- Convert’s Surprise: Part I: Overview
- Convert’s Surprise: Part II: Schism
- Convert’s Surprise: Part III: Peace before the Scandal!
This is the continuing story of the disturbing post-conversion surprises of Rhonda Jones, convert from Judaism to Catholicism. For the sake of hospitality, comments have been shut off, but emails to Diane@CleansingFire.org will be forward to Rhonda as appropriate.
Convert’s Surprise: Part II: Schism
I entered the Roman Catholic Church in April 1998 at Corpus Christi Church, Diocese of Rochester (DOR), with a class of over 20 RCIA candidates. Four months later, on a Sunday morning before Mass, Larry’s mother brought to our attention the headlines in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle. I was stunned. The priest was in Schism with the Diocese and Church. Whatever that meant, it was serious. His staff (another priest and several women hoping to become priests someday and others) sided with him. In fact, almost all of the parishioners in this large city church, drawing people from the inner city and far away, were siding with him as he suddenly prepared to leave the Roman Catholic Church to form another church he labeled, “Catholic.”
It suddenly came to me that the priest might have been looking for an opportunity to “seize the day” and make Catholic history – and Catholic “reform”. Had he been considering this when he baptized and confirmed me a few months earlier? The thought made me shudder as the timing between April and August was so brief.
Larry and I were eager to get to church to find out what was happening. Though the wave of support for the priest throughout the pews was palpable, I remember that what struck me most strongly that day was not this atmosphere of support nor was it the homily. I observed the priest bend down on one knee late in the Mass. I was seeing something new, but obviously important. So I asked either my husband or mother-in-law what the action meant and they explained “genuflecting” to me. Why was the priest suddenly doing this now? Was this sign of piety a show? Was a star born? Was the priest trying to manipulate the parishioners to see him as holier than before to coalesce his followers’ support?
Looking back I perceive that Mass as demonstrating more to me about “opportunity” than about Christ. I remember thinking distinctly that I would have respected the priest’s manner if he had gone to the Bishop and explained “cordially” that he had leave the Catholic priesthood to found a new church fitting his intentions. This would have commenced an honorable process of withdrawing from the Roman Catholic Church priesthood. However, his was not the initiation of a calm, measured process.
A Community Torn Apart
Quickly, things became almost militant. An enormous sign hung by wire blocked much of our view of the sanctuary. The sign read, “Can’t Hold Back The Spring.” This was August. But it was a “pseudo springtime renewal” in this parish and it was the priest and staff bringing it about rather than Christ “making all things new” with Truth and out of love. It was more like a “new Protestant reformation,” spiked with antipathy.
The atmosphere filled with tension as the throngs became excited. Soon it was unquestionable that the great majority sided with the defiant priest. For Larry and me, who were not happy about this, it was awkward at best, but often painful and, at times, even intimidating or frightening. Larry (with a background in international diplomacy studies) attempted to be a peace-maker. He offered a special proposal to bring some unity between the two sides. His idea was quashed as fast as it was proposed, including by several religious sisters who sympathized with the priest.
Tough memories from this time! One enduring symbol for me of this painful splitting was a song, sung on Sundays as RCIA participants left Mass to study together: “I Have Loved You with an Everlasting Love,” by Michael Joncas. For years afterward I had a sickening feeling inside whenever I heard it. I’m a singer but I wouldn’t sing it. Why? When it was sung to us by the Congregation, I felt as though the parishioners were expressing their filial love for us. After the schism, I felt that their having sung it was a sick joke – that we hadn’t mattered to them and that this hymn was merely very well-positioned or staged in the Mass. Where had the love gone when we hadn’t sided with them?
Most parishioners left the Church to follow the priest, though some went to other parishes. Among those moving on to the “Springtime” church were most of my RCIA peers and many of their sponsors. (There had been religious Sisters of St. Joseph at the parish. My own sponsor was one. I do not know which of them went to the new church or which sought another Roman Catholic parish.) What I do know is that we lost many friends in a flash!
Christ and Faithfulness were not on the Ballot
Almost immediately the priest and staff presented everyone with a long mission statement upon which they called for a vote at the weekend Masses – vote to be by show of hands and, thus viewable. This biased format probably intimidated some as it made me very uncomfortable.
Sitting “Center Stage” in three chairs in front of the Altar, presiding over the vote, were the priest plus the other priest and the first woman to be “ordained a priest” from this group. The statement was read and put to a vote: For, Against or Abstention. Along with a few others, I chose to abstain. However, I am really proud of Larry because his was an unmistakable “NO!” vote, with his own “exclamation point:” Larry walked up to the center-front and, standing just below the three in chairs, cast his fully raised arm to vote, “NO!” Years later we encountered a friend from Corpus Christi at a Notre Dame Retreat House Day of Reflection. She told us that this had been a defining moment for her – that Larry’s action taught her to always speak truth even when it required great courage. What a consolation that was for both of us!
What were the defining schismatic issues? They were calls for: 1) Communion for everyone, 2) Gay and Lesbian Church weddings, and 3) the ordination of women to the priesthood. These were no longer wishes — they had become causes and even demands! When Larry and I looked back to consider earlier hints of this unfolding and of other related forms of disobedience, we noted serious omissions during the Mass (e.g. the Creed, the name of the Pope during the Prayers of the Faithful). Likewise, I became acutely aware of the lack of Catholic fundamentals in my RCIA “formation.” (Where were Blessed Mary and the Saints? What did “Magisterium,” “Adoration,” and “Catechism” mean? What does Dogma suggest? What is an “Early Church Father?”) Larry and I had already perceived a definite silence there about saving pre-borns.
