In a face-off with authority, Polish priest stands to be defrocked.
Issue Date: February 22, 2008.
St. Louis.

Two years ago, when Fr. Marek Bozek left his diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau, Mo., to follow his heart and conscience to a Polish parish in St. Louis, he says he didn’t expect his kindly Springfield bishop, John Leibrecht, to suspend him. Nor did he expect that he would soon be cast by Catholic hopefuls as David to Archbishop Raymond Burke’s Goliath on a national stage. All he wanted, he says, was to provide the sacraments for a group of proud Catholic Poles, whose parish he believed had been unjustly suppressed.

In an unusual arrangement dating back 200 years, St. Stanislaus Kostka, a large inner-city church near St. Louis’ downtown, controlled its own property and assets, estimated when Bozek arrived in December 2005 at about $9 million. Burke, St. Louis archbishop, said the parish’s governance structure as a nonprofit group run by a lay board was outside church law, which calls for a bishop to have ultimate authority over parishes. When St. Stanislaus refused to comply, Burke pulled out the parish’s priests. By the time Bozek arrived, St. Stanislaus had been without a priest for two years.

Bozek, then 29 and a native of Poland, hoped to remain in St. Louis just long enough to effect a compromise, perhaps a year or two. Leibrecht urged Bozek not to go. Bozek went anyway, in violation of his priestly vow of obedience to his bishop, and was immediately suspended. Leibrecht says Bozek was warned. Bozek felt he had to go. He found it outrageous that, as he saw it, people would be denied sacraments in a worldly struggle over money.

Burke, who says the issue is obedience, not money, acted swiftly. Calling the parish’s decision to hire a suspended priest “an act of schism,” he declared Bozek and six lay members of the St. Stanislaus board excommunicated, and threatened Bozek with laicization -- meaning, Burke warned, that unless Bozek repented his disobedience, he could be defrocked, stripped of all priestly faculties and returned to the lay state.

Bozek was concerned, then consoled by a canon lawyer who assured him that priests in the United States had been laicized only if they had asked to be, in order to marry, or -- as happened to scores of priests in the recent sex abuse crisis -- if they had committed serious sexual crimes against children.

In late 2005, Bozek considered the prospect of defrocking remote. He stayed the course. The conflict over St. Stanislaus now a subject of national news, he celebrated a midnight Mass in a tightly packed church while an overflow crowd watched on closed-circuit TV in the parish hall or stood outside in the cold, craning to listen.

The parish soon grew from 260 member households to 550 -- many coming from miles away, attracted by the welcoming young pastor with a droll sense of humor and a knack for delivering intelligent homilies. A parish once regionally noted for little more than polka Masses and Polish dinners was fast becoming for his supporters a national symbol of a progressive vision of church -- one in which, among other things, the laity controls the assets and keeps the books.

This past November, Bozek carried that vision to a new level, provoking Burke again, by donning vestments and laying hands of blessing on two women being ordained by Roman Catholic WomenPriests, putting him once again outside the church’s canon law. Burke, an uncompromising defender of official church teaching, has been swift to levy penalties against religious leaders who took part in that Nov. 11 event (NCR, Nov. 9 and Dec. 7). Fortified with evidence of Bozek’s role, Burke summoned him under a “canonical admonition” to a Feb. 5 hearing, setting the stage for the defrocking. Outwardly calm, Bozek admits that his blood pressure has shot through the roof. “I am panicked many times,” he admits. “But regret? No.”

What’s hardest is feeling so alone, he says. “Where are the other priests? For God’s sake, how much longer will they compromise themselves?”

What keeps him going, he adds, is the solid support of his parishioners, who gave him an overwhelming vote of confidence the weekend before the hearing. Uncounted numbers of laypeople -- from St. Louis, from Springfield, from around the United States and from Poland -- support him too, some describing him as a hero. But, warns Burke, who has made several public statements on the matter, those who receive sacraments from the disobedient priest are risking their immortal souls.

People who know the defiant priest only by reputation, largely from news reports, have wondered: Who is this guy? Is he a professional pot stirrer? Does he flout authority for sport? Does he relish the idea of falling on his sword in a grand masochistic gesture? Is he too naive to understand the consequences of the wrath he is bringing on himself?

