By Tim Townsend
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
For something that had been in motion for years, the official laicization of the Rev. Marek Bozek was surprisingly quick.
"It took 10 minutes," Bozek said Monday as he drove back to St. Louis from Springfield, Mo., where he was given the news. "I drove four hours there and four hours back for a 10-minute conversation."
At the end of those 10 minutes, in which, Bozek said, he was shown a letter from the Vatican dated Jan. 31, 2009, confirming his laicization, the question changed from "when will it happen?" to "what does it mean?"
Bozek had received the sacrament of holy orders when he'd been ordained a priest in 2002. What happened to that sacrament now that Pope Benedict XVI had returned him to the status of a layman? Was Bozek still a priest?
According to canon lawyers, that's a hard question to answer, and it has been since the first centuries of Christianity. In those earliest days of the church, Christians frequently debated the standing of ordained men who had committed heresy.
Could heretics still be priests? If they repented and returned to the church, could they function as priests? Or had they lost their priesthood by committing heresy?
"The theological resolution to these questions remains the same today," said one canon law professor at Catholic University of America. "Once a man is validly ordained, he remains a priest forever. Holy orders — as with the sacraments of confirmation and baptism — cannot be repeated. Their effects are permanent."
Since late 2007, when former St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke first began the official proceedings that led to this week's laicization, Bozek has repeatedly referred to the permanence of the sacrament of holy orders. "Once a priest, always a priest," he has frequently said.
Bozek's bishop in Springfield suspended the priest's "faculties" — or the authority to perform as a cleric — after Bozek fled the diocese in 2005 to become pastor of St. Stanislaus.
The traditionally Polish-American parish just north of downtown had been locked in a battle with the archdiocese over control of its property and assets, and Burke had removed its priests 18 months earlier.
The archdiocese filed a suit in July that, if successful, would allow it to regain the power to assign the church's pastor and approve its board members.
Only a bishop can appoint the pastors in his diocese, and when the church's lay board hired Bozek, the Vatican called it an act of schism. That led to Bozek's excommunication and the excommunication of a number of the church's lay leaders.
The purpose of a priest's suspension and excommunication is to warn the errant priest that he is distancing himself from the church. When Vatican leaders feel the local bishop has done all he can to bring the priest back into the fold — without success — they act to reduce the harm he can cause the wider Catholic community by removing his license to minister. The man can return to the church by requesting reconciliation, but he generally would not be allowed to exercise his priesthood again.
Monsignor John Shamleffer, the chief canon lawyer for the Archdiocese of St. Louis, said that while Bozek is still a priest, "He's no longer considered a member of the clerical state. He loses all rights and obligations that go along with that, including conferring the sacraments."
(Including his title: the archdiocese is now referring to Bozek as "Mr." rather than "The Rev." or "Father.")
The sacraments are the seven liturgical rites — baptism, confirmation, Holy Communion, penance, anointing of the sick, marriage and holy orders — through which Catholics believe they experience God's grace.
Besides receiving holy orders, when a man is ordained a Catholic priest, he enters into the legal status of a cleric.
While the sacrament of holy orders means a man can't lose the priesthood, he can lose the clerical state. In other words, he remains a priest, but cannot exercise that priesthood in the Roman Catholic Church because he has been "dispensed from the obligations of the clerical state" — the preferred term for laicization these days.
The sacraments conferred to his parishioners by Bozek will still be valid, said Shamleffer, but they will be illegal. "He has the power, but not the license anymore," he said. "It would be the same as a doctor who has lost his license. He might be able to perform surgery, but he'd be doing it illegally."
But that's in the Roman Catholic Church. In anticipation of his laicization, Bozek requested — and was granted — faculties in two Catholic organizations independent from the Vatican more than a year ago. He was accepted into both organizations, with the authority to perform his religious functions under the supervision of their bishops — Archbishop Peter Paul Brennan of Married Priests Now!, and Archbishop Phillip Zimmerman of the Reformed Catholic Church.
Last summer, Bozek disparaged such independent Catholic groups, telling the Post-Dispatch they were "full of weirdos."
Bozek did not return a message Friday requesting an interview.
Zimmerman said Bozek "wasn't really clear" about the etiquette of overlapping faculties from independent Catholic organizations when he requested them last year. He said he gave Bozek an ultimatum two weeks ago. "I did tell Marek Bozek that he had to make a choice," Zimmerman said. "Our faculties or their faculties."
Bozek chose the Reformed Catholic Church. Brennan confirmed that Bozek had recently repudiated the faculties that he was granted by Married Priests Now! in February 2008. "He may have found the baggage a little too difficult," Brennan said, adding that he wished Bozek "the very best in his ministry."
Bozek has said that he will be able to provide the sacraments to the faithful of St. Stanislaus because Zimmerman can claim "apostolic succession," the idea of the perpetuation of bishops that extends chronologically from today back to Christ's apostles. Zimmerman said he was ordained in 2003 in the independent Old Catholic Church.
Burke supressed St. Stanislaus in 2005, which means it is no longer Roman Catholic. But Zimmerman said St. Stanislaus would not become a parish of the Reformed Catholic Church either.
"The faculties are between me and Marek, so that he can continue his ministry," Zimmerman said. "If the people of St. Stanislaus ever feel he's no longer the pastor for them, it's up to them to relieve him of his position. I'm not making any claim to that community."
Zimmerman said there were no other priests under his authority who were pastoring a church whose members still consider themselves Roman Catholic. "This is uncharted territory for all of us," he said.