The Rebel Priest


From the very beginning, Father James Callan pushed the envelope and tried to change the Catholic Church.

In 1976, he was assigned to Corpus Christi, a dying downtown church in Rochester, N.Y., on the verge of closing. CBS News Sunday Morning Correspondent Martha Teichner reports on his experiences as a spiritual leader working for change.

"I always wanted to be in a place that was ready to close," Callan remembers. "In the seminary we used to say that it's more fun to raise the dead than it is to cure the sick."

That was fine when Father Jim, as he's called, gave money away to the poor and started outreach ministries for addicts and prisoners. But then women began preaching and carrying out functions at the altar only priests are supposed to perform.

"When I said my first Mass in 1974, 25 years ago, I called for the ordination of women right in my first sermon," he says.

Father Jim married gay couples and invited non-Catholics to take communion. His congregation grew from about 500 to more than 4,000.

"I thought I'd be at Corpus Christi the rest of my life and keep making these changes. The people were coming because of these changes," says Father Callan.

For Lutheran Terry Arnold, Corpus Christi was the one church he and his Catholic wife could attend together.

"We had it good," says Arnold. "We had a small microcosm of what we believed Jesus...was teaching us to do."

Don and Linda Maslona had drifted away from the church. Father Jim brought them back.

"I think he makes people reach into their souls to find out what more they can give of themselves to the poor, to the community, to the neighborhood," Linda Maslona says.

There was often excitement about the liberties that were being taken with church doctrine.

"We felt it was a game," Father Callan explains. "The bishop would say, 'Fix it!' We wouldn't fix it, and life would go on."

"Father Callan, almost endearingly so, is naïve," says Father Joseph Hart, vicar general of the diocese, and assistant to Bishop Matthew Clark. Though Clark is considered a liberal, he had reached his limit.

"Bishop Clark, with all the priests gathered in convocation several years ago, said to all of us, 'Do not take me where I do not want to go.' He then left the podium after his talk, sought out Father Callan and said to him, 'Jim, I'm talking to you. You are taking me where I will not go. It's got to stop,'" Father Hart adds.

But it didn't stop. Rather, it escalated especially where Mary Ramerman was concerned. According to the Catholic Church, just about everything she did at Corpus Christi was forbidden to women. She wore priest-like vestments, she participated in the most sacred parts of the Mass, and she even heard confessions.

"I know the diocese accused me of acting as a priest. But I always tried to preserve the role of the priest," Rmerman explains. "For example, I never consecrated the Eucharist. I never anointed the sick. I never gave absolution to people who were asking me for confession."

In August 1998, Father Callan was fired, removed as pastor of Corpus Christi.

"I kind of blinked back the tears and realized that it was over," says Father Callan. "The people were stunned. They immediately called a meeting for that night, and 1,300 people came and they said, 'We've got to fight it.'"

But fighting didn't help. By the beginning of September, Father Jim was gone.

According to the dictionary, a schism is a split or division in an organized group of society, especially a church, as a result of a difference of opinion on doctrine. Schism is the church designation of what happened at Corpus Christi.

Even the word sounds like something straight out of the Middle Ages: the Protestant Reformation all over again.

"It doesn't take a prophet to figure out that women are going to be ordained; that gay people are going to be viewed on the same level as heterosexual people as far as receiving their rights; and that Protestants and Catholics are all going to be one in a very short time," says Father Callan.

"No, none of these things will change," declares Father Hart. "I think he's deceived and for that reason I pray for him."

In 1517, Martin Luther nailed a list of grievances to the door of a Roman Catholic Church in Germany. With this act of defiance, he set in motion more than a century of religious wars. The issue was whether Luther and his followers could believe what they did and still be Catholic.

It was no different for Callan and the members of Corpus Christi Church in Rochester. They had to choose whether to stay or go. Corpus Christi, the body of Christ, was torn to pieces.

On Tuesdays, Father Jim presides over the midday service at the Imanuel Baptist Church. An estimated 1,300 ex-Corpus Christi members formed a new church, Aspiritus Christi, the spirit of Christ, and invited Callan and Mary Ramerman to lead them.

They call themselves roaming Catholics, because they roam around the city holding masses in whatever Protestant churches will have them. In fact, Protestant is what the Catholic Church says they are now.

"I don't put labels on myself," says Charlotte Barnard of Aspiritus Christi. "I am certainly a Catholic in the sense of being a universal believer in God's creation. Roman Catholicism? It really doesn't matter."

But it matters a great deal to Linda and Don Maslona. They decided to stay at Corpus Christi.

"I decided I did not want to leave the Catholic faith, and that was the main reason I had to stay," Don Maslona explains.

So Corpus Christi is right back where it was in its pre-Callan days - down to about 400 members, struggling to make ends meet and to keep its outreach ministries going.

Father Dan McMullen, the new pastor, agrees with Calln about almost everything except his methods. So he won't be rocking the boat, but only trying to keep it afloat.

"I'm troubled because of the pain and sadness that it's caused, the continual almost low-grade melancholy that persists," says Father McMullen.

In December 1998, Callan was suspended, told he could no longer function as a priest. In February 1999, the Catholic Church imposed its ultimate rejection: excommunication.

Says Father Hart: "He's not a Roman Catholic. Roman Catholic is not a feeling. It's not a look. It's a unity. To do something else is pretend."

"I don't feel excommunicated. I still belong to the church. I'm still a Catholic priest. I'm still a Catholic. I always will be," says Father Callan.

"And Martin Luther King used to say we're supposed to cause change," he says. "It's really a call to action. We're not supposed to adjust to change,...we're suppose to cause change."