Pivotal call.

Bozek was born “in the middle of nowhere, in the woods outside Kazan.” Poland was still a satellite communist country of the Soviet Union, and the Red Army had a base in the woods not far from the Bozeks’ small house. He accompanied his grandfather, a forest ranger, to fill feeders for wild animals, and he learned to pick wild mushrooms and berries, because the family was almost entirely self-sufficient.

On Sundays the family walked five miles each way to worship at a 13th-century stone church, Bozek eagerly inhaling the incense and listening to the music. “When you’re a child, you think by using your senses,” he says. “You want to experience.” The experiences that strung together his first years of life were joyful ones, of God, family and nature intertwined.

That all changed when his father’s dead body was found by the railroad tracks in the woods, his skull crushed open. Bozek was not quite 6.

“Many suspected the Red Army,” he says, “and of course the investigation was dropped after a few days. My grandfather was a staunch anti-communist -- that’s why he’d never advanced to higher positions -- and he was very outspoken in saying Poland was meant to be a free country.”

Bozek can close his eyes and see his father’s bruised face, the people praying around the casket in the living room. “For a small child, it was overwhelming,” he recalls.

School distracted him. He earned good grades and was well liked, chosen to be class president all through elementary and high school.

His love of church deepened. “It was the only place we could be free, say what we believed without being persecuted,” he explains. “At that time, the priest was the only man who wasn’t afraid -- even though many were arrested and killed. I was so impressed by these guys who were saying things out loud.”

He loved being an altar boy. “I could see the bread and the wine being put into the chalice. It was so close and so real.”

A supporter of Fr. Bozek from St. Stanislaus, a church built by Polish immigrants, holds up photos of John Paul II, the first Polish pope

Politics was becoming real too: The Solidarity movement was underway, and when Bozek learned that the first free election would be held, he walked to the party headquarters clutching his school transcript and Boy Scout certificates and begged to help. In the dark of night, he and his friends put up posters, got chased by cops. “It was exciting as hell,” he grins. “Teenagers love to do things that are forbidden, and fortunately these were good things that were forbidden!” Solidarity won 99 seats of 100, and he realized, incontrovertibly, “that people make a difference. Things can change that seem to be unchangeable.”

By now, Bozek knew he would become a priest. But as he grew older, he watched with dismay as the church, now operating in a free Poland, “to some extent lost its mission. It started telling people who to vote for, saying you are not Catholic if you do this or that, and this was extremely badly received.”

He entered seminary in 1993, choosing the Pallotine order because, he says, “their founding father was the first to say that the laypeople are the church, and should take responsibility to shape the church.” He discovered the Jesuit Fr. Anthony de Mello’s mixture of Catholicism and Eastern wisdom, and it penetrated his soul.

He found a platform in theater and wrote a controversial play about the last days of Jesus in which the arrogant Pharisees and high priests were modern-day clergy. “Original,” his superior said thoughtfully. “Let’s try it.” But as Bozek continued to read widely and express challenging opinions, “both my superiors and I realized I was moving outside the religious-order brackets,” he says, “and we had an amicable divorce.”

He switched to a diocesan seminary and became president of the school body within a year. He had trouble there too. “I think I rose too fast,” he says. “There was resentment and rumors started.” One day he came back from an international ecumenical conference and was told his seminary days were over. “We know you are homosexual; we know you are living a promiscuous lifestyle,” the vice rector told him.

Bozek stared back incredulously. “You have details of this?” He says the rector balked at discussion. The next day, several other students were dismissed in what Bozek describes as “a witch-hunt,” but he persisted in efforts to preserve his good name. He threatened to sue if the slander continued, and suddenly the tone changed. He received a letter of recommendation, written in English -- allowing him to venture beyond Poland, where the post-communist church was seemingly growing more conservative by the day. He considered many places, settling finally on Springfield, after a friend told him he’d met a great bishop there.

Leibrecht sent Bozek to complete his education at the Benedictines’ St. Meinrad Abbey in Indiana. On his 28th birthday, he was ordained. His family flew from Poland, and the following week they all drove to the only Polish parish in the region, St. Stanislaus Kostka in St. Louis, so he could celebrate his first Mass in his native tongue. Leibrecht assigned him to a small parish in Neosho, Mo., where he learned Spanish and offered Masses for Mexican immigrants.

