Controversy follows Marek Bozek from Poland to St. Louis!

By Tim Townsend

Mark 1:21-22

"They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes."

The Gospel reading for this recent Sunday was from the book of Mark, the namesake of the young Catholic priest in green vestments who stood in the sanctuary addressing his flock.

The Rev. Marek Bozek was talking about authority. But only the most literal-minded in attendance could have believed Bozek's words were meant as a general lesson on the subject.

Most of those sitting in the pews had been through two years of battles with the St. Louis archdiocese over the control of their church, St. Stanislaus Kostka parish. And they knew Bozek's words about authority and obedience were aimed squarely at the man who had declared the priest excommunicated from the Catholic church: St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke.

Catholics, said the 31-year-old Bozek, are taught to revere the church's authority and the authority of those in the church hierarchy. Though it is central to the church, he said, "obedience, thank goodness, is not the highest value."

"There are three other values that are higher: justice, truth, charity," he said. "Authority and obedience need to serve these three values. If any authority demands of you obedience that would be unjust, untruthful, uncharitable, you - as a Catholic - not only can be disobedient, but should be disobedient."

The story of the fight over St. Stanislaus, like any good story, has produced dramatic plot lines ("Archbishop removes priests from St. Stanislaus"), a variety of settings ("Another parish gets official Polish nod") and intriguing characters ("Burke formally denies sacraments to defiant board").

In December, a new character was introduced: Marek Bozek, the young rebel savior.

A hard childhood.

When Bozek was 5 years old in Poland his father was murdered, most likely, he said, by Soviet troops stationed nearby along the Poland-Soviet Union border. He said the case was never investigated or prosecuted.

"I saw my dead father's body," he said. "I saw his brains."

His mother left him and his younger sister "within weeks or months" of his father's death and remarried. Bozek was adopted by his aunt and uncle and his sister was raised by their grandmother.

"I was old enough to be conscious of what happened and young enough that it influences the rest of your life," he said.

Bozek talks with pride about his association, as a teenager, with anti-communist Polish groups. He sees himself today as a passionate idealist who will stand up to injustice.

On Christmas Eve, when he celebrated his first Mass at St. Stanislaus, Bozek said he had not come for the glory.

"I did not come here to be powerful, to be a warrior or a hero," he said in his homily. And yet that's the way he was perceived - an idealistic young priest from Poland who had stood up to communism and was now promising - despite professional and spiritual risk - to lead the members of St. Stanislaus in their fight with authority.

In his Christmas Day homily, Bozek told his congregation something else about himself: Before coming to Missouri, he had left his seminary in Poland after being accused of "promiscuous homosexuality," accusations, he said, which were never proven.

Bozek entered the seminary in his hometown of Olsztyn, in the archdiocese of Warmia, when he was 23. He quickly became a presence at the seminary, called Hosianum, and was elected president of the student body in his first year.

"I am a person who is either loved or hated," said Bozek. "I cause extreme reactions, so very fast I made friends there, and probably some enemies."

Two years later, Bozek was confronted by the seminary's rector at the time, the Rev. Jan Guzowski, and was told to leave the seminary immediately.

In an interview, Guzowski said some of Bozek's classmates had accused him of propositioning them. "When we did an investigation, we found homosexual pornography in his room," said Guzowski. "That was the last straw."

Bozek said that's news to him. "There's nothing I can say to it, it's his version and I've never heard of any of it before," he said. "I left on my own responsibility."

Warmia's archbishop, Edmund Michal Piszcz, later investigated. He said "nothing was really proven" in the case, but agreed with Guzowski that Bozek had been removed from the seminary.

Bozek maintains that he left on his own.

Soon afterward, in the spring of 2000, the Rev. David Hulshof, director of Springfield-Cape Girardeau's vocations office, received an e-mail from Bozek inquiring about a career in the diocese.

When Hulshof asked Bozek why he wanted to come to Missouri, Bozek told him "he left his seminary freely to perhaps better serve in a missionary diocese where everyone wasn't Catholic," Hulshof said.

Over its 25,700 square miles of southern Missouri, the diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau claims 64,000 Catholics - about 5 percent of the population. Because there are so few Catholics in southern Missouri, it is considered a missionary diocese, and Bozek said it was this characteristic that attracted him.

In a letter of recommendation to the diocese, Piszcz wrote: "I know Marek would like to continue his formation for a priesthood and as his hitherto existing archbishop I give him my own recommendation."

He did not mention why Bozek left Hosianum.

"There is no reason why if someone is accused of something at one place they cannot go on to another," Piszcz said recently.

After he was ordained in 2002, Bozek was assigned to be an associate pastor at St. Canera parish in Neosho.

