Bishop Clark says renegade Catholics wanted schism


WASHINGTON, D.C. — Saying that nothing has pained him more in his 20-year episcopacy, the embattled Bishop of Rochester spoke to The Miscellany on March 6 about the schism that is tearing holes of controversy in his diocese. He gave his side of the story.

“I’m up to my earlobes in conflict,” Bishop Matthew Clark said.

Bishop Matthew ClarkHis see is Rochester, a large urban diocese in western New York state that erupted this summer when Bishop Clark re-assigned Father James Callan from his pastorate at Corpus Christi Parish for “consistent pastoral and teaching practices that violated the norms of the church.” The 25-year veteran clergyman was later suspended from active priestly ministry by his bishop.

In a Feb. 24 statement, the Bishop cited Father Callan’s ongoing defiance of Church teaching on women’s liturgical roles, intercommunion with non-Catholics, and ministry to gays and lesbian Catholics as reasons why he was suspended from the priesthood.

Earlier this month, Callan and some of his former staff at Corpus Christi joined perhaps hundreds of others in forming a new faith community. Bishop Clark later told the press that all Catholics involved with the new church were automatically excommunicated. Because they excommunicated themselves, they can, however, return to the church by using the sacrament of reconciliation.

“I’m not certain of Father Callan’s involvement with the establishment of the breakaway church, but it is clear that he has served there,” Bishop Clark said. “If they deliberately and consciously do this, they remove themselves from our church; that is, they are excommunicated. I have carefully avoided any of the kinds of excommunications that could be imposed by me, so that we would still have a chance to settle these differences privately, off-camera.”

Those differences, according to the bishop, left him with no choice in the dispute. He enumerated the three major areas of concern that he said have been building for more than a year at Corpus Christi:

1) It was a regular practice at the inner city Catholic church to consistently invite all present at Mass to receive the Eucharist, regardless of their preparedness for the sacrament. While every parish has non-Catholics and others who would normally be canonically excluded from communion receive occasionally “for a whole range of reasons,” Bishop Clark said, Corpus Christi engaged in “a blanket application” of the invitation that went beyond hospitality. “What is this saying about the sanctity of the Eucharist?” he asked.

2) The second egregious contravention of Catholic norms that the bishop listed was that of some liturgical practices at Callan’s parish. Bishop Clark said that the Creed was never said at Mass: “This was by design. Also, by gestures, location and vestments, for all practical purposes a lay minister was presented as a co-presider (at Mass),” he said. That minister was the pastoral associate, Mary Ramerman, although the bishop said that her gender was not an issue in the violation. Ramerman was a non-ordained minister at Corpus Christi who regularly served at the altar.

3) The other big infraction struck many observers as high irony: the parish “engaged in quasi-simulations of marriages for gay and lesbian couples,” according to Clark. The irony of that stems from Bishop Clark’s own outreach to the homosexual community. The Diocese of Rochester recently hosted a convention for gay and lesbian Catholics, and Bishop Clark often speaks out on the church’s need to welcome these marginalized worshipers into all faith communities. He said: “This diocese has made regular, consistent and sincere efforts to minister to our gay and lesbian Catholics.”

The divisions between Corpus Christi and the institutional church blew up into a news media affray all at once, but Bishop Clark said that it had been developing for “some years.” He said that interest in the case, especially in the secular press, has been intense, and that the members of Callan’s breakaway group cultivated publicity and marshaled the energy of the press to suit their ulterior motives.

“The more we got into this, the more it became clear that these (violations) were symptoms of deeper concerns: their intention was to form what they call a post-denominational church,” Bishop Clark said. “They have problems with the bishop’s authority. They have for some years been very selective … in their plan to form this post-denominational church. That explains why they were so resistant to our intervention.”

He said that he was hurt when the rebellious staff members treated him as an interloper and he has tried to “encourage those participating in this post-denominational church, but who are not fully committed to it, to think hard about the implications of this move for their sacramental life and that of their children. I’m trying to be considerate because we are all hurting.”

The bishop agreed that outreach programs at Corpus Christi were “wonderful” under Callan and his staff; the social justice actions were never an issue, however, and he said that they continue uninterrupted, even though the parish has diminished in size because of the schism and because many parishioners moved to other parishes when the dispute with the see turned contentious.

He called it unfair when his intervention is portrayed as somehow being in conflict with the good things that are being done at Corpus Christi.

Adding to the woes there is litigation concerning a charge of wrongful firing filed last month. Bishop Clark would not comment specifically about the lawsuit, saying it was being addressed in the proper legal arena; he did say that “the new pastor had a very tough row to hoe. Some of the staff in place were resistant to the pastoral authority of the new pastor, and he had to replace them.”

Bishop Clark said that he bears no animosity toward Callan, whom he has known for 20 years, despite the division and disruption the dispute has caused in the Rochester Diocese. “We’ve spoken over the years, never in a hostile way. My policy is to allow for pastoral judgment on the local scene. We might raise questions, but I always say to (pastors): ‘You’re on the front line; you know what has to be done. But please do not go places where I cannot go with you.’ We hope that we can work out our differences as a family of faith. This (the Corpus Christi matter) has been very painful for the local church.”

Bishop Clark, who was ordained to the episcopate at age 41 by Pope John Paul II on May 27, 1979, in Rome and has served as ordinary of Rochester ever since, denied any pressure from the Vatican to censure the rebellious priest.

“We had inquiries (from Rome) about what was going on at Corpus Christi. People have tried to paint this as something I disbelieve in, but I knew it had to be addressed. It’s pretty clear that I did not cause this; it was a logical extension of their design. If it didn’t happen this way, it would have happened in some other manner.”

He said that he wants the schismatic Catholics back into the fold, especially his former pastor: “It is in my daily prayers that he will think through the things that are dividing our community and hurting a lot of people,” he said. “I would love to welcome Father Callan back; we need his love for the faith, his energy and his leadership. I will not give up on him ever.”

There are no formal negotiations going on now between the bishop and the breakaway group — feelings are still “too tender” — but he said, “… I hope we can come to that. I am aware of many private communications by people who are working hard to reconcile the differences.”