Two years later, he was appointed associate pastor of St. Agnes, the cathedral parish in Springfield. He became police chaplain in Springfield and started a Hispanic ministry in nearby Branson.

Then a parishioner from St. Stanislaus contacted him.

It was a pivotal call for Bozek. His own Polish people were being denied the sacraments in what -- a conflict over worldly goods? “What had the Catholic church come to? There is no more simple and direct order in the Gospel than ‘Feed my sheep.’ And now the sacrament has become part of the game.”

When Bozek reached St. Louis, following a retreat in Peru, the official letter from Archbishop Burke was waiting. It implored him to desist from his disobedience “for the sake of your immortal soul.” To Bozek, this was borderline heresy: a warning that unless he was a priest in good standing his salvation was at stake. He knows his recent church history: “The Second Vatican Council teaches that all men of faith can be saved,” he points out firmly.

Pushing boundaries

In his fight for a vision of church he believes in, Bozek has provoked some rifts, deepened others. Before he came to St. Stanislaus, a small number of the original 260 parishioners had already left, distressed at the board’s noncompliance. “We are deeply concerned that the actions taken by the board of directors are clearly intended to weaken the authority of the Holy See and of Archbishop Burke,” they wrote in a letter of protest. “We reject the board’s rhetoric comparing their role to that of Solidarity in the fight for the freedom of Poland.”

The former parishioners are hesitant to comment about the young Polish priest who stepped into the middle of the fight, but one, speaking on condition of anonymity, said, “He escapes from the rules. It looks like he is trying to set up his own private church.”

Seminarians in Springfield have been forbidden to contact Bozek, and conservative Catholic Web sites are filled with innuendo about him. They allude to his dismissal from the Polish seminary and the “rainbow stole” he wore to the women’s ordination.

“Rainbow? It is Guatemalan,” Bozek says, his tone bemused. “It has bright colors.” He draws a long, exasperated breath. “I clearly support my gay and lesbian parishioners, and I am willing to take responsibility for that. If people want to say that we are protecting gay people, it’s true. We are protecting divorced people too, and people who were abused as children by Catholic priests.”

Labels of “liberal” and “conservative” didn’t exist in Poland, he remarks; you were either communist or Catholic. “I am a 100 percent Roman Catholic believer. I don’t challenge any matters of faith. I closely follow every single dogma of the Catholic church.” But when it comes to matters of church discipline, rules that many say can change over time, “that’s a different story,” he says.

“Discipline has changed back and forth in the Catholic church for centuries. Peter -- who became the first pope -- said you had to be circumcised and follow the Torah and be Jewish; Paul said, ‘Oh no, we have to be inclusive.’ At the first council, Peter changed his mind. The first pope should be an example to other popes!”

A proposal for Burke.

While Burke’s supporters see Bozek and the St. Stanislaus parishioners as intransigent, perhaps deluded, Bozek’s supporters say they relish his openness and determination to push the boundaries.

At the end of three weekend Masses at St. Stanislaus, with Fr. Bozek's meeting with the archbishop just days away, he outlined his vision of the church, including his disagreement with some church laws.

Jessica Gray, 24, of Springfield, says it is his “passion and fearlessness” that makes him, for her, a deeply inspiring priest. “And maybe not being American, not feeling like he has to conform to our notions of what is right and wrong.” Was he controversial at St. Agnes, a firebrand? “No, he really wasn’t. He was different. Everyone just loved him.”

Theresa Gallaway, 43, of St. Louis, one of the many who joined St. Stanislaus after Bozek arrived, was happy to find a priest “who shares my vision of church.” She describes him as “very charismatic, very caring and down to earth.”

The weekend before the Feb. 5 hearing with Burke, Bozek delivered a short, pointed homily on St. Lawrence who, entrusted with church treasures, refused to turn them over to the prefect of Rome, instead distributing them to poor people -- describing them as the true treasures of the church.

