A Social Justice and Faith Webzine


by Joanna Manning

A remarkable transformation of the churches is slowly but surely taking place. The old model of priesthood, which has become discredited by a combination of scandals and, in the Catholic Church, by the Vatican’s intransigence on women’s ordination and compulsory celibacy, is dying, but new and prophetic versions of church leadership are taking root and flourishing, often outside the walls of churches. These ‘Priests Without Borders’ resemble the ‘Doctors without Borders,’ the healers who operate outside the walls of hospitals and surgeries, wherever in the world the need for hope and healing is most intense.

     In my last article I outlined the path taken by the Rev. Debbie Little, a priest who has shepherded the Episcopalian Church in Boston beyond its walls to minister to the homeless on Boston Common. Another church without borders has come into being at Spiritus Christi, formerly Corpus Christi, in Rochester, NY.

     In 1976, a newly ordained priest, Fr. Jim Callan was appointed to Corpus Christi church, a declining parish in downtown Rochester. From the start of his ministry, Jim set about organizing the parish according to the Second Vatican Council’s renewed insights into the church as People of God. In his first homily after ordination in 1974, he called for the ordination of women in the Catholic Church. His was not a lone voice at that time: Canadian church leaders such as Cardinal Flahiff of Winnipeg were also speaking in favor of women priests within the walls of Rome itself.

     Jim also insisted in living outside the safe walls of a rectory and eventually moved to a poor, mainly black neighborhood in Rochester. Gradually he began to push the vision of the church, conceived in the documents of Vatican II but not structured firmly in concrete reality, to its next stage of implementation. He called all the faithful out of the pews and around the altar to celebrate Eucharist. He empowered lay people to preach. He focused parish energies away from bingo and back to service to the poor.

     In all the official communications of Corpus Christi Church, Jesus Christ was named as the Pastor. Callan and other priests were named as the associates. Under the direction of its pastor and associates, Corpus Christi started to centre its community life on outreach to the poor and to celebrate diversity and inclusiveness as part of the Catholic sacramental tradition. Sinners and saints alike were invited to partake of the Bread of Life. The parish reached out to gays and lesbians and began to celebrate commitment ceremonies for them. The church was revitalized, and Corpus Christi and its many ministries flourished.

     In the 1980s, Mary Ramerman and her husband Jim were serving as lay ministers in the diocese of Santa Rosa, California. They heard about Corpus Christi and were excited by its vision, so they packed up their tent and moved with their three children across the continent to Rochester. Eventually Mary began to assume an increasingly prominent role and to stand side by side with Jim and Enrique Cadena, Corpus Christi’s charismatic Mexican associate, at the altar. Bishop Matthew Clark, appointed to Rochester in 1975 and an early advocate of women’s ordination, did not demur.

     But during the 1980s, the chill wind blowing from Rome began to stall the progressive energy of Vatican II. Theologians attempting to articulate the gospel message within the context of the modern world were silenced. The liberation churches of Latin America were systematically eviscerated. In 1998, the axe fell on Corpus Christi, when Cardinal Ratzinger informed Bishop Clark that the church’s inclusive practices must cease and desist, or else Jim Callan and Enrique Cadena would be excommunicated and the parish forced out of the Catholic Church. The Corpus Christi community went through a long process of discernment and, after a hard and long labor, Spiritus Christi Church was reborn. Corpus Christi Church still officially functions but as an empty shell of a building, without substance. All of its ministries to prisoners, prostitutes and the poor have moved to the now homeless "church without borders" of Spiritus Christi.

     The new Spiritus Christi community was offered shelter in a variety of Protestant churches. As a result, a whole new chapter in the ecumenical movement is being written. And on November 17 2001, Mary Ramerman was ordained as a Catholic priest in the presence of about 3,000 people in a tumultuous, colorful, solemn and Spirit-filled ceremony. She was formally called to ordination by representatives of the Church of Spiritus Christi in Rochester, by Spiritus Christi’s twin church of Borgne in Haiti, and by former prisoners, recovering addicts, and abused women and other lay groups who are an integral part of the Spiritus Christi community.

     As biblical theologian Ched Myers put it in his speech at the banquet after Mary’s ordination: "Unlike so many American Catholics who are so afraid to move beyond the limited spaces allowed by the magisterium, Mary is determined to open up new territory. She is stepping - no dancing - off the cliff of the present into the thin air of God’s future. It is only through such leaps of faith that a prophet conjures up ground beneath her feet…this mystical ground that appears under the prophet’s skywalk -this is the rock upon which Christ builds and rebuilds his Church."

     Through the courage and witness of these new Priests Without Borders, the Spirit is being poured out anew on women and men, married and celibate, gay and straight, to walk the streets of cities to witness to the healing love of God, each from his or her own life experience, as the Spirit gives utterance to each. The Spirit of God, who breathes where she will, and beyond all borders, is blowing mightily on the embers of churches in Boston and Rochester to stir them into new life. May we all catch the fire.

Joanna Manning is the author of Is The Pope Catholic?: A Women Confronts Her Church published by Crossroad Publishing. She has been a teacher in high school and university for 30 years. In 1995, Manning received the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association’s Marion Tyrell Award for outstanding contribution to Catholic Education. She also runs a weekly breakfast for homeless and poor people in Toronto.

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