this group has some 2,000 members and a mailing list of over 5,000. Its chief arm, Rent-a-Priest, works with divorced Catholics and encourages them to follow their conscience in matters related to their divorce. Celibacy Is the Issue ministers to gays who have been downloaded from the church and to virtually any individual or group in need of pastoral and/or sacramental services. Its Web site has drawn over 30,000 hits in the past two years alone.

“We do not spend time, energy or financial contributions protesting the current status of the institution,” its brochure proclaims. “Instead, by offering ministry to those in need, Celibacy Is the Issue is initiating the reforms that others talk about.” Some “rent-a-priests” celebrate Sunday Mass in priestless parishes where parishioners are moved enough to invite them. (The bishops look the other way.)

8. Catholics for a Free Choice. Led by Frances Kissling, this Washington-based group addresses the so-called pelvic issues such as birth control and abortion. Now that abortion is a political platform plank, Catholics for a Free Choice draws great criticism from ecclesiastics and some laity, including some who might be considered liberal Catholics. But it does address issues that surrounded population control.

There are dozens of others. The rump groups are the religious equivalent of acupuncture -- viewed with suspicion, yet gaining credence and chipping away at the base of Peter’s rock.

Let the theologians follow

“Things just weren’t happening,” Joseph Ruane, who was president of the Federation of Christian Ministries from 1988-1992, said. “We wanted to be a reform group but didn’t want to go too far from the church. Now, we’re less concerned, so we do what we want to do and let the theologians follow us. It is the priesthood of the baptized incorporated as a religious society.”

Not many years ago, the rump groups were characterized by a measure of anger, a sentiment reciprocated by the church. Presently, the resentment is almost gone. The Federation of Christian Ministries was challenged with possible legal action in California, New York and elsewhere. The institutional church wanted the state licensing authorities to limit ministry participation for Catholics to those ministers listed in the Official Catholic Directory. The federation stood ready to meet them in court, but the effort died with barely a whimper.

Today, certified federation members -- some 80 percent males -- are legally allowed to preside at liturgies in all 50 states. The participation varies, but one group, who placed a single advertisement in a bridal magazine, drew 75 reservations. (Only about 10 percent of divorced Catholics in the institutional church endure the complex annulment process before remarrying.)

The growth of fringe ministries is not simply due to Vatican screw tightening. Parish and school closings (there are now over 2,000 priestless parishes), the priest shortage (down over 20,000 since 1966), higher divorce and remarriage rates, the increasing number of marriages where the couple are of different religious groups (as high as 80 percent among African-Americans) and growing mobility among the population have all contributed to weakened links with Mother Church.

Not a few of the referrals to federation members come from parish priests who quietly recommend that couples with marriage impediments seek out a certified federation member.

“We’re not headline seekers,” Ruane, a pioneer member of the federation, said. “Not all of us are in sacramental ministry. Most are simply in ministry.”

The Catholic church is “in transition,” Meehan said. She said the federation is a place “in which women are recognized. We honor the diversity of gifts, not theological analysis.”

There are millions who dearly love the church and who are seeking a relationship with God and with the world in which they live. The federation, together with the bewildering variety of other rump groups, helps to meet their needs.

Tim Unsworth writes from Chicago where he recently removed a thorn from a lion’s paw. You can reach him at unsworth@megsinet.net

National Catholic Reporter, January 21, 2000