View from the choir

I am a Catholic layperson and Secular Franciscan with a sense of humor. After years in the back pew watching, I have moved into the choir. It's nice to see faces instead of the backs of heads. But I still maintain God has a sense of humor - and that we are created in God's image.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Diaconate: Where heresy flourishes unmolested (1)

Further thoughts on the diaconate decision, with a bit of heresy tossed in for fun.

I married my first wife in the late 1970s. I was by that point an ex-seminarian, and had worked at Covenant House and for a short time as a staff member at a Catholic Worker house. She had begun college as a religious studies major. One of our first dates was to a talk at the local Catholic Worker.

After we were married we helped to co-found the local chapter of Pax Christi. We looked for a church that reflected our views of social justice and church.

We found Corpus Christi.

In its earlier days, Corpus Christi had been one of the diocese’s leading churches. But by the 1970s it had declined dramatically, as had the inner-city neighborhood in which it was located. The parish was rumored to be on the verge of closing.

Father Jim Callan was assigned there. He’d already had a series of run-ins with diocesan authorities. His ordination had been delayed because of his actions. He had been suspended once. When he was sent to Corpus, some folks said it was as a punishment.

He is a charismatic man and a gifted speaker. He also has the ability to inspire others and to encourage them in whatever they want to try.

One of the first things he did was start a Thursday night Mass with “folk” music and a charismatic style of worship. That’s part of what drew my first wife and me to the parish in the early 1980s.

We were soon actively involved in the parish, which began to grow rapidly. Sunday attendance rose from a couple of hundred when Father Callan arrived to more than 2,000. The Thursday night Mass drew more worshippers than most Catholic Churches get at all their Sunday Masses combined.

Lay people felt empowered in the parish. Soon it boasted a whole series of ministries. A homeless shelter. A Clothing ministry. A child care. A health center. A home for ex-offenders.

Meanwhile, the parish tithed 10 percent of all its collections to various charities.

And the music was incredible.

The parish was beginning to draw national attention as model of what a Catholic parish can be.

My wife and I were parish leaders, involved in various ministries, including the music.

I volunteered in the overnight homeless shelter. I was on the board for the health center. I was a lector and Eucharistic minister. I served on a number of committees, including one that interviewed potential staff. I edited the parish newsletter. As a musician, I played on Thursday nights, Sunday mornings, and for the diocesan jail Masses.

She sang with the music groups, did art for the newsletter, preached at daily Masses, etc. Together, we even flew to other churches in other states to preach as representatives of the parish.

She and I and two other lay people formed a group called the “Four Good Lays,” keeping our identities secret. We played some pranks, and wrote joke songs involving the parish and its various personalities. We wrote a parody of a newspaper article about the parish. In it, we had one person say he was drawn to the parish because it allowed “heresy to flourish unmolested.”

Life was good.

It was at this time that I first seriously discussed the diaconate. It had just restarted in the diocese, with the first class ordained in the early 1980s.

I was interested. I even spoke with Father Callan about it, who was encouraging. He thought deacons would help meet the needs of the rapidly growing parish.

But some other people in the parish I spoke with contended that the diaconate was not a good idea. They felt it was a way to co-opt lay involvement, and was just another sign of clericalism in the church.

In addition, they viewed it as a way to keep women in check, creating another layer of male-only clergy.

I had mixed feelings about it at the time. I believe in women’s ordination. At the very least, I thought the diaconate should be open to women.

It was about that time that things began to blow up.


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