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Roman Catholic Diocese of Belleville

AUG. 10, 2011 -- The Diocese of Belleville Chancery Office building in Belleville. (Johnny Andrews | jandrews@post-dispatch.com)

Belleville Bishop Edward Braxton accepted the resignation of the Rev. William Rowe because the pastor of St. Mary's Catholic Church in Mount Carmel, Ill., 'simply would not and could not pray the prayers of the Mass as they are translated in the new Roman Missal," according to a letter written by the bishop Tuesday.

In a rare letter of explanation for an internal personnel matter, Braxton responded for the first time this week about the incident — which has attracted international media attention and led to a second priest in the Belleville parish to resign a leadership post in protest.

Braxton said in the letter that 'several" parishioners of St. Mary's had brought audio and video evidence to the bishop "which showed the many changes and omissions Fr. Rowe makes in the Mass."

Rowe told the Post-Dispatch this month that he had offered Braxton his resignation last year after a meeting during which the bishop barred Rowe from improvising prayers during Mass. Rowe said that when he prays the Missal — the book of prayers, chants and responses used during the Mass — he tends "to change the words that are written in the book to match what I was talking about" in the homily.

According to Catholic liturgical practice, priests are duty bound to the prayers

"These changes consist of far more than 'a few words,' " Braxton wrote in the letter, which was dated Tuesday and sent to the diocese's priests, deacons, parish life coordinators and the lay leadership at St. Mary's. He said in the letter that he was forced to confront the issue publicly because "a Catholic news outlet" had recently picked up the story.

In an interview Thursday, Rowe called the letter "pure Bishop Braxton."

"He mentioned in the letter that we clash in our ecclesiology — our image of the church," said Rowe, 72, who has been pastor of St. Mary's for 18 years. "He's right. He seems to consider the church as the bishops', and my notion is that the church starts with the people."

After Braxton accepted Rowe's resignation, the Rev. Jim Buerster of St. Boniface Church in Germantown resigned his position as head of the diocese's North Central Deanery.

There has never been an established penalty for improvising nonalterable prayers, and bishops have traditionally looked past an individual priest's extemporizing. But in December, the Vatican mandated that Catholics in every English-speaking country in the world adopt a new translation of the Missal.

Rowe said Braxton had warned him five years ago to stick to the words written in the book. Last June, the bishop sent a letter to the diocese's priests saying: "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 he'd told Braxton in their meeting last October, "That's how I pray," and subsequently offered his resignation. But it was more than three months before he received a letter from Braxton accepting his resignation.

Braxton wrote this week that he had waited "because I held out the hope that upon prayer and reflection, Fr. Rowe would think and act with the Church about this important matter."

Rowe, who is scheduled to leave St. Mary's in June, said that the parish council and school board at St. Mary's had been composing a letter asking Braxton to reconsider. The school's principal, Alice Worth, had requested a meeting with Braxton to stress the shortage of priests in the diocese and ask for a "more pastoral" solution, according to Rowe.

"It doesn't sound very hopeful," Rowe said.

On Thursday morning, Belleville's priests received an email from the secretary of the diocese's personnel board, listing eight parishes that have an opening for a pastor. St. Mary's was number five.