Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Pope Benedict XVI defrocks St. Stanislaus priest Marek Bozek

By Doug Moore
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

ST. LOUIS — The Rev. Marek Bozek, pastor of St. Stanislaus Kostka Church, has been stripped of his functions as a priest by Pope Benedict XVI.

Bozek said he will ignore the action of the pope and continue leading services at St. Stanislaus.

We don't recognize this unjust action, the same way we don't recognize the excommunications," Bozek said, referring to himself and the church board.

The announcement of Bozek's laicization came Monday and is the latest chapter in a protracted battle between the Catholic church north of downtown and the Archdiocese of St. Louis on how St. Stanislaus is run.

"His status in the Catholic Church as a cleric is now a thing of the past," said Bishop James V. Johnston of the Springfield-Cape Girardeau Diocese. Bozek's authority as a priest was assigned to that diocese.

Aside from offering absolution to the dying, Bozek can no longer function as a priest in the Roman Catholic Church.

Bozek left the Springfield Diocese in 2005 to take the position with St. Stanislaus, then a part of the Archdiocese of St. Louis. Doing so led to the board and Bozek being declared excommunicated by then-Archbishop Raymond Burke.

"His actions have caused great harm, scandal and sadness within the Church," Johnston said in a statement released Monday afternoon after meeting in Springfield with Bozek. "While Marek Bozek no longer has the status of a priest, I continue to hope for his reconciliation with the Catholic Church, and am committed to working with him so that he might be return to full communion with the Church."

Bozek said he was "ambushed" with the news about his laicization after being called to Johnston's office in Springfield, ostensibly to talk about the ongoing battle between St. Stanislaus and the Catholic Church.

Without permission of the Catholic Church, Bozek arrived in St. Louis in December 2005 from Springfield, Mo., to oversee St. Stanislaus, a parish that had been deprived of the Eucharist for more than a year by its archbishop.

In 2003, then-Archbishop Justin Rigali restructured the archdiocese so that each parish became a nonprofit corporation instead of an unincorporated association. It was seen by St. Stanislaus as an effort to get more control over the parish and its finances. Two years earlier, the St. Stanislaus board amended church bylaws to remove the ability of the archbishop to fire the pastor or appoint board members.

After Bozek was hired by St. Stanislaus, Burke declared the church suppressed, meaning it was no longer considered Roman Catholic.

Bozek was initially embraced by parishioners of the Polish church. But his vision for reshaping the church has divided parishioners. It calls for supporting female ordination, allowing priests to get married and accepting gay relationships.

Meanwhile, Bozek's stands have attracted hundreds of new St. Stanislaus parishioners who share the priest's reform-minded vision.

"Two weeks ago, we had our first African-American baptism," Bozek said. "This is the first time we're being attended by African-Americans living in our neighborhood."

Bozek said he had talked by phone with every St. Stanislaus board member after the meeting with Johnston and has their support to move forward as if nothing has happened. The Catholic Church, Bozek said, has used the last of its arsenal against him.

"They've killed me once. They can't kill me twice," Bozek said.

But the archdiocese is fighting in court over ownership of the St. Stanislaus property, and will continue to do so, Bishop Robert Hermann, acting leader of the archdiocese, said Monday.

"The situation of Marek Bozek is sad for the whole Church," Hermann said in a written statement. "Please join me in praying that Marek Bozek will be reconciled with the Church and that the great harm which has been caused to the Church, with the help of God's grace, will be healed."

George Von Stamwitz, an attorney representing the church in the property lawsuit, said the church's board of directors would not make a statement but that the board stood behind Bozek.

On Monday evening, about 60 parishioners gathered at St. Stanislaus to show their support for Bozek. They sang hymns including "Be Not Afraid" and "Let There Be Peace on Earth."

Jeanne Desmond and Meghan West, a lesbian couple from Webster Groves, were among the crowd. They said Bozek welcomed people not traditionally welcomed by the Catholic Church, and they had been hooked on his message since they came to a Christmas Eve service three years ago.

"What he says resonates with us," Desmond said.

Bozek told those who gathered at the church that he will not back down.

"I hope to see you all at Mass this weekend," he said.

And they erupted in cheers.

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