Catholic not Roman Catholic : Vatican unlikely to welcome back Elmira church

Monica Sandreczki
February 4, 2014

With the selection of Pope Francis as head of the Roman Catholic Church, there’s been a buzz about his focus on inclusiveness and service over church dogma. One church in Elmira broke away from the Vatican years ago because of some of that dogma.

During Sunday evening mass at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Elmira, a couple dozen mostly 50-somethings stand scattered in the church’s red pews. But they’re not Presbyterians – they’re part of Spiritus Christi, a breakaway catholic church.

The people at Spiritus Christi still call themselves a catholic church, but it’s catholic with a small "c", meaning universal and inclusive. In Spiritus Christi, women are ordained, communion is given to everyone and gay marriage is allowed.

Cheryl Allen’s been coming for twelve years. She left the Roman Catholic Church after the priest refused to serve her communion because she’s gay.

“Rome and I parted company not quietly – not with a whimper, but with a bang.”

Allen decided to give Spiritus Christi a try. But, given her history with the church, she was pretty skeptical at first.

“I just waited for the priest at the front to say something that pissed me off and he didn’t. Father Jim remembered my name, which was a little unnerving. It’s never been a good thing in my experience when a priest knows my name – It usually means I’m in trouble.”

But when she found out that the church performs gay weddings, she was sold.

Back in the 90’s, the church’s founder, Father Jim Callan, was still a priest with the Diocese of Rochester. But he lived on the edge. He performed gay unions at the time and let a woman lead the service with him.

“I guess I... I thought we were an exception like “yeah, you’re right we are getting away with this.’ But, uh... not forever.”

Callan says his boss at the time, Bishop Matthew Clark, knew what he was doing, but looked away until some Catholics in the diocese wrote letters of complaint to the Vatican. Bishop Clark declined to comment for this story.

In 1999, then Cardinal Ratzinger – later known as Pope Benedict XVI – had Father Callan removed from the priesthood.

The Diocese of Rochester said at the time that Callan and the parishioners “excommunicated themselves” when they started Spiritus Christi a couple months later.

Kathleen Kautzer is a sociology professor at Regis College in Boston. She says there are hundreds of independent churches led by priests who split with the Vatican.

“There were communities especially in dioceses with liberal bishops like Matthew Clark who were sort of allowing it and protecting them.”

Kautzer says these liberal churches stemmed from Vatican II, a reform council held in the 1960’s. But the spirit of Vatican II didn’t last long. In 1978, John Paul II was elected to the papacy and dismantled much of the new liberal doctrine.

Yet, Kautzer says liberal parishes clung to the spirit of Vatican II, forcing many dioceses to say “cut it out or get out.”

Some churches, like Spiritus Christi, chose the second option and broke away.

Father Callan says the Roman Catholic Church isn’t likely to welcome Spiritus Christi back on its own terms. But he says, it would be in line with the message of the new pope.

“So when a gay couple came to me to be married, I asked myself ‘do I do what’s orthodox,’ which would be to say no to them. Or to do what’s loving, which I think in the Spirit of Jesus, I wanted to do.”

Callan thinks the Church is on a trajectory toward allowing gay marriage and open communion, if not ordaining women.

Dennis Doyle is a Catholic theologian at the University of Dayton. Doyle says he too was disheartened by the conservative stances of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. But can understand why, in the interest of unity, the church couldn’t allow Spiritus Christi to make its own rules.

“And then all of a sudden there’s Pope Francis. I mean POPE Francis. Who could believe it? Such a sign of hope for everybody. So, you have to hope.”

Back in Elmira, Cheryl Allen is still doubtful Pope Francis will do much to change things for the Catholic Church.

“It’s a wing and a prayer. I don’t believe he’s going to be able to make any changes, but it’s at least nice to hear someone mouth the right words."

Allen says, she’ll take what she can get.