Parish fights archbishop to stay alive!

By Manya A. Brachear
Tribune staff reporter
Published March 26, 2006.

On a recent Sunday at St. Stanislaus Kostka Church, the file of faithful streaming up to receive Communion stretched from the nave to the back pew.

Hands clasped and heads bowed, the parishioners returned to their seats reverentially after Rev. Marek Bozek placed a wafer into each palm and uttered the phrase "the body of Christ."

In the eyes of St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke, those who accept the consecrated bread and wine from this priest are committing a mortal sin. In a bitter dispute over control of the parish's finances, Burke excommunicated Bozek in December and later stripped St. Stanislaus of its standing as a Roman Catholic parish.

Neither Bozek nor his congregation is backing down. In fact, membership in the parish has more than doubled.

The standoff began a few years ago when St. Stanislaus refused to give the archdiocese control of its property and other assets, worth more than $9 million. Burke removed the two priests then serving there, without whom parishioners could not receive Communion, baptize their children, marry or bury their loved ones.

After 18 months, the church's six officers hired Bozek, an act of disobedience that led to a charge of schism and excommunication for the officers and the renegade priest.

The crime of schism.

A renowned canon lawyer, Burke has said Bozek is exercising his priestly ministry "outside of the communion of the church." Encouraging others to follow amounts to the "ecclesiastical crime of schism." Excommunication, he said, is designed to help persuade an offending Catholic to repent and return to the church.

Church scholars say that although Burke's actions may be an extreme example, they represent a wider effort on the part of U.S. bishops to teach their flock what is required be a faithful Catholic. Sacraments, they say, are being used more often as an incentive to keep parishioners in line.

"His style of pastoring is one that says truth in advertising. This is the teaching. If you choose not to be in accord with it--let's be truthful about it--you're not in full communion with the church," said Rev. Michael Place, who once served as Cardinal Joseph Bernardin's chief theologian.

To Bozek's flock, however, the maverick priest is a savior. In their view, after 18 hollow months without a priest, Bozek brought them back to God. New members say they want to lend support to the cause or have found the spiritual sustenance they had been missing.

"I feel like I've got more spirit, more hope," said Diane Daley, 58, a self-described lapsed Catholic who rejoined St. Stanislaus in the past year after leaving as a teenager. "It makes me feel closer to Christ. This church has brought me back to my roots. In a roundabout way, Burke has helped this parish."

Many of Burke's critics say they can't help but think it is no coincidence that the parish's assets approximate the amount the archdiocese has paid out in sex-abuse settlements. No officials with the St. Louis archdiocese would comment for this story, but Burke has said the parish cannot defy church rules and remain Roman Catholic.

"Some have understood the object of the conflict to be power and money," Burke said in a column for the archdiocese's newspaper in December. "Such is also clearly not the case. The object of the conflict is obedience, the obedience we all owe to the apostolic teaching and discipline of the church."

History of autonomy.

Historians say St. Stanislaus' fiscal autonomy is a vestige from the early 19th Century, when the onus fell on ethnic Catholic communities to raise money, buy land, build a church and hire a priest.

By the turn of the century, most dioceses had assumed control of individual parishes, but many Polish parishioners resisted. Some eventually formed the breakaway Polish National Catholic Church.

It is unclear if that's why Archbishop Peter Kenrick agreed in 1891 to let St. Stanislaus govern itself. Subsequent archbishops have tried to take control of the parish's purse strings ever since.

In the summer of 2003, former Archbishop Justin Rigali sent a missive to the parish requesting it conform, setting current events in motion.

Many parishioners contend the catalyst for that action was the financial strain placed on the church by the clergy sex abuse crisis.

When Burke became archbishop in January 2004, the stakes got higher. The new archbishop pursued the matter immediately and by August 2004 had removed the two parish priests.

The board of directors lodged an official complaint with the Vatican's Congregation for the Clergy, which responded with a letter instructing them to follow Burke's orders. "You have attempted ... to wrest control from [Burke], and attempted to transform St. Stanislaus Parish into an entity which has no resemblance to a parish as envisioned by either the tradition or current law of the Roman Catholic Church," the letter said.

In February 2005, Burke imposed the penalty of interdict on the six directors, meaning that they were no longer eligible to receive any sacraments. According to Burke, when they hired Bozek the directors excommunicated themselves.

Conservative Catholics have rallied around Burke, forming fan clubs to counter the parish's "David and Goliath" portrayal of the situation.

The Catholic Church is not a democracy, said Bill McKenzie, who founded a group called Defenders of Archbishop Burke. "It's not a president and citizens. If you did assume that model, he would be out of line," he said. "Archbishop Burke is merely doing what any faithful bishop would do. ... To disobey him is to disobey Christ."

But others believe Burke has gone overboard.

"It's a sin to go to church?" said Jim Zemenick, 58, who left his parish to join St. Stanislaus four months ago. "What would Jesus do? He wouldn't have excluded people."

Some St. Stanislaus supporters say they have been denied sacraments even outside the church's disputed walls.

Matt Tramont said that at a Grandparents Day mass at his high school, he approached Burke for Communion. But the archbishop turned and walked away, Tramont said, after the senior declared he stood behind St. Stanislaus.

"He can't willingly refuse Christ to a follower of his faith," Tramont said. "I couldn't fathom it. He proved me wrong."

Last June, a priest refused to give Communion to an ailing Kazimierz Segieda, leaving the man's sickbed when the priest learned Segieda belonged to St. Stanislaus, said Segieda, 83.

Sacraments as `weapons'.

Leslie Tentler, a scholar of American Catholic history at The Catholic University of America, said more bishops are using the sacraments as "weapons" to enforce church teaching. During the presidential campaign, she noted, Burke threatened to deny Communion to Democratic candidate John Kerry, who supports abortion rights.

But the strategy sometimes has little effect on independent-minded Catholics, Tentler said.

"More than in the past, Catholics don't perceive the sacraments as something that are the property of the hierarchy or the church," she said. "The sacraments belong to all of us. Today, an excommunication has a slightly different feel emotionally."

Rev. Thomas Doyle, the canon lawyer defending Bozek and the other officers, said an appeal was hand-delivered to the apostolic nuncio in Washington on March 12.

"They have been using the Eucharist as a political bargaining chip," Doyle said. "I find it very distasteful and certainly very contrary to the fundamental notion of what the Catholic Church is all about."

This is not the first time Bozek has clashed with church authorities. The priest said he left his native Poland over accusations that he was a promiscuous homosexual.

By ministering at St. Stanislaus, Bozek said, he is doing what Christ would want him to do. Before taking the job, he imagined facing Jesus on Judgment Day.

"I could imagine Jesus saying to me: `Kids could not be baptized. Parents died, and you did not come to me,'" Bozek said. "I didn't want to be told to move [aside] because I was not courageous enough."

He said he believes Burke should act as a shepherd--not a lawyer.

"He sees the church in terms of regulations, not human lives and human suffering," Bozek said. "Doing this, he really breaks people's hearts and people's souls."

Copyright 2006, Chicago Tribune