RENEGADE CATHOLICS CARRY ON ROCHESTER PRIEST LEADS FOLLOWERS IN NEW CHURCH - The Buffalo News

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RENEGADE CATHOLICS CARRY ON
ROCHESTER PRIEST LEADS FOLLOWERS IN NEW CHURCH

If you weren't paying close attention, you might think you were at a typical Catholic Mass.

But the Thursday evening service in a downtown Rochester church is not a Mass, and the 350 people participating are not typical Catholics.

The celebration is a communion service offering bread and wine that was consecrated elsewhere. The participants are renegade Catholics, who have excommunicated themselves, according to the Rochester Catholic Diocese.

They are out of the church, the diocese says, because they have established a new, independent church, temporarily known as the New Faith Community.

The parish is led by the Rev. James B. Callan, a charismatic priest who was suspended in December for ignoring too many church rules -- such as offering communion to non-Catholics, blessing same-sex unions and allowing a woman to help celebrate Mass.

That there is support outside of Rochester for the kind of church reform that Father Callan and his flock attempted was obvious last month when more than 200 sympathizers jammed a lecture hall at Daemen College in Amherst to hear him discuss his accomplishments and his struggle with church authorities.

His appearance was co-sponsored by the Buffalo Chapter of Call To Action, a Catholic group that advocates church reform, including ordination of married men and women.

Michael Toner, a leader of the group says he would be tempted to join a congregation like the New Faith Community, if he had the opportunity.

"If there were a similar situation in Buffalo, I probably would be one of those involved in it," he said. "Just because someone says you are excommunicated, that does not mean I would consider myself excommunicated."

Father Callan and the 1,100 members of his flock, all former members of Corpus Christi Catholic Church, feel the same as Toner.

"I don't believe in excommunication. I don't think it is in the mind of Jesus to throw out people," said Father Callan. "I don't think anybody can throw me out of God's community."

His parishioners likewise don't feel excommunicated.

"Many of us still consider ourselves Catholics and feel that the Roman Catholic hierarchy can't define who we are," said Peg Rubley, who heads the Spring Committee, the governing board of the new church.

"Organized religion is just a vehicle to get to know and love God and yourself and to live your life the way Jesus intended. When organized religion exists just for itself, it loses its focus," she said.

The en masse excommunication was announced in late February by the Rev. Kevin McKenna, chancellor of the Rochester diocese, after the former Corpus Christi parishioners established the new church.

"Whenever someone begins his own church and disavows any union with Rome and the local bishop, he is in schism," said Father McKenna, the top aide to Rochester Bishop Matthew H. Clark.

However, schism does not appear to be a troubling issue for the people attending the communion service in Salem United Church of Christ where the New Faith Community is leasing space and scheduling its services around Salem's activities.

To the contrary, the mood is joyful as members greet each other before the service and at the Sign of Peace with warm hugs and welcoming smiles. Music is lively. Everyone sings. Everyone celebrates. Everyone seems happy to be there.

The communion service is like a Mass, but there is no consecration, the part of the liturgy where the priest says prayers that, Catholics believe, turn bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus. Without the consecration, the service cannot be a Mass.

Since his suspension three months ago, Father Callan has refrained from celebrating Mass and administering the sacraments of the Catholic Church because he had hopes of being reinstated by Bishop Clark.

"God has provided for us," he said, acknowledging that the bread and wine distributed at all the group's communion services was "consecrated previously" by other priests.

During the 22 years that Father Callan served as pastor of Corpus Christi, the inner city church evolved into a kind of superparish that attracted attention nationwide.

It was on the verge of closing when Father Callan, now 51, arrived in 1977. Through his leadership and inspiration, the membership grew to more than 3,000 people and the parish developed an enviable array of outreach ministries.

They included a free health clinic, homeless shelter, halfway houses for both male and female ex-offenders, a house for men recovering from substance abuse, a hospicelike home for people with terminal illnesses, a restaurant that provided job training for ex-offenders, and a store that offered free and low-cost clothing. It also offered a Spanish-language Mass and gay ministry and supported a mission in Mexico and a clinic in Haiti.

The Rev. Richard Rohr, a prolific Franciscan priest-author who conducted retreats at Corpus Christi, described it as "one of the best Catholic parishes in the country."

The ministries to people who are most in need "are the way to find Jesus," said Maureen Nielsen, a staff resident at Pearl House, the home for women ex-offenders.

She is active in the New Faith Community but continues to attend Mass at Corpus Christi.

"We are still doing what we have been doing for many years. We just had to move to a new location," said Ms. Nielsen.

