Belleville priest may be out for good, with Burke unlikely to help

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A priest in the Belleville diocese at odds with his bishop over the wording of the Catholic Mass said the former Archbishop of St. Louis – now head of the Vatican’s highest court – said he should have been removed from his parish long ago.

The Rev. William Rowe said Belleville Bishop Edward Braxton told him in a meeting Tuesday that if he refused to resign as pastor of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Mount Carmel, Ill., the bishop would use canon – or church – law to remove him. Rowe said he asked Braxton if he could appeal a removal, if it came to that.

Rowe said Braxton told him that he could appeal an eventual removal to the Vatican’s version of the supreme court, called the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura. But, Braxton said, he had already spoken to the head of that court – former St. Louis archbishop, Cardinal Raymond Burke – in February, and that Burke told Braxton that Rowe should have been removed “a long time ago,” according to the priest.
“The understanding there is that I’m done,” Rowe said.

Messages left with the offices of Braxton in Belleville and Burke in Rome were not returned Wednesday morning.

Rowe said Braxton told him that on two recent trips to Rome several bishops asked him about Rowe’s case, and encouraged him to remove the priest. The bishop told him the bishops had heard about two civil weddings outside the church Rowe had performed for couples whose previous marriages had not yet been annulled. Braxton “said Rome was aware of those weddings and upset about that before the liturgy thing,” Rowe said.

For decades, Rowe has deviated from the language of the Roman Catholic Mass, a highly prescribed liturgical rite, parts of which are as old as Christianity itself. In December, the Vatican introduced a new English-language translation of the Roman Missal – the book of prayers, chants and responses used during Mass. The new translation rendered some of the language in the Missal closer in spirit to the original Latin. Critics of the new translation have said the English is clunky and awkward for priests and laity.

Most of the prayers read by priests from the Missal during Mass cannot be changed. But there has never been an established penalty for improvising non-alterable prayers, and bishops have traditionally looked past an individual priest’s extemporizing. Last June, Braxton had sent a letter to all the priests in the Belleville Diocese warning that “it will not be acceptable for any priest or any parish to refrain from using the new prayers due to their personal preference.”

Rowe offered Braxton his resignation October 12, 2011, after a meeting during which the bishop barred the priest from improvising prayers during Mass. Braxton didn’t accept Rowe’s resignation until Jan. 30, 2012. Canon law says a bishop must accept a priest’s resignation within three months of the original offer. Rowe has since retracted his resignation offer.

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