Empire Cracking: An Interview on Spiritus Christi

spiritusThis interview was taken by Lydia Wylie-Kellermann as part of a writing project for Geez Magazine entitled “She is Breathing: Listening for Another World and an End to Empire.” It was published in the Winter Issue.

Lydia Wylie-Kellermann:What is Spiritus Christi’s story?

Michael Boucher: What happened at Spiritus Christi in 1998 is often narrated as the community of then Corpus Christi Church moving away from the wider church teachings.  The question always arises, however, “Who moved away from the tradition?”

The difficulties that our community had with the local Catholic authorities had actually been years in the making.  The Diocese of Rochester was well known to be a progressive place where the local church was given a good deal of freedom to develop more inclusive church practices.  So it was within this already fertile environment that the leadership and community of Corpus Christi Church was able to step into some new theological and sacramental space – experimenting with new practices.  It was almost always the outsiders and the excluded, however, who invited the community to stretch itself.  Perhaps one of the greatest wisdom practices of Corpus Christi was that it tried to remain closely connected to the poor and marginalized.  So it was the people who ate at the supper program and slept in the shelter that kept reminding the parish of the need for justice and reform.  It was the LGBTQ couples who wanted their relationships blessed and affirmed that reminded the parish that they were not fully included in the life of the church.  It was the women who spoke of their marginalization and oppression who reminded the community that their voices and presence were needed for the church to be whole.  And so on….

But in 1998 it became clear that as the Catholic Church clamped down on the church community, fired the leadership and essentially asked that leaders and the community “recant” what they had come to believe and put into practice that there was no going back.  Much of this was being driven by Rome’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith headed by then Cardinal Josef Ratzinger (who eventually became pope).

Part of the clarity of having a woman priest had come years before when the congregation had offered Mary Ramerman a “stole” that was attached to her alb as a sign of her leadership.  She was not trying to “be a priest”.  Rather, it was a communal affirmation that she had a role as a leader – as a woman.  Her formal ordination came years later, but the community had known and affirmed her role (and the role of other women) for years.

But we knew that from our very own scriptures that women had ALWAYS been in leadership positions and had led services and engaged in pastoral care.  Our community was only returning to a practice that had been present since the earliest times in the church.

LWK:In what ways is the work of Spiritus Christi counter cultural?

MB: In some ways, what Spiritus is doing does not seem all that extraordinary.  This seems to be the work that discipleship invites us into.  We are “counter-cultural” in that we are committed to the work of justice-doing, reconciliation (in its many forms), repentance (in its many forms) and trying to exert a preferential option for those who are cast aside somehow.

From very early on, Spiritus knew that you cannot do the work of healing without dealing squarely with the racial history of the United States.  Conversations about and opportunities to reflect on race, power and privilege are ongoing among the Spiritus Christi leadership and are frequently part of homilies.  We as a congregation know that the work of racial equality is vitally important to walking the walk.  Our newly ordained deacon, Myra Brown, often reminds us that structures like racism can fall in 20 years with persistent and coordinated efforts.  We keep striving to be more inclusive, to tell the truth about what is happening and to privilege the voices of people of color in our community.  This can be challenging, however, in a majority white congregation.

We also know in our bones that if we can develop right relationships between and among the races, this will mean right relationship with the earth.  We know that these struggles are connected, and we have to keep looking for the connections so that we don’t become myopic in our justice-doing.  The land tells the history of injustice – from genocide, to enslavement, to stolen land, to polluted communities – and reflects our broken relationships to one another.  Addressing systemic racism will be good for all of us and will be good for the land, because there is no way to have the racial conversation without having to talk about restoring people to places

LWK: What are the moments of stories you hold on to as moments of hope?

MB: One of the moments of something new happening came pretty early on in our experience as a community.  The leadership of Corpus Christi Church was being systematically removed by the local diocese, and the congregation began to self-organize.  This was not my experience of Catholics.  Instead of just saying, “There’s nothing we can do….,” the community began to organize into committees that eventually became known as the “Can’t Hold Back the Spring” committee.  There were lay people taking responsibility for their community in ways that I had not experienced before, and it was, ultimately, this group that invited the people like Fr. Jim Callan and Rev. Mary Ramerman back to lead the new community that became Spiritus Christi.  But it was really bottom-up church.  That formed me in my thinking and reminded me of where the power of church really comes from.  Church that does not speak to the lives, experience and giftedness of the community loses something essential.

A personal moment for me happened as we were attending a service as a family.  Our boy/girl twins, Jonah and Kateri, were 4 or 5 years old at the time, and we had been asked to bring the gifts up to the altar together.  When we returned to our seats, my daughter said to my wife, “I think I want to be a priest someday….”  I do not think that she would have felt that same feeling had there been only vested men on the altar.  But it was equally important for me to know that my son was also receiving powerful lessons about the value and role of women as well – learning that women are leaders, visionaries and disciples.  I cried that day because I experienced such a powerful wholeness of experience.

LWK: Is this a different moment? What is happening if we have eyes to see it?

MB: I think that there is a greater awakening happening – at least that’s what I see in our community – around sustainability (broadly defined).  People are asking deep questions related to race, the environment, violence, affluence and community and starting to make powerful connections. I think that is why so many people are excited about someone like Pope Francis.  He’s naming the connections and urging people to act. Martin Luther King Jr.’s prescient 1967 book, “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?” is really the question we have to keep asking ourselves.  And we also have to be cautious not to let ourselves be fragmented.  The problems that we face require movement building, and movement building requires that we work together and learn from one another.  White people, in particular, have so much to learn from communities of color, and the more that white people can get behind, learn from and apprentice with leadership of color the stronger our movements will become.  Otherwise, the same power structures will eventually emerge in our “liberal or progressive” movements. As Richard Rohr, OFM, says, “Pain that is not transformed is transmitted.”  We really need to work to transform the pain – inside and out.


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