Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Breakaway Catholic flock flourishing in New York

At Spiritus Christi Church, the choir at Saturday night Mass sings the lyrics of "Amazing Grace" to the tune of "House of the Rising Sun" -- a song about a brothel. 

Surely, such a tune for a sacred service would never meet the approval of the Rochester Roman Catholic Diocese. Then again, nothing about Spiritus Christi meets the diocese's approval. 

Spiritus Christi, like the Community of St. Peter in Cleveland, is a breakaway Catholic parish at odds with its bishop.

The Rev. James Callan, 63, now assistant pastor of Spiritus Christi, has been fired from the Rochester diocese and excommunicated from the Roman rite.

The Rev. Robert Marrone, 63, of St. Peter's is awaiting "canonical action" after refusing Bishop Richard Lennon's order in January to resign from his breakaway flock.

Marrone and his parishioners began worshipping in a leased commercial building last August, four months after Lennon closed their church in downtown Cleveland as part of the diocese's downsizing.

Callan and his followers rented space in a Protestant church 12 years ago after locking horns with the diocese over church teachings.

Some might say Spiritus Christi is not a real Catholic church because its pastor is a woman, it blesses gay unions and serves communion to anyone, regardless of their faith -- three big sins in the eyes of the Holy See.

But don't tell this rebel congregation it's not real. 

According to Callan, it is the largest Catholic church within Rochester's city limits, with 1,500 members, 33 full- and part-time employees and an annual operating budget of $1.7 million.

"This is history in the making," said parishioner Cindy McClurg, 53, attending a recent Sunday Mass in a packed, 880-seat concert hall downtown. 

"We're still a Catholic-faith-based church. People say, 'You're not going to make it.' But we are making it. And we've been making it for 12 years."

McClurg and hundreds of people filling the concert hall had been members of Rochester's Corpus Christi Catholic Church, where Callan had been the pastor for more than 20 years.

In 1998, the year Callan was fired by his bishop, Corpus Christi had nearly 3,000 parishioners, eight social service ministries, 70 employees and a $2.5 million annual budget.

But Callan had been raising eyebrows in the diocese for years. 

Beginning in 1988, he allowed a woman lay leader of the church -- who today serves as its pastor -- to stand with him at the altar and recite prayers only a priest is allowed to say.

In 1993, he started performing marriage services for gays. Even before that, he had strayed from church teachings by inviting everyone in the pews to take communion, even non-Catholics.

"Everyone is welcome at God's table," he said.

But the diocese disagreed and ordered Callan to stop his "liturgical abuses" or face dismissal from Corpus Christi.

"I told them, 'I'm not going to betray all those people I've stood with for years,' " said Callan. 

He was fired in August 1998. Callan says the diocese, which declined to discuss Callan and Spiritus Christi, took away his salary and health care but promised him he would get his pension when he retires.

Six months later -- after Callan and 1,100 Corpus Christi members had broken away from the diocese, renamed their community Spiritus Christi and leased worship space in a historical Presbyterian church -- he was excommunicated.

A front-page story in the city's newspaper, the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, quoted the diocese chancellor, the Rev. Kevin McKenna, saying, "By starting this new church, Father Callan is in schism . . . he has excommunicated himself from the Roman Catholic Church."

The diocese said all his followers had excommunicated themselves as well.

But Callan said neither the diocese nor the Vatican presented the defectors with official excommunication documents.

"The church says a person excommunicates himself," said Callan. "That's nonsense. That's like driving through a stop sign and giving myself a ticket."

In an e-mail message responding to a request for an interview, a spokesman for the diocese said, "We are not in communion with Spiritus Christi Church and do not wish to comment."

But interviews with Spiritus Christi members show the congregation is generally undaunted about its mass excommunication. Most shrug. Others call it a badge of honor.

"If we have the power to excommunicate ourselves, we certainly have the power to un-excommunicate ourselves," said Sister Margie Henninger, 70, a St. Joseph nun who was ousted from her order for following the rebels.

Parishioner Margaret Wittman, 82, said, "God doesn't excommunicate. The church excommunicates. The pope excommunicates. But God draws a bigger circle and keeps us in."
The circle at Spiritus Christi includes Mary Ramerman, the woman who had joined Callan at the altar when she worked for the diocese as a lay minister at Corpus Christi. She had been a pastoral associate for 15 years until she was fired two months after Callan was let go.

"They said I could stay if I don't go near the altar and I stop preaching," said Ramerman. 

"They also told me I was a pastoral assistant, not a pastoral associate.

"By the time they fired me, I had already decided who I was, and I wasn't going to let them shape me."

