Defiant priest joins St. Stanislaus!


By Tim Townsend
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH, 12/03/2005.


The Rev. Marek B. Bozek, associate pastor of St. Agnes Cathedral in Springfield, MO., named new parish priest for St. Stanislaus Church.

When the Rev. Marek B. Bozek was in college seminary, he decided there were plenty of priests in his native Poland and that he needed to shepherd a flock where priests were scarce. 

A friend told Bozek about Springfield, Mo., far away from his native town of Olsztyn — in miles and in most every other way. Catholic priests were needed in Springfield, his friend told him. So even though he didn’t speak English, Bozek was soon on a plane, with $85 in his pocket, headed to southwestern Missouri. 

Five years later, Bozek is again headed for a flock without a shepherd. But this time, it could derail the 30-year-old’s career as a priest and even his life as a Catholic. 

On Christmas Eve, he will celebrate his first Mass as the new pastor of St. Stanislaus Kostka Parish, just north of downtown St. Louis. 

The move to St. Stanislaus defies St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke, who did not approve Bozek’s appointment at the Polish church. Though he’s hesitant to use the term because he’s afraid it will scare his new parishioners, Bozek knows he is likely to be excommunicated — a grave punishment that excludes a Catholic from the life of the church. 

"I’m scared about the disciplinary side of this," said Bozek, who knew he wanted to be a priest when he was only 9. "It will hurt because I love the church, I love the papacy. I’m Catholic to the bone." 

Still, Bozek is convinced he made the right choice. 

"This is why I came (to the United States) in the first place," he said, "to help people with no priest. Is there a better textbook example right now of a church without a priest?" 

Burke has battled many of St. Stanislaus’ parishioners for nearly two years over the church’s finances and structure. In the summer of 2004, the archbishop temporarily removed the parish’s two priests. The priests never returned. 

In July, a small number of St. Stanislaus families — most of them newer Polish immigrants — and their priest moved permanently to St. Agatha parish, which Burke named the Polish "apostolate," or official home to Polish Roman Catholics in St. Louis. The move left St. Stanislaus’ fate, and its roughly 400 families, in doubt. 

Bozek said he started talking to the church board a year ago about coming to St. Louis. He had visited St. Stanislaus three years ago, a week after he was ordained, and he maintained friendships with church members. 

His decision to buck church authority is perhaps not surprising for someone who began going to Mass every day when he was 10 as a personal protest against Communism. At 15, he became involved in the anti-Communist underground in Poland by hanging Solidarity movement posters on lampposts in the middle of the night, until police chased him and his colleagues away. 

Bozek still recalls the day he, and the rest of Poland, woke up without Communism. 

"It was a wonderful feeling to know you were doing something bigger than yourself, and important to history," he said. 

Agreeing with Burke 

The dispute between Burke and St. Stanislaus stems from a late 19th-century arrangement that gave the parish board control of the church property. Since he arrived in St. Louis, Burke has demanded that the church conform to the same legal structure as other parishes, where the bishop oversees finances. 

St. Stanislaus parishioners, through their six-member lay board of directors, has refused, and neither side has budged for months. 

Even the Vatican has weighed in, taking Burke’s side. In February, Burke placed the six board members under the penalty of interdict, a lesser form of excommunication, and has hinted that more severe penalties may loom. 

For Bozek, the particulars of the battle are secondary. In fact, he believes Burke is on solid ground in the dispute. 

"Legally, canonically speaking, he’s right," Bozek said. "The Holy See has said he’s right. Bozek mailed a letter to Burke on Friday. In it the priest said he wanted "to express respect and assure you that you will be indeed considered by me the Archbishop..." 

Bozek’s decision to flout his superiors has more to do with a situation he labels "desperate" — that members of St. Stanislaus have not been able to take part in the sacraments in their own church for longer than a year because they lack a priest. 

"I can’t imagine my life without the sacraments," he said. "And these people have gone without them for so long." 

The sacraments are the seven liturgical rites — baptism, confirmation, communion, penance, anointing of the sick, marriage and holy orders (or ordination to ministry) — through which Catholics believe they experience God’s grace. 

In his letter to Burke, Bozek wrote, "I believe that there are serious and grave reasons existing at the time that validate this step, which omits the usual process of priestly assignment." 

On Friday morning, Bozek was relieved of his duties in Springfield by his bishop, John J. Leibrecht. In a statement issued by the St. Louis archdiocese, Leibrecht said Bozek "no longer has the status of a priest in good standing." The statement went on to say Burke was "considering what further canonical action to take." 

"The salvation of souls" 

The Rev. Thomas J. Reese, visiting scholar at Santa Clara University, said Bozek’s suspension meant that "he’s not authorized to act as a priest." If Bozek presides over any sacraments at St. Stanislaus, "they would be considered valid but illicit," said Reese. 

He also said public excommunication was extremely unusual. Then again, he added, "Most priests would not go up against a bishop and do something like this." 

In a statement Friday, Burke reminded St. Louis Catholics that to "participate knowingly and willingly in the celebration of the Mass by a suspended priest is gravely sinful." 

At a press conference Saturday, St. Stanislaus spokesman, Roger Krasnicki called Burke’s language a "scare tactic" used to keep people from coming to the church. Krasnicki also said the board and Bozek had long conversations about the possible ramifications of their actions, and were "entirely and completely prepared for the consequences." 

Board member William Bialczak said he "wouldn’t doubt that Archbishop Burke is going to excommunicate all of us." 

Bozek also knows he may come off as high-minded. "My bishop told me I’m naive and idealistic, and I am," he said. "I’m 30 and I have the right to be. If there’s a time to be idealistic, it’s now. Jesus was idealistic. He did things that were illegal but right. If we give up on our ideals, what are we left with?" 

To help explain his actions, Bozek quotes from part of Canon 1752, the final law in the Catholic church’s law code, which reads in part, "the salvation of souls, which must always be the supreme law in the Church, is to be kept before one’s eyes." 

"I think it’s significant that the code ends that way," he said. "There are many canons, and I am breaking some of them. But to me, in that last canon, the word ‘supreme’ means it precedes all the other ones. To me, it’s about saving the souls of the people of St. Stanislaus." 

By Tim Townsend
ttownsend@post-dispatch.com | 314-340-8221 

======================

The Rev. Marek B. Bozek 

— Born Dec. 18, 1974, in Zagan, Poland 

— Became an altar server at 10. 

— Attended a college seminary in Olsztyn, Poland, where he wrote two plays: “The Paraclete,” about the life of Jesus from the perspective of the Holy Spirit; and “Under Pontius Pilate,” a story Bozek says is about “what it’s like to condemn God,” set in the 20th century. “Under Pontius Pilate” was performed on television and still runs on Polish Catholic TV. 

— At 25, left Poland for Springfield, Mo., to continue studying for the priesthood; ordained two years later in the Springfield-Cape Girardeau diocese. 

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