UPDATE 2/29/2012 Fr. William Rowe has withdrawn his resignation, arguing that he can remain a priest since Bishop Braxton did not acknowledge and accept the resignation within 3 months as mandated by canon law, but the priest also did not back down on his position that being flexible with the Missal is OK. Of his bishop, Fr. Rowe said, "he mentioned in the letter that we clash in our ecclesiology — our image of the church...He's right. He seems to consider the church as the bishops', and my notion is that the church starts with the people."
UPDATE 2/10/2012: An online petition has been initiated, calling for Father Rowe's reinstatement. Also, a parishioner who knows Fr. Bill from his days at St. Joseph's in Olney, IL, writes glowingly of the priest's service in her parish and gives information on how to write to Bishop Braxton about this case.
Form has once again triumphed over substance in the Roman Catholic Church. This month, in the Diocese of Belleville, Illinois, Fr. William Rowe, a 72-year old priest who had been pastor of St. Mary's parish in Mount Carmel for 17 years, was forced to resign by Bishop Edward Braxton.
Father Rowe's "crime"? Making minor modifications in the Eucharistic prayer in order to tie it in to the daily Gospel reading and his homily. When the bishop talked to him about this last October following complaints by a minority of parishioners, Fr. Rowe, who does not draw a salary from the parish but subsists on Social Security and a small pension from his years in the Air Force Reserve, indicated that he did not plan on making any changes. He subsequently sent a letter to Bishop Braxton stating that "from our most recent discussion, I realize that you can no longer allow me to celebrate the Eucharist as has been my custom” and he offered to resign. He heard nothing...until this month.
On January 29th, instead of reading the collect from the Roman Missal ("Lord our God that we may honor you with all our mind and love everyone in truth of heart"), Fr. Rowe substituted a prayer which tied the rite with the gospel reading on Jesus healing the man with the unclean spirit: "We thank you, God, for giving us Jesus who helped us to be healed in mind and heart and proclaim his love to others." Three days later, he received a letter from the bishop accepting his resignation, which will take effect in June.
Father Rowe said that he has had discussions with his bishop about this issue for the last five years and that Bishop Braxton made it clear to his priests that "no priest may deviate from any wording in the official Missal." Things came to a head in October, immediately prior to the introduction of the new translation of the Roman Missal, when the bishop informed Fr. Rowe that he could no longer allow him to improvise.
Most members of the parish are upset by the forced resignation. Alice Worth, the principal at St. Mary's School, said they are "devastated" and described Fr. Rowe as "the backbone of our parish." "The ways Father changed the Mass ritual with his words have only made it more meaningful to us as opposed to distancing us from the church," she said. "Everything he does is based on our faith, it's not just a whim. There's a reason for every word he prays." Parishioners are exploring various ways to get their beloved pastor back, including a petition to the bishop and the Belleville News Democrat has published an online poll on the question (at the moment, due to traffic from the conservative Catholic blogs, the poll is running against allowing priests to ad-lib).
Fr. Rowe says he has no desire to resign or retire from active ministry. He has suggested that, if he can't continue to work as a priest, he might set up a soup kitchen. As for Bishop Braxton, we recommend that he re-read today's Gospel (Mark 7:14-23) and ask himself what Jesus' priority would be.
Video: Fr. Bill Rowe talks to the Belleville News Democrat about what led to his forced resignation.