In November 2001, Ramerman, 55, who is married with three kids and holds a degree in theology, was ordained by a bishop from California who administers outside the Roman rite. 

The ordination ceremony was held in Rochester's Eastman Theatre before 3,000 people.

The Rev. Ramerman, who committed a major "liturgical abuse" by being ordained in the 
Catholic faith, which forbids women priests, is now pastor of Spiritus Christi. 

"They make a big deal out of liturgical abuses," she said in a recent interview. "But not so 
much out of child abuses." 

Callan, as assistant pastor, and Ramerman usually work together, saying Masses and performing baptisms, weddings and funerals. Callan still follows the traditions of the Catholic priesthood.

"I feel called to the celibate life," he said.

But when he tried to buy a grave plot for himself in Holy Sepulcher Cemetery owned by the diocese, he was denied.

"I said, 'What? I'm more dangerous dead than alive?' " he laughed.

Though Callan is not welcome into the gates of Holy Sepulcher, his parishioners are.

"The diocese is making money on us," said Callan, who buries about 40 people a year. "And they said that Mary and I led the people astray, so it's not their fault."

Callan said he bought a plot for himself at a city cemetery where Susan B. Anthony, a pioneer in women's rights, and Frederick Douglass, an ex-slave and abolitionist, are buried. "I'll be in good company there," he said.

The funerals of Anthony (March 17, 1906) and Douglass (February 26, 1895) were held at Central Presbyterian Church, which is now Hochstein Memorial Music School, where Spiritus Christi holds one of its two Sunday Masses.

For other Masses -- one every day -- it uses nearby Downtown United Presbyterian Church and Immanuel Baptist Church.

"We're roaming Catholics," joked Callan, who, with Ramerman, drives every Sunday to a Spiritus Christi satellite church in Elmira, N.Y., 120 miles away, to celebrate Mass.

Callan holds no bitterness toward Rochester Bishop Mathew Clark. He said Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict VI, wrote a letter to Clark in July 1998, demanding that the bishop remove Callan from Corpus Christi.

"It was very hard on him when all this happened," said Callan, who still sends Christmas cards to Clark. "He's a good bishop. He knew what was going on. He didn't support us verbally, but he kept a protective umbrella over us."

That umbrella is no longer needed, now that Spiritus Christi stands on its own. 

The breakaway church owns and operates three houses in the city for social-service programs -- sheltering and counseling recovering substance abusers and people getting out of prison.

It is also preparing to build a 39-unit apartment building with a mix of market-rate and low-income units.

The project is scheduled for construction on an empty lot that was once the site of a polling place. Susan B. Anthony was arrested there for voting in the presidential election of 1872, 48 years before women won the right to vote.

The building will include a street-level caf with a Susan B. Anthony theme.

"Our church is centered on the poor and the marginalized," said Callan, noting that his congregation gives 15 percent of its collections to charities and social justice programs. "Jesus made the poor his priority."

Spiritus Christi is 85 percent white, two-thirds Catholic and one-third other denominations and faiths. About half of the congregation lives in the city.

On a recent Sunday, the stage in the historical music hall was accented with flowers, candles and crucifixes around a portable altar.

Upstage, a 25-member choir, accompanied by piano, guitars, saxophone and drums, filled the house with rafter-ringing harmonies.

Callan addressed the multitude: "Take a deep breath. Breathe in the Holy Spirit. As you breathe out, drop your shoulders and your worries."

During Communion, sax player Bill Tiberio wailed a solo, while singer Myra Brown wrapped up the Mass with a gooseflesh-raising gospel tune, hitting some Aretha Franklin-style crescendos.

The sanctuary had the feel of an African-American church as the faithful swayed and clapped their hands, pushing aside traditional Catholic ritual.

"When I leave here, I feel I've got something," parishioner Clarence Cibella, 51, said after the service. "I feel good."

Parishioner Richard Kaza, 60, said, "There's no guilt here. Everybody's smiling. In the old church, I was taught about the fear of God. This is about the love of God."

When Callan was excommunicated 12 years ago, he was quoted in The New York Times as saying he believed that within 10 to 12 years the church establishment will catch up with the ideas of Spiritus Christi and embrace them. 

Today, he laughs at that notion. "I guess I should have tacked on another 20 years when I said that."


Jimmy Mac said...

The Lord moves in mysterious and the Lord's ways are wondrous to behold!

Lee Strong said...

Spiritus has also suffered a number of defections as, in the spirit of that church when it first started, if you don't conform to the leaders' way, or if you choose your own way, you go your separate way. There have been a lot of disillusioned people leaving.