Father William Rowe is back. No, not restored to his beloved St. Mary Parish in southeast Illinois, from which he was extracted by Bishop Edward Braxton for improvising parts of the prayers at Mass, but back in the news, in a report by Melinda Henneberger in the Washington Post and a repeat by Robert McClory in the National Catholic Reporter (Mar 21).
If you recall the original story, Rowe a former military chaplain, discovered years ago that in order to make some prayers intelligible to the congregation he had to adapt them in clearer and more direct language. As I understand it, Rowe was not dealing with the Eucharistic Prayers or the words of consecration, but three “collects,” brief highly structured formal prayers at the entrance, offering and end and which, following the new translation, were strongly criticized by both liturgists and regular priests for their stiffness, wordiness and alienating formality. The prayer might contain 50 words, but it is full of adverbs like “graciously” that, according to some, made it more difficult to pray. Fr. Rowe was supported by his parishioners. In this space I summarized articles by liturgists and canon lawyers from Worship, Commonweal and U. S. Catholic that support the freedom of the celebrant to adapt for pastoral reasons. To no avail. Fr. Rowe was removed.
The parish is in the news again because Henneberger, once a member of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Mount Carmel, Ill., brought us up-to -date on the story.
Fr. Rowe’s replacement, Fr. Trevor Murry, devoted a weekend of Masses to telling his congregation that after 12 years in the priesthood, he had fallen in love and was leaving.
Bishop Braxton replaced Murry with a Deacon Steve Lowe, who had been married four times — three outside the church and the fourth to a divorced member of the parish. Lowe had denounced his predecessor Rowe so often for not being sufficiently orthodox that parishioners questioned the deacon’s sincerity.
Henneberger reports that in a parish of 450 families weekend Mass attendance has slipped from a couple hundred to mere dozens. Meanwhile, where is Rowe? He is still conducting a weekly Bible class that he has run for many years, except it is in the basement of the local Lutheran church. Original parishioners who have been faithful all their lives must now go to the Lutheran church to hear the priest they love tell them about Christ.
Something is wrong here. Three priest authorities on the liturgy interviewed by the St. Louis Post Dispatch in (Feb. 3, 2012) emphasized that there is no established penalty for improvising non-alterable prayers, that some Mass prayers are “beholden to structure, not to the words,” while for others, presumably the words of institution in the Eucharistic prayers, must be said as they are.
The parish has no priest. Now the deacon has left. The former pastor, whose fellow priests and parishioners overwhelming supported when he first was fired, lives on his army pension, does volunteer work and teaches Scripture in a Lutheran parish. The bishop who removed him is unpopular with his priests. This is not a good use of the church’s resources. Is there no senior church leader, another bishop perhaps, who can intervene and bring these two men together for the good of the church?
This week Pope Francis officially accepted the resignation of a German bishop who spent $43 million on a new house. Are more to follow? Most likely not. But is there a message? Yes.