He spent about 18 months there before Bishop John J. Leibrecht, leader of the Springfield-Cape Girardeau diocese, reassigned him to St. Agnes Cathedral in Springfield in the summer of 2004. Leibrecht said he'd been told Bozek was preparing to tell his congregation in Neosho from the pulpit that he was homosexual. Bozek denies it.

Leibrecht asked Bozek if he had "an agenda." Bozek said he did not, but Leibrecht decided the rumors were distracting from Bozek's ministry - which Bozek says was true - so he brought the priest to Springfield.

Bozek said he is "a celibate and chaste priest."

Break with Springfield.

By fall, people in Springfield, including Leibrecht, were hearing rumors that Bozek was considering leaving for St. Stanislaus. But the bishop said when he asked the priest about his plans, Bozek always denied it. Bozek finally came to Leibrecht's office in early December and told him he was abandoning his vow of obedience to the bishop in order to heed God's call. God, Bozek told his bishop, was calling him to return the sacraments to the parishioners of St. Stanislaus.

The 75-year-old Leibrecht said he feels a "personal betrayal" in Bozek's decision. On the morning Bozek gave Leibrecht his final decision, Leibrecht asked the priest to sit down and take his coat off. Bozek refused.

"I begged him not to leave. I gave him every reason I could think of," said Leibrecht, "but he made the decision anyway. It was," he paused, then began to cry softly, "it was one of the saddest days of my life."

Since December, Bozek has maintained that his only reason for leaving his diocese, betraying his bishop and risking excommunication was to bring the sacraments back to the people of St. Stanislaus. His resolve has only strengthened since he arrived.

"I would never get involved here if the archbishop had not taken away the sacraments from these people," he said. "This is the biggest atrocity in the 21st century in the Catholic church - to use the sacraments as a game. That's a bigger abuse than the abuse of minors, or at least the same gravity, because the sacraments are the most holy thing for Catholics. If you take seriously what the church teaches about sacraments, it's the very presence of the Lord. And how can you use the very presence of God to manipulate someone?"

Most of St. Stanislaus's parishioners also belong to, or at least attend, other churches closer to where they live. And although some chose not to accept the sacraments at their other churches during the months when St. Stanislaus was without a priest, none of them was barred from seeking the sacraments elsewhere. Many took part in whatever sacraments they felt they needed at another parish.

Bozek insists that the members of St. Stanislaus have the right to the sacraments in their own church, and that right is worth his own exile.

Leibrecht said Bozek's sacraments logic was "very, very weak."

"There were other reasons than that," he said. "I thought to myself, something else is going on here, there are other motivations he had."

He said he thought he'd understood Bozek, "but I'm less sure that I understand him now."

Hopeful after meeting.

Few people who know Bozek believe that, even if he could, he would stay at St. Stanislaus for the rest of his career. "He's 31 years old," said Hulshof. "I don't see him staying in one place for the rest of his life."

Bozek himself hints that his situation at St. Stanislaus is tenuous, and depends largely on how things work out between St. Stanislaus and the archdiocese. "For right now, I see myself as the pastor of St. Stanislaus. As long as they need me," he said. "But if my presence becomes the main obstacle to the reconciliation, I am going to go away."

Bozek is living in the U.S. on a religious worker's visa, and has a one-year contract with St. Stanislaus, which can be extended. He is paid $1,900 per month, his rent is paid for, he receives a food allowance and he has insurance benefits.

Bozek and Burke met last Tuesday. Neither would talk about what they discussed, though Bozek said he left the meeting more hopeful for a reconciliation.

Meanwhile, parish activity at St. Stanislaus is buzzing. Bozek has started an adult education class on the reforms of the Second Vatican Council and a movie night. He is busily recruiting altar servers, Eucharistic ministers and lectors. St. Stanislaus counted 250 households as members when Burke removed the priests 18 months ago, compared to 500 today, according to Bozek. The new priest is putting about 800 people in the pews each weekend over the course of three Masses, including one celebrated in Polish.

The hardest part of his new job is dealing with the hate mail accusing him of pedophilia and rampant homosexual acts, Bozek said.

He is determined, however, not to become distracted from what he considers his main job: saving souls. He relies on a Latin phrase, per aspera ad astra (through the thorns to the stars), to help him get through the loneliest points. "Christianity is not about easy solutions, it's about just and true solutions," he said. "And sometimes justice demands self-sacrifice."

In Bozek's mind the heroic stature he has acquired in some parts of the St. Louis Catholic world for standing up to Burke is tempered by the knowledge that he's hurt people - especially Leibrecht - and a belief that he is simply an actor cast in an ongoing drama. This is not a struggle he was seeking.

"This crusade found me," he said. 314-340-8221

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