Thursday, February 9, 2012

After priest refuses to stop ad libbing during the Mass, Belleville Diocese accepts his resignation

After priest refuses to stop ad libbing during the Mass, Belleville Diocese accepts his resignation

After 47 years as a priest, and at least two decades of straying from the Roman Catholic Missal by ad libbing parts of the Mass, the Rev. Bill Rowe of St. Mary Church has resigned under pressure from the bishop.

Why? Because he doesn't agree that a priest should be restricted to the exact words of the Missal, including new changes in the Mass that were intended to more closely interpret earlier Latin versions. The changes were ordered by the Vatican and took effect in late November.

Rowe, 72, said he was called to a meeting in October at the Belleville home of Bishop Edward Braxton. Rowe said that Braxton told him he could not change even small parts of what a Catholic priest is supposed to say during the portions of the Mass that are controlled by the Missal.

Rowe said Braxton told him to "think about it" for three days and then write him a letter. Rowe said he sent the letter on Oct. 12 stating he could not accept what Braxton wanted but did not want to resign or retire. He said he did not receive a response until a few days ago from Braxton, accepting his resignation.

Rowe will leave his parish in June after a successor has been installed.

The Rev. John Myler, diocese spokesman, said, "I have no comment at this time. If that changes, I will contact you."

Frank Flinn, an adjunct professor of religious studies at Washington University, said it is the first removal of a priest that he knows about in connection with a failure to follow the new version of the Roman Missal.

"I predicted that it would drive priests out and I was laughed at, at the time," said Flinn, "but here it is, the truth."

Monsignor Rick Hilgartner, director of the Department of Divine Worship of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington, D.C., said the changes were made to make the church stronger by making the Missal adhere as closely as possible to the early Latin among the many languages of Catholics around the world.

"The architectural style of a church and the music vary from culture to culture and from place to place. The language of expressing what's expressed in the Mass, our prayer and our worship, varies from place to place in the way the language is translated," he said, "but the essential truths are the same because we all start with the same text."

Rowe said that during the most recent Sunday Mass at St. Mary's, "That as best as I can remember," he said near the opening of the Mass, "We thank you God, for giving us Jesus who helped us to be healed in mind and heart and proclaim his love to others."

Rome's new Missal required him to instead say, "Lord our God that we may honor you with all our mind and love everyone in truth of heart."

Rowe said he routinely made small changes to make what he was saying "more understandable and more meaningful to parishioners."

In his reply to Braxton, Rowe wrote, "I realize that you can no longer allow me to celebrate the Eucharist as has been my custom. I therefore offer my resignation as pastor of St. Mary parish so that you may appoint someone who will follow the liturgical laws more closely."

In his Feb. 2 letter in response to Braxton's letter accepting his resignation, Rowe wrote, "My offer to resign seemed to be the best way to resolve the problem in a pastoral way."

Braxton in his letter also asked Rowe, " make every provision in the rectory to make it comfortable for your successor. Please make sure that all appropriate books for the celebration of the Eucharist in accord with the new translation of the Missale Romanum are in place. Please also make sure that all appropriate sanctuary furnishings are in place."

Alice Wirth, principal of St. Mary's School in Mount Carmel, described Rowe as "the backbone of our church. ...To make him resign over something he said in the Missal is senseless."
Wirth said that she regularly attends Mass where Rowe is the priest but never objected or even noticed the changes in the way he spoke portions of the Missal.

"What he did was for better understanding. Everything he did was for the benefit of the parishioners and the students," she said.

Rowe said he has been ad libbing small parts of the Missal since the 1980s and was once warned by former Belleville Bishop Wilton Gregory that he was "pushing the envelope." Gregory is now the archbishop of the Catholic Diocese of Atlanta.

"This is a turf fight. They are going to end up driving more good people out of the priesthood, said Flinn, the Washington University professor who wrote the "The Encyclopedia of Catholicism" that was published by Barnes & Noble in 2007.

"This is just nit-picking to divert attention from real problems that face the church like child sex abuse by priests," he said. "They brand you a heretic unless you follow the authorized translation. ...They're making a mountain out of a molehill."

Rowe, who has served for 17 years in Mount Carmel without accepting his priest's salary, relying, he said, on an Air Force pension and Social Security, said that he is unsure of what he may do when his career as head of a parish ends.

"Maybe I'll run a soup kitchen," he said.

Contact reporter George Pawlaczyk at or 239-2625.

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