Winding path to St. Stanislaus!

By Tim Townsend

Father Marek Bozek, priest at St. Stanislaus Kostka Church, prepares communion for his congregation during Saturday night Christmas mass.

As the Rev. Marek Bozek moved into the nave of St. Stanislaus Kostka church, about 2,000 people, jammed into every crevice of the church and the church hall next door, stood up and cheered.

It had been 18 months since the church had its own pastor and two years since the Polish parish and St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke had begun a dispute that this month led to the excommunication of its board members and Bozek, its newly hired priest.

But on Christmas Eve the parish's focus was on Bozek, and Bozek's focus was on Christ. As he approached the manger scene next to the sanctuary for his first Mass as pastor of St. Stanislaus, the priest placed the baby Jesus in the manger and knelt to pray. In his homily a few minutes later, Bozek thanked the congregation for its loud welcome. "But believe me, I did not come here for applause," he said. "I did not come here to be powerful, to be a warrior or a hero."

It wasn't until Christmas morning, in a different homily, that Bozek told his new parishioners about a prior episode in his life that helped prepare him for this latest challenge to authority. "God tries us with fire to make our faith stronger," he told them.

Five years ago, Bozek and Catholic church leaders in Poland were at odds about something more personal than the St. Stanislaus dispute. It was an accusation that forced him to flee his homeland, landing in Missouri, and, finally, in the pulpit at St. Stanislaus parish.

Preparing for Mass

On the afternoon of his historic Christmas Eve Mass, Bozek, who turned 31 a week ago, busied himself around the St. Stanislaus rectory and church. He prepared thousands of Communion wafers, opened mail and mostly answered the rectory phone, which rang about every four minutes - another call from someone wanting to know what time Mass would begin that night.

Visitors stopped in throughout the day. The Rev. Gerald Kleba, pastor of St. Cronan's parish, came by. "It's no easy thing you're doing," Kleba said, shaking Bozek's hand.

People began arriving at St. Stanislaus at 8 p.m., two hours before Mass, just to make sure they could get a seat. By 9 p.m., most of the pews were full and by 9:25 church leaders were asking new arrivals to move to the Polish Heritage Center where the Mass would be simulcast on a big-screen television. By the time Mass began, it was standing room only in the 600-person Heritage Center, too.

Nonparishioners made up the bulk of Saturday night's congregants. Catholics Joy and John Eritreo drove from Ellisville to be there. "We wanted to support the parishioners" in their dispute with Burke, she said.

As people filed in, Bozek greeted them, some in English, others in Polish. He said he wasn't nervous. "This is my ground right now," he said. "This is what I was called to do. I feel like all my seminary years were leading to this night."

Ron Merzweiler, 67, a parishioner who attended grade school at the parish, said he believed the parish was getting help from a fellow Pole.

"The Polish pope is helping us," he said, nodding in the direction of a large photo of Pope John Paul II, who died in April. "He couldn't help us when he was alive, but he's sure helping us now."

Burke and the board.
A few miles across town, at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis, the same number of people - 2,000 - would show up later to celebrate midnight Mass and hear Burke's Christmas Eve homily. After the verses from the Gospel of Luke were sung to the congregation, Burke, dressed in gold vestments and miter and carrying his shepherd's crosier, walked from his seat in the sanctuary up to the pulpit.

The archbishop spoke of "God the son" who "humbled himself by becoming a child." Time and again, he returned to the theme of "kneeling before the Christmas crib," imploring his flock to "live our life in Christ with the enthusiasm of the first disciples."

Just over a week earlier, Burke had taken a step he had said he never wanted to take. He declared excommunicated the six lay board members of St. Stanislaus, along with Bozek.

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 last year, Burke has demanded that the church conform to the same legal structure as other parishes, where the bishop oversees finances.

Several of Burke's predecessors, including Archbishop Justin Rigali - now the cardinal of Philadelphia - had attempted and failed to bring St. Stanislaus back in line with the rest of St. Louis' Catholic churches. Burke has said that by altering their bylaws, the board members of St. Stanislaus illegally removed him and the parish priests from the board.

Early this month, the church's six lay board members - John Baras, William Bialczak, Edward Florek, Stanley Novak, Joseph Rudawski and Robert Zabielski - hired Bozek to be their new parish pastor. Bozek had been suspended by Bishop John J. Leibrecht the previous day after telling his superior of his intention to move to St. Louis and minister to the Polish church.

