Breakaway Parish Ordains Woman Priest: Bishop Says Ceremony Seals Schism between Congregation, Catholic Church. (Nation)

By Patterson, Margot | National Catholic Reporter, December 7, 2001 | Go to article overview

Breakaway Parish Ordains Woman Priest: Bishop Says Ceremony Seals Schism between Congregation, Catholic Church. (Nation)


Patterson, Margot, National Catholic Reporter


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.

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