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Breakaway parish ordains woman priest

Rochester, N.Y.

To rousing gospel music and the acclaim of approximately 3,000 people, Mary Anne Whitfield Ramerman was ordained a priest of a breakaway Catholic church here Nov. 17. While Roman Catholic Bishop Matthew Clark called Ramerman’s ordination “a public and formally schismatic act” and asked Roman Catholic clergy not to attend, some advocates of women’s ordination hailed it as a step forward for the cause of women priests.

Ordaining Ramerman was Bishop Peter Hickman of the Old Catholic church, which claims a common root with the Roman Catholic church. The Old Catholic church derives from the 1870s, when the First Vatican Council defined the doctrine of papal infallibility. Some local Catholic communities, especially communities in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, broke with the Roman Catholic church over the doctrine. The Roman Catholic church regards the Old Catholic church as a Protestant church, but members of the Old Catholic church say they are adhering to a more authentic Catholic tradition -- one that Rome has left behind. The Old Catholic church claims apostolic succession stemming from the bishop of Utrecht in Holland.

The ordination of Ramerman caps a turbulent history between the Roman Catholic hierarchy and Ramerman and the other priests of Spiritus Christi, a church formed when the pastoral staff and many of the parishioners left Corpus Christi Church because of doctrinal disputes with the bishop. Ironically, Clark, considered one of the more progressive voices within the episcopate, had been a longtime supporter of Corpus Christi.

In 1998, Fr. James B. Callan, a popular and charismatic priest, was removed as the administrator of Corpus Christi Church, an inner-city parish that during his 22-year tenure he had built from a 600-member community to a parish of approximately 3,000 people known for its vibrant outreach activities. Eventually Callan was suspended for refusing to rescind support for three practices at Corpus Christi that violated church teachings: offering Communion to non-Catholics, blessing gay unions and supporting priestly roles for women.

Usurping priestly duties

Ramerman, who had worked as a lay pastor at Corpus Christi since the 1980s, had drawn attention for assuming duties at the altar reserved for priests. She lifted the chalice, said the Eucharistic Prayer and appeared on the altar dressed in a long white robe and green half-stole given to her by the community in 1993 in recognition of her leadership.

After Callan was removed from Corpus Christi, a transition team appointed by the diocese was put in place. Ramerman was fired by the team for refusing to comply with church directives. Another priest at Corpus Christi, Fr. Enrique Cadena, was appointed to the transition team but shortly afterward resigned, citing a conflict because of his support for the illicit church practices at Corpus Christi. Callan, Ramerman, Cadena and a large number of parishioners from Corpus Christi then began organizing their own services, which are not recognized by the bishop as valid.

To many, the ordination ceremony marks a irreparable break with the Roman Catholic church, but not to Ramerman.

“Many people have said that I’m closing the door to the Roman Catholic church, but I don’t feel that,” she said in an interview with NCR a few days before her ordination. “I feel I’m opening a door. I think there are some beautiful connections to be formed with the different branches of Catholicism, and I think that one way to form those connections is to step through that door.”

A spirit of jubilation marked the Nov. 17 event held in the Eastman Theatre, an elegant 3,200-seat theatre that is home to the Rochester Philharmonic. The two choirs of the Spiritus Christi community sang, and participants in the ordination ceremony danced in the aisles waving red and white streamers. Ramerman’s husband of 25 years as well as two of her three children were participants in the ceremony, as were Callan and Cadena. Children, women and spokespeople for the imprisoned as well as for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transsexual persons appeared on stage to call Ramerman to the priesthood.

‘Colorful and free’

Fred Emmings, a Rochester resident attending the ceremony, said, “My experiences with church have always been solemn. What impresses me most here is the colors. It’s colorful and free.”

Ramerman said she and the Spiritus Christi community had spent two years thinking about and planning her ordination. They wanted the ordination to be in the Catholic tradition, to have the Spiritus Christi community involved in the laying on of hands, and to invite international Catholic lay leaders around the world to witness the ordination. After a futile search for a Roman Catholic bishop to ordain her, Ramerman turned to Bishop Hickman, the pastor of an Old Catholic church in Orange, Calif., who a year ago had ordained another woman priest. Ramerman will be a priest in Hickman’s diocese, with the understanding that she will continue her ministry at Spiritus Christi.

Many in the audience said the ordination of Ramerman was long overdue. “We all feel very fulfilled with Mary Ramerman’s ordination,” said Frank Scalise, an elementary school principal attending the ordination.