Burke said hiring a suspended priest was a schismatic act and therefore the board members had excommunicated themselves. By choosing to act as a Catholic priest outside of the communion of the Catholic church, Burke said, Bozek, too, had committed the crime of schism, thereby excommunicating himself. Schism is 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."

The archbishop has said he will suppress St. Stanislaus, meaning it would no longer be a part of the archdiocese or a Roman Catholic parish.

Excommunication is the most severe form of penalty in the Catholic church. But as dire as it sounds, excommunication is actually meant to bring a Catholic around, to help him see the error of his ways and rejoin the Catholic community. But it is also extremely rare, and the St. Stanislaus excommunications have made national headlines over the past couple of weeks.

Burke didn't mention the excommunications in his Christmas Eve homily, focusing instead on the example of the baby Jesus.

"Let us kneel tonight before the Christ child," he said, "let us humble ourselves with him in order that we may share his life."

A startling revelation.
Back at St. Stanislaus, Bozek held a figurine of the baby Jesus as he stepped into his new church to the thunderous applause of his own new flock. As he approached the manger, the congregation's applause slowed, then stopped.

For several minutes, as thousands of eyes watched his back, Bozek knelt before the crib of Christ and prayed for his new parish. He prayed that for this one night, all the conflict that had brought him to this place would be temporarily forgotten.

"All I want to do is be a pastor in this beautiful church . . . and to imitate Jesus," he said a few minutes later in his homily. "I'm coming here to serve you every day and every night. I'm coming to be one of you and if one day you love me in return, my vocation and my life will be fulfilled."

The next morning, Bozek returned to the pulpit, this time with a different homily. "It seems so many things happen by accident, that paths cross by accident," he said. "But that is the mystery of our faith - nothing happens without a reason."

With a startling revelation, he signaled to his parishioners on Christmas morning that he had been through controversy with church authority before. And he believed it had made him stronger.

Bozek told his new parishioners the story of his struggle five years ago at a seminary in Poland with an accusation made against him - "a witch hunt" he called it. "Some people accused me of being a promiscuous homosexual," he said. He told the rector of the seminary to provide proof, and said the rector couldn't, but persisted in the accusations.

Bozek said he went to his Warmia Archbishop Edmund Michal Piszcz, and told him to call off the rector. He threatened to sue the archdiocese. "They have no proof," he told Piszcz. Bozek said Piszcz agreed. Nevertheless the priest left the seminary and Poland, landing in Springfield, Mo.

"What would have happened had I not been accused?" he asked the congregation. "I probably would still be in Poland living happily near my parents. I probably never would have heard of St. Stanislaus Kostka church."

Jan Guzowski, the rector at the Hosianum seminary in Olsztyn when Bozek was there, said in a telephone interview from Poland that Bozek had been told to leave because of suspected homosexuality.

"We thought he was homosexual. We had several problems with him. He said he wasn't homosexual, but we had certain proof that this wasn't true." Asked what proof, Guzowski said that other seminarians told him so.

Guzowski, who left the seminary two years ago, is now professor of moral theology at a state-run university in Olsztyn.

In an interview after his second Christmas Mass on Sunday, Bozek denied Guzowski's charges. "Of course the rector is going to say I was kicked out; that's his side of the story," Bozek said. "But I have a recommendation from Archbishop Piszcz which says I left by my own request."

Bozek said he then decided to be "a missionary" resulting in his acceptance to study as a priest for the diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau, his arrival there in 2000, his studies at St. Meinrad School of Theology in Indiana, and his eventual ordination three years ago.

The Roman Catholic Church has called homosexual acts "acts of grave depravity" and "intrinsically disordered," but experts have estimated that 10 percent to 40 percent of priests are homosexual. In a crackdown last month, the Vatican prohibited seminary enrollment and ordination for men who are actively gay, have "deeply rooted homosexual tendencies" or "support so-called gay culture." Those with only "transitory" homosexual tendencies must be celibate three years before ordination.

Bozek said he brought up his flight from Hosianum in his Christmas homily because he had received phone calls threatening to leak the accusations to the press. "I wanted to tell this to my new parishioners in my own words," he said.

Roger Krasnicki, a spokesman for the St. Stanislaus board of directors, said Sunday that the board "knew the whole story" before Bozek was hired, and that the entire matter had been "resolved to our satisfaction."

So what will the new priest say when his parishioners ask him the inevitable question: Are you a homosexual? "When people ask me that, I just say, I am a celibate and chaste priest, so it doesn't matter," Bozek said.

Philip Dine of the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau contributed to this report.

By Tim Townsend 

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