At the end of each of the three weekend Masses, Bozek explained why his homily had been short. He wanted time to explain his vision of church. Although many had told him they backed him as their priest no matter what came down, Bozek wanted them to fully understand the beliefs of the person they were committing to. While remaining deeply loyal to unchanging church teachings, he told them, he differs with church authorities in these ways: He believes the laity should control church funds, that people should be able to choose their own priests and bishops, that married men and women should have equal right with celibate men to be ordained, and that everyone -- everyone -- should be welcome at the eucharistic table.

Bozek then asked the people to stand if they wished him to remain as their pastor, to remain seated if they did not. The unspoken message: Will you support me even if I am defrocked? There had been a snowstorm that weekend, so attendance was low. But of the 312 voting, 22 remained seated and 290 stood.

Although the day of the Feb. 5 hearing was Mardi Gras and Super Tuesday, the day of the presidential primary elections, all the local news outlets converged on the Catholic Center. So did more than 200 Catholics who came to support Bozek by praying the rosary, enduring a cold, drenching rain. About 15 people supporting the archbishop also came. A sign on the door of the Catholic Center said it was closed for the day “due to a power outage,” prompting many jokes. The meeting between Bozek and Burke was held in an office at the Basilica Cathedral of St. Louis next door.

Bozek said afterward that he had made the archbishop an offer. He would resign from St. Stanislaus, either return to Springfield or go to a Benedictine monastery and publicly repent if Burke would allow St. Stanislaus to retain its lay financial governance and send another Polish priest to minister there.

Two kinds of love.

Burke declared the proposal unacceptable. He gave Bozek one month, until March 5, to repent his actions or face removal from the priesthood. He said he found Bozek’s conditions offensive; repentance should be unconditional. He urged Bozek to seek reconciliation and return to his home diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau -- where Leibrecht has said the door remains open, though noting that “Fr. Bozek has gone from ordination to excommunication in three short years.”

Some 200 supporters of Fr. Bozek endured cold and driving rain to hear his report of his Feb. 5 hearing with Archbishop Raymond Burke.

Burke also maintained that Bozek’s disobedience and St. Stanislaus’ refusal of the church’s authority should be treated as separate issues.

“That’s the only reason I got into this battle,” Bozek says, exasperated, referring to Burke’s contention that sacraments should not be contingent on a battle over money.

In a statement aired on the St. Louis archdiocese’s Web site, Burke explained his position. “As archbishop, I cannot permit individual priests like Fr. Bozek to damage the unity of the church and so to harm the faithful and give scandal to people in general,” Burke said. “I speak to you out of the deepest concern for the soul of Fr. Bozek and the souls of all the faithful who may be confused or be led into serious error because of his activities in the archdiocese.”

Burke told the archdiocesan newspaper, the St. Louis Review, that further canonical action -- meaning Bozek’s dismissal from the priesthood -- “will be necessary, in order to keep him from continuing to bring spiritual harm to his own soul and to the soul of others.”

On March 5, if neither man changes his mind, Burke will convene a judicial penal process, either appointing a judge from among his lawyers or appointing himself. “I was informed that in light of three heavy volumes of proof of my crimes, they want to proceed as speedily as they can,” Bozek said. The Vatican will have final say over the defrocking.

Can Bozek understand Burke’s point of view? “Yes, of course,” he concedes. “I think we are both willing to say we love the church. How we see this love happen differs -- drastically. I am afraid he sees the love of the church as protecting the patriarchal, hierarchical structure, and I see the church as people moving from slavery to freedom. Those are two very different models.”

The archbishop “makes it so much easier on us to dislike him,” Bozek remarks, “because he is such a bullying type. But I don’t think anyone else would make different decisions. They would probably make different PR decisions, but every Catholic bishop has to follow the policy line.”

Richard Lapinski, an usher at St. Stanislaus, sums up the situation this way: “These parishioners love this man.” There is an unspoken message here, too: Bozek is, for now, the parish’s only option, because Burke will not appoint another priest.

The congregation at St. Stanislaus includes Polish immigrants who lived through the devastation of the Second World War and others who experienced the oppression of communism. Noting that the Polish people have survived much, Lapinski said hopefully, “This parish will survive Archbishop Burke.”

Jeannette Cooperman is a St. Louis writer.

National Catholic Reporter, February 22, 2008

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