1741:1983 CIC 1740-1747, On the Removal of Pastors, Canon 1741.
The causes for which a pastor can be removed legitimately from his parish are especially the following:
No. 1 a manner of acting which brings grave detriment or disturbance to ecclesiastical communion;
No. 2 ineptitude or a permanent infirmity of mind or body which renders the pastor unable to fulfil his functions usefully;
No. 3 loss of a good reputation among upright and responsible parishioners or an aversion to the pastor which it appears will not cease in a brief time;
No. 4 grave neglect or violation of parochial duties which persists after a warning;
No. 5 poor administration of temporal affairs with grave damage to the Church whenever another remedy to this harm cannot be found.
Now back to the Catholic Diocese of Southern Illinois, Bishop Braxton and his troublesome priest Father Bill Rowe. When we last visited with them, Bishop Braxton had accepted Father Bill Rowe's resignation :
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 has deviated from the language of the Roman Catholic Mass, a highly prescribed liturgical rite, parts of which are as old as Christianity itself. He's done so, he said, when the words written in the book of prayers in front of him don't connect precisely with the Gospel message he's conveying 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 in a letter to Braxton on Friday, Rowe retracted his offer to resign. Rowe dug deep into canon — or church — 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.
Most of the prayers read by priests from the Missal during Mass cannot be changed. The new translation rendered some of the language in the Missal closer in spirit to the original Latin. Critics of the new translation have said the English is clunky and awkward for priests and laity.
Last June, Braxton had sent a letter to all the priests in the Belleville Diocese warning 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, and that Belleville's previous bishop, Bishop Wilton Gregory, had also discussed with the priest his tendency to alter the words of the prayers to better reflect what he sees as the main message of his homily or the Mass readings.
In a letter sent to diocesan leaders Feb. 14 explaining his interactions with Rowe, Braxton said he'd eventually accepted the priest's resignation because Rowe 'simply would not and could not pray the prayers of the Mass as they are translated in the new Roman Missal."
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 Father Rowe makes in the Mass."
Rowe said Braxton had shown him two letters — one from a member of a different parish, and another from a visitor to St. Mary's — complaining about his liturgical approach.
"I have no knowledge of any parishioner of St. Mary's sending such a letter or audio/video tape to you," Rowe wrote to Braxton last week.
Braxton did not return a call requesting a comment.
There has never been an established penalty for improvising nonalterable prayers, and bishops have traditionally looked past an individual priest's extemporizing. "There are few offices in the church where someone has to formally accept a resignation," said Monsignor Thomas Green, professor of canon law at Catholic University in Washington. The position of a parish pastor is one of those "because of the significance of the office," Green continued. "A bishop has to make sure, with absolute clarity, where things stand."
Earlier this month, in the wake of 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.
St. Mary's has nearly 500 families. Alice Worth, principal at St. Mary's School, called Rowe "the backbone of our parish." In the letter to Braxton last week, 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."
In writing to Braxton, 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."
Expect the case of Father Bill Rowe to become a textbook example of how a resignation of a priest evolved into a removal of a priest and studied by Seminarians for decades to come.