There was a morning that fall when a group of the schismatic folk formed a protest circle in front of Bishop Clark’s office. (The Bishop had actually just been taken to the hospital with chest pain that morning.) Larry drove out to the Diocesan Center. All he had in his car were several paper plates upon which he wrote: “For the Bishop!” “For the Pope!” He marched alone in his own “supporting” circle.
We began to realize that a substantial number of DOR priests supported the schismatic priest, sympathizing with his causes. And during travels we learned of the widespread reputation of the Diocese as unusually liberal, with indications of clergy disobedience against Rome. We concluded that if many DOR priests were in sympathy with the one from Corpus Christi, the Bishop probably was aware and might have even allowed this to happen and to continue over many years. My guess is that those sympathizing priests likely felt they were acting of good intentions. However, good intentions do not always lead to good results. And these good intentions were not in sync with Christ’s Sacramental teachings.
Perhaps these priests wanted the DOR to become more welcoming to more people. Some may have wanted the Church to become more “relevant,” in other words, to change with the times. But the changes about which they spoke out, were not about minor details, such as needed with new technologies. They pertained to dogma! They had new new human ideas to try to improve upon Jesus’ ways. (Whether pride or vanity were at play for some of them, I wouldn’t know.) As a Catholic Convert, I have often heard, “God doesn’t think as we think,” or “His ways are not our ways.” Additionally, Satan attempts to trick each one of us into thinking that new ways are improvements over God or Tradition (the latter striking some as very negative!) Satan loves human pride and vanity! And that’s what he pounced on in the Garden of Eden?
With many leaving, the two of us were part of a tiny percentage that remained. There were only about 20 – 30 of us. After trying to help stabilize the parish, it was time to move on. The following June we left for another Roman Catholic Church. By that time, we’d “had it” with reporters and their cameras interrupting our attempts to worship.
The Fruit of Schism
What were some of the “fruits” of this break-up? As the schism struck, the climate at Corpus Christi turned from appearing welcoming and “loving” to tense, noisy, and disrespectful. Good fruit? No. At one point, the schismatic priest arrived to revisit the church, many stood on the pews wildly cheering for him. It wasn’t his homecoming – he was visiting Christ’s home. At times we felt we were experiencing the fruits of “Cult of Personality.” Christ had been made a supporting character.
Other fruit? Eventually the Diocese sent two women to be interim administrators. This drew a “protest boycott from service for the Mass” against the Diocese (including by religious sisters!). This was a boycott from any ministerial service or administrative assistance for the Mass. Larry and I were horrified, especially when we found out that a family had brought their baby for Baptism and no one was prepared to receive them. We had to hunt for their name, for the sacramentals, etc. And if that wasn’t bad enough, the Mass got worse from there. Communion was interrupted by insults toward and intimidation of those of us filling in for boycotting ministers. Another example of rather nasty fruit occurred many Sundays during mass. Week after week a woman dressed very informally just stood through the Mass by the Altar, with her arms crossed defiantly. Not an uplifting sight. I
The next example affected us specifically. A new priest finally was assigned and the small group of remaining parishioners agreed to a clean-up day to assist him. It may be hard to believe this, but the banner was still up! No one had dared to remove it. Larry asked the new priest if he wanted it down, correctly perceiving that the new priest felt anxious about removing it himself. Receiving an affirmative answer, Larry climbed a ladder and cut the wires. Down it came, much to the relief of all of us there. Next thing we knew, the priest had fled the scene and we couldn’t find or reach him. Later that day Larry was informed that he could be arrested for taking “wire” that belonged to someone and was claimed to be valuable to them! Furthermore, it us took numerous calls to find a Diocesan priest to take the banner.
Are these good fruit? I don’t think so. Did this scandal bring many closer to Christ? Hard to know – but certainly not to the Sacraments. What about growth in virtue or holiness? Didn’t see that either. There was, however, some good fruit. Larry and I became easily aware of attempts to vary immutable Church practice, to focus upon individual leaders over Christ, and to disobedience and oppositional behavior. And we were strengthened through a very tough time by God’s Grace, to better appreciate the importance of Courage in Truth.
Why had we first gone to Corpus Christi Church and why had we stayed for a few years? Couldn’t we have seen some of the signs earlier on? My first visit to this church was prior to my inner conversion when I attended a special mass for people of any faith with a spontaneous pregnancy loss, such as miscarriage or stillbirth. I had experienced that loss years earlier and worked extensively with other such people in my psychology practice.
Following my sudden conversion Larry and I agreed that I would follow Catholicism so we could worship together. I knew little about the Faith but I had witnessed the love of Catholicism and faithfulness to it through my husband, his mother, and the relatives of Larry’s deceased wife Lucy, from Cuba. Larry always attended weekly mass. The others were daily communicants.
Over the years, Larry had introduced me to some wonderful priests as well as some great religious sisters. I asked him if we could attend Corpus Christi where I had really “liked” the mass, felt welcomed, and was attentive. Larry was glad to accommodate my wishes, though I have to admit that he occasionally expressed some concerns about being there. As I was so new to the faith, even I had experiences that raised my eyebrows — such as when I excitedly told the priest about a program I had viewed on EWTN and was surprised when he quizzically asked why I would want to watch THAT channel!
Those concerns were quickly brushed away as we acquired a broad, new set of welcoming friends and as we saw what the parish was doing for the dying, the poor, those not able to afford medical care, those released from prison. So, we settled in, but that “settling” was short-lived as the schism caught us off-guard.
Next Entry: Convert’s Surprise: Part III: Scandal