Church still reeling from Bozek's move.
Departure left void in diocese, many say.

 

Published Saturday, January 8, 2006.
By Linda Leicht 
News-Leader.com  

RE: ST. STANISLAUS.

At midnight Christmas Eve, the sanctuary at St. Agnes Cathedral was filled with worshippers celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ as the media swirled with the news of a priest who had walked away from his job at St. Agnes to step into a conflict between a parish and the Archdiocese of St. Louis.
Bishop John Leibrecht's sermon at St. Agnes spoke of broken relationships.

"You could hear a pin drop," said the Rev. Mike McDevitt, pastor at St. Agnes.

The contrast between interest in the drama of St. Stanislaus Kostka Parish, Marek Bozek and Archbishop Raymond Burke and the day-to-day needs of the Diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau and St. Agnes Parish is not lost on the 61-year-old priest.

"We pray for the best for Father Marek, but we need to be present to the people's needs," he said.

Bozek left his job as associate pastor at St. Agnes on Dec. 2. Since then, McDevitt has been handling the extra duties left by Bozek, helping his congregation deal with the situation and coping with his own ordeal.

The Springfield diocese has also been struggling to serve the more than 64,000 Catholics within its 25,719 square miles.

And the Catholics in the diocese have been trying to understand why one of their priests would leave to enter into a controversy in St. Louis, and why the archbishop and St. Stanislaus cannot come to an agreement.

"This is still a really heartfelt and sensitive subject to me," said Cynthia Ruzicka, a lifelong Catholic and a member of St. Agnes. She supports Bozek's decision to help St. Stanislaus, but she also sees the impact of his leaving on her own church and diocese.

"My heart goes out to Father Mike with the extra duties that he has," she said. "I think Father Mike has a great burden right now ... and he will do it."

It is that support that brings tears to McDevitt's eyes as he talks about his congregation.

"We're going through healing," he said. "I think the story is that the people are still faithful."

A TIGHT-KNIT GROUP

Bishop Leibrecht has consistently said that Bozek is welcome and encouraged to return to the Springfield diocese. But to return, Bozek would have to apologize to the approximately 60 priests in the diocese.

Those priests, said Leibrecht, are an "unusually tight-knit, fraternal group" who have been hurt by Bozek's actions.

"Many of them are disappointed in Marek," he said. "Some of them have used the phrase ... 'He has betrayed us.'"

The bishop said his goal now is to help his priests "process their feelings about what it meant to them that one of their own was willing to depart."

Leibrecht, who is 75 years old and slated to retire this year, is responsible for matching the right priest with the right assignment in parishes and other diocesan jobs. The assignments are announced each August. Bozek's leaving has already forced the bishop to change some of those plans. Two new priests scheduled to be ordained this summer will relieve some of that strain, but there are also some priests who are considering retirement, Leibrecht said.

"The departure of one man affects the assignments of other priests," he said. "Some of what I had hoped to do I will not be able to do."

The diocese has experienced growth, especially with an influx of Spanish-speaking Catholics. Each priest in the diocese is learning to speak Spanish to respond to that need. Bozek was already leading Spanish Masses in Springfield and in Branson.

"While we will keep going, and the guys will do their ministry, it will take a while for them to get over their feelings," Leibrecht said.

'A GOOD RAPPORT'

The Rev. Dave Hulshof has known Bozek since he came to Springfield from Poland in 2000. Hulshof is director of vocations for the parish. He works closely with men who are in discernment and through their seminary training and ordination. He also pastors two parishes, Holy Trinity in Aurora and Sacred Heart in Verona.

As Bozek's vocations director and housemate at the St. Agnes rectory, Hulshof had many conversations with the young priest.

Bozek, in a telephone interview, said he has been welcomed by many of the priests in the St. Louis archdiocese. "But I do miss terribly the companionship of St. Agnes," he said. "I love them dearly."

"It was a good rapport," Hulshof said of the relationship. But he is disappointed that Bozek never opened up about his decision to go to St. Stanislaus.

"You were not open with us on this journey you were on," Hulshof said, as if Bozek were in the room.

Hulshof said he had heard rumors that Bozek was planning to go to St. Louis as early as August, but whenever he confronted Bozek, the priest would deny it.

"Then he simply said, 'I changed my mind,'" said Hulshof.

Despite the frustration and hurt, Hulshof is convinced the diocese will move on.

"We don't want to be seen as victims," he said.

The diocese has a good reputation and has attracted potential priests from around the country and the world, he said. But Hulshof is quick to note that three of the next four expected to be ordained are "natives" of the diocese.

'NOT ENOUGH PRIESTS'

Harriet Pacyniak is a member of the parish council at St. Agnes, and she sees the struggle the parish faces there and across the diocese.

"There are not enough priests," she said. "And all the other priests in the diocese have to really, really work hard and help each other."

Bozek not only led many of the Masses, he had been assigned to head the youth ministry, a position that will now be filled by a lay person. Another paid position will also strain the parish's limited resources, she said.

Mike Finch, another council member, said that Bozek's disconnection from the youth has left a void.

"I personally thought Father Marek was going to fill that role very well," he said. "We need to find somebody who can make the connection. That's a hard role to fill."

Finch's two teenage daughters attend Springfield Catholic High School where Bozek would say Mass. The situation has opened an opportunity to talk with the girls about what the priest did and the consequences of his actions.

"It was a good learning point for them," he said.

The situation has also been a "learning point" for Finch, who said he has followed the news coverage closely and has learned a lot about church law.

But law is not at the heart of the matter for Finch or many others.

"I worry about the divisiveness," he said. "There will be hard feelings by folks who don't understand why Archbishop Burke and Bishop John did what they did. They don't understand the rules of the church."

For Ruzicka, understanding how Bozek came to his decision makes it easier.

"I know he was called to do this," she said. "My daily prayer for him is that this will get easier."