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Priest fired over Mass prayers fights to keep his job

BELLEVILLE, Ill. (RNS) A Roman Catholic priest who was fired for altering the words of the Mass is now digging deep into the letter of church law in an effort to regain his post as parish priest. By Tim Townsend.

BELLEVILLE, Ill. (RNS) The Rev. William Rowe may not always go by the book during Mass, but he is digging deep into the letter of church law in an effort to regain his post as parish priest.

For decades, Rowe deviated from the language of the Roman Catholic Mass, tweaking sections of the scripted prayers when the words as written didn’t connect precisely with what he planned to preach to his flock.

The 72-year-old priest felt so strongly about his ad-libs that last October he offered to resign as pastor of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Mount Carmel, Ill. Belleville Bishop Edward Braxton eventually accepted Rowe’s offer Jan. 30.

But now Rowe has retracted his offer to resign, citing canon law to assert that Braxton’s acceptance came too late.

Canon 538 says that to be valid, a pastor’s resignation has to be formally accepted by his bishop. And canon 189 says any resignation “which requires acceptance lacks all force if it is not accepted within three months.”

By that standard, the priest’s resignation would have lost validity on Jan. 12.

Rowe’s original offer to resign came on Oct. 12, two months ahead of the introduction of a new, Vatican-mandated English-language translation of the Roman Missal, the book of prayers, chants and responses used during Mass.

Last June, Braxton warned all priests in the Belleville Diocese 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 said Braxton had warned him five years ago to stick to the words written in the missal. In a Feb. 14 letter to leaders of the diocese, the bishop said the priest “simply would not and could not pray the prayers of the Mass as they are translated in the new Roman Missal.”

In his newest letter to the bishop, Rowe said he originally offered to leave St. Mary’s because of the “heavy burden I seemed to be placing on you.” But Rowe had since become aware, he wrote, “that there are many … who would judge a resignation out of proportion to making the liturgical words more intelligible.”

Rowe suggested that the bishop allow him to remain pastor of St. Mary’s, even “while at the same time expressing your serious disagreement” with Rowe’s improvisations.

“With this statement you can show your faithfulness to church law,” Rowe wrote. “But it will also be a great pastoral opportunity to show your appreciation of the many voices of your faithful in the diocese and of your efforts to deal with the serious shortage of priests.”

(Tim Townsend writes for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in St. Louis.)