"I couldn't stay within the confines of the Roman Catholic Church any longer because I felt too many people were being excluded," added Jean Chirico, who grew up in St. Edmund's Parish, Town of Tonawanda.

While Father Callan was admired for reaching out to those with the greatest needs, the Catholic diocese eventually decided he was reaching too far in other directions.

One of the things that got him in trouble was the invitation he extended to everyone who attended Mass at Corpus Christi, including the one-third of the parish that was non-Catholic, to receive Holy Communion. That practice is contrary to church law.

The priest ventured into another forbidden area by blessing the unions of homosexual couples even though he performed those ceremonies outside of the church.

But the practice that probably raised the most eyebrows was Father Callan's decision to allow a woman, Parish Administrator Mary Ramerman, to stand beside him at the altar during Mass and elevate the chalice containing wine after he consecrated it.

During the service in Salem Church, Mrs. Ramerman went even further, holding up a consecrated host at communion time and delivering the homily. Her husband, James, was music director at Corpus Christi and serves the New Faith Community in the same capacity.

Although the things that made Corpus Christi unique had been going on for a long time, Bishop Clark finally stepped in last summer, transferred Father Callan to a parish in Elmira and told him to stay away from Corpus Christi.

Michael Martella, a leader of the New Faith Community, said it was former parish members, not Father Callan, who organized the new church and invited Mrs. Ramerman to conduct prayer services. Father Callan and the Rev. Enrique Cadena, a Mexican priest who was associate pastor at Corpus Christi, eventually were invited to join the group.

"We don't see what we are doing as being against the teachings of Jesus," said Martella, a lawyer-realtor who is a graduate of Canisius College, Buffalo.

"Church officials keep saying you gotta slow down and wait for the rest of the (Catholic) parishes to catch up. But you could wait 500 years, and the church might never catch up," he said.

Chris Funt and Patrick Lynch are among about 1,500 parishioners who decided to stay at Corpus Christi rather than join the new church.

"About a third of the people going to Corpus Christi were not Catholic to begin with, so excommunication did not bother them," Ms. Funt pointed out. "They were there because of Father Jim. It was not for the Catholic part."

"I think a lot of what Jim did was arrogance, and he thought he could get away with it," she said. "Now that he is outside of the Catholic Church, what boundaries is he going to push?"

Lynch said he does not feel "like I'm being called to leave" but he would like to attend services occasionally with the New Faith Community. He is investigating if he can do so without being excommunicated.

The Rev. David A. Zwifka, a canon law professor at Christ the King Seminary, East Aurora, says excommunication is invoked only rarely and as a last resort in the most extreme situations.

"The focus is to give the person an opportunity to change his mind or to repent for an action," said Father Zwifka.

One of the best known, recent cases of excommunication involved the Rev. George A. Stallings, a black priest who founded Imani Temple African-American Catholic Congregation 10 years ago in Washington, D.C. He was dissatisfied with the Catholic Church for its refusal to incorporate African culture into the liturgy.

Stallings' church eventually grew into a new denomination and he became an archbishop. The African-American Catholic Congregation currently has nine churches with about 5,000 members in several major cities.

Unlike Archbishop Stallings, Father Callan says he has no intention of establishing a new denomination.

"We are another Catholic Church, a parish parallel to the larger church, a church in exile. My hope is that in 10 or 20 years we will be reunited with the larger church," he said.

Chancellor McKenna of the Rochester Diocese has indicated it is a possible that Father Callan's ordination could be revoked to "remove any confusion" regarding his status in the church.

However, Elizabeth Brown, diocesan communications director, stressed that Bishop Clark would be "very reluctant to take that step."

"It's a long process. The case would go to a panel of experts in canon law," she said.

Because the excommunication was automatic, any member of the New Faith Community, including Father Callan, could return to the Catholic Church by confessing to any priest in the Rochester diocese, Ms. Brown said.

Meanwhile, James R. Orgren, Buffalo area coordinator of Call to Action, said he sees the Rochester schism as "a potentially significant event in the history of the American Catholic Church."

"If enough people look at it and say there is something really wrong here -- we need to rethink our support for the traditional church. I think similar things could crop up around the country," he said.

As much as he prays for reform in the Catholic Church, Orgren is not ready to join a breakaway congregation.

"I think most Call to Action members would agree with what Callan and Ramerman were doing, but most of us would find making that break very difficult," he said.

Despite his uncertain future as a priest, Father Callan says he is looking forward to celebrating the 25th anniversary of his ordination next Oct. 4.

"The whole parish will celebrate it," he said. "It's the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, a radical follower of Christ and a great church reformer."

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