Defiant church celebrates Mass on Christmas Eve!

By Tim Townsend

The Rev. Marek Bozek reads a letter from a supporter Saturday at St. Stanislaus Kostka church in St. Louis.

At least 2,000 people packed into St. Stanislaus Kostka church and its Polish Heritage Center to be a part of the Rev. Marek Bozek's first celebration of Mass as pastor of the church.

Before Mass, the aisles of the church in St. Louis were so crowded that Bozek and the alter servers had to be driven around to the front of the church to make their entrance.

The church is at 1413 North 20th Street, northwest of downtown St. Louis.

Carrying a statute of the baby Jesus, Bozek entered the church and immediately received a standing ovation. The choir sang "Silent Night" as Bozek walked down the church's center aisle to the applause.

The priest placed the statue of Christ in the manger at the front of the church, knelt and prayed next photos of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI.

He asked the congregation to leave their tensions and problems behind and concentrate on the true meaning of Christmas. Then he asked the congregation to offer the Mass to the Archdiocese of St. Louis and pray for St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke.

Outside the church, two St. Louis city fire pumper trucks held a giant American flag between their ladders, a nod to the Rev. Jeremiah Jakle, the Irish priest whom St. Stanislaus parishioners credit with saving that church from ruins in middle of the 20th Century. He was chaplain of the fire department.

Just inside front doors of the church, Joseph Iwasyszyn, a parishioner, handed out bright red "St. Stanislaus Lives" buttons, replacing the "Save St. Stanislaus" buttons seen around the city for the last two years.

The new bottoms "are to show people we're still going and kicking," he said. "We're still hanging around."

On Saturday night, Bozek again ignored the instructions and warnings of his Missouri superiors - Bishop John J. Leibrecht of the diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau, and St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke - and celebrated Mass for the hundreds crowded into every corner the ornate church just northwest of downtown.

When Bozek told Leibrecht of his decision to become the pastor at St. Stanislaus in early December, the bishop suspended him. Two weeks later , Burke declared the six lay St. Stanislaus board members excommunicated along with Bozek for "the ecclesiastical crime of schism," defined by the Catechism of the Catholic Church as "the refusal of submission to the Roman Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him."

Since the news of the excommunications became public ten days ago debate about which side is right has occupied Catholic St. Louis, including more than 400 entries on three different Post-Dispatch blog-streams on the topic. The dispute even merited a front-page story in last Tuesday's Wall Street Journal.

The Rev. Richard John Neuhaus wrote about the St. Stanislaus excommunications last week on the Web site for "First Things," the conservative Catholic journal he edits.

"What is most importantly at stake . . . is the very definition of what it means to be Catholic," he wrote, then explained the structure of Roman Catholicism. "the Church is guilty as charged: the Church is - always has been and always will be - hierarchical, which many think is a very bad thing to be. The upshot is that St. Stanislaus Kostka and its hired priest are in schism. Protestations to the contrary, it is not a Catholic parish."

Indeed, in his Dec. 16 newspaper column, Burke said he "will be obliged to suppress" St. Stanislaus, meaning it will no longer be a parish of the St. Louis archdiocese or a Roman Catholic church. As of last week, an archdiocese spokesman said he was not aware if Burke had yet to sign a decree that would make the suppression official.

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 in January 2004, Burke has demanded that the church conform to the same legal structure as other parishes, where the parish priest and bishop oversee finances.

Several of Burke's predecessors, including Archbishop Justin Rigali - now cardinal archbishop of Philadelphia - had attempted and failed to bring St. Stanislaus back into line with the rest of St. Louis' Catholic churches.

Burke has said that by altering the parish bylaws, the board members of St. Stanislaus illegally removed his authority and the parish priests from the board.

By Tim Townsend 

Telephone: 314-340-8221

Copyright 2005 St. Louis Post-Dispatch L.L.C. All rights reserved.