Asked if his joy at the ordination was tinged with regret over the rift with the Vatican, Cadena shook his head. “We remain very Catholic,” he said. He added, “We had to do it this way because we were left with no alternatives.”

If some in the audience regretted that the ordination was not taking place in a Roman Catholic service, few allowed that regret to quench their enthusiasm. Still, the objections of the Roman Catholic church formed the backdrop to the event, a backdrop that was alluded to frequently in the festivities that followed the ordination ceremony.

Approximately 1,100 people attended a celebratory luncheon. Speakers included Loretto Sr. Maureen Fiedler, a representative of Catholics Speak Out, a liberal Catholic group advocating women’s ordination and the clergy’s right to marry; Edwina Gateley, a popular inspirational author and speaker; and Ched Myers, an activist with Bartimaeus Cooperative Ministries, an ecumenical center in Los Angeles that acts as an umbrella group for nontraditional ministry.

If music and dramatic flair marked the almost three-hour ordination ceremony, agitprop seemed to dominate the afternoon’s events.

Many of the tributes to Ramerman placed her squarely in the tradition of Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass, both residents of Rochester. Callan commended Ramerman’s courage and compared her to the Good Samaritan who stopped by to help a wounded traveler. “Mary said, ‘What will happen to the millions of abused and oppressed women if I don’t stop?’ ”

Myers spoke of Ramerman as “a treasure to the church universal” and “the rock upon which Christ will build his church” and scolded the Roman Catholic hierarchy for not attending to her. “The clerical aristocracy should have listened to the prophetic voice of Mary Ramerman, but they turned a deaf ear,” Myers said. In a more contemporary reference, Myers said, “She refuses to wither from the Talibanesque disapproval of clerics. … Today the burka falls and the stole is taken up like the cross.”

While she denies that her ordination constitutes an act of defiance of the Roman Catholic church, the 46-year-old Ramerman clearly sees her action within the context of women’s struggle for equality within the church and society at large. Indeed, in an interview with the Long Island newspaper Newsday, published Nov. 14, Ramerman compared her actions to those of Catholics who tried to free the Jews in Nazi Germany and to Galileo.

Not about justice

Clark disagrees. “This rift is not about justice, nor is it a question of who has the brighter ideas or the greater degree of courage,” he wrote in The Catholic Courier, the Rochester diocesan newspaper. “It is about being family. … Spiritus Christi has chosen to leave our family.”

Clark said Spiritus Christi had severed its relationship with him and repudiated the authority of the pope. The ordination of Ramerman seals the schism between Spiritus Christi and the Roman Catholic church and does by deed what Spiritus Christi has declined to put into words, Clark wrote.

To many within Spiritus Christi, that schism does not seem very real. Like Ramerman, many maintain that they remain Catholic and that it is just a matter of time before they are reunited with a Roman Catholic church that will come around to their way of thinking.

“I still call myself Catholic,” said Anne DeWitt, a member of the Spiritus Christi community who had been a member of Corpus Christi Church. She jokes that during the time of the crisis three years ago she and others called themselves “not Roman Catholic but roaming Catholics.”

Some advocates of women’s ordination within the Roman Catholic church supported Ramerman’s decision. The Women’s Ordination Conference issued a statement of support, as did Catholics Speak Out. “This ordination is a beacon of hope for Catholic women. Secondly, it’s a glimpse into the future,” Fiedler told NCR.

Others, however, had more mixed emotions.

“I greatly admire the new parish, Spiritus Christi, and all the work that they do,” said Ruth Fitzpatrick, a longtime supporter of women’s ordination and a co-member of the Loretto Community.

Still, Fitzpatrick said she had mixed feelings about the Nov. 17 ordination. “This is not where I would go,” said Fitzpatrick, who expressed sympathy for the difficult position Clark found himself in.

Acknowledging that many within the Roman Catholic reform movement would have liked her to press for change within the church, Ramerman said she had decided she could better serve the Roman Catholic church by choosing ordination outside it.

“Ultimately I felt my call came from people within my own community, and the best way to serve the Roman Catholic church was to serve my own community,” she said. “I didn’t want the people in front of me to wait for 30 years for a woman priest.”

If Ramerman minimized the breach with Rome, Callan did not. “I’d like to leave you with this bit of advice,” he told the crowd attending the luncheon for Ramerman. “If the horse you’re riding dies, get off it. Why should you get off the dead horse? Because the Holy Spirit will provide you with many other horses going in a new direction.”

Margot Patterson is NCR senior writer. Her e-mail address is mpatterson@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, December 7, 2001