A priest loses his faculties

We got complaints from a couple of readers about this story in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, headlined “Improvising Illinois priest barred from pulpit.” It’s written by Tim Townsend, someone we frequently praise here at GetReligion:

An Illinois priest forced out of his parish by Belleville’s Catholic bishop for improvising prayers during Mass will no longer be able to preach in public as of today.

The Rev. William Rowe said Monday that Bishop Edward Braxton has suspended him and removed his “faculties,” or license to practice ministry under church law. The move has been associated in recent years with the punishment of clergy accused of sexually abusing minors.

Rowe, the pastor of St. Mary Catholic Church in Mount Carmel, Ill., has not been accused of abuse, but he has clashed with Braxton over altering the liturgical prayers of the Roman Missal — the book of prayers, chants and responses used during Mass.

My own beef with that lede is the unnecessary and tendentious tying in of faculty removal with sexual abuse of minors. I don’t like the passive voice used (“has been associated”). Associated by whom? What are the range of offenses that can lead to removal of faculties? Is it just sexual abuse of minors and liturgical improvisation? If not, just don’t bother tarnishing an interesting piece on liturgical improvisation.

Anyway, that’s not the reason readers complained. One note read:

Here’s an on-going story about a Catholic priest who has been defying his bishop about straying from the prescribed language of the Catholic Mass for decades. He’s in his 70s and the bishop removed him from his parish. Because the priest is now performing the sacraments at other parishes, the Bishop has lifted his “faculties”. [Townsend] says twice that he can no longer preach before he finally explains that for Catholics that’s the least of what “faculties” means.

Another note read:

Re: Improvising Illinois priest barred from pulpit

Um, no. He wasn’t barred from the pulpit. He’s barred from celebrating Mass, which is far more than the pulpit. And as Phil Lawler pointed out, he WAS accused of abuse — liturgical abuse. Obviously, the secular press doesn’t care about that, but Catholics do. And this line, I think, is simply gratuitous: “The move has been associated in recent years with the punishment of clergy accused of sexually abusing minors.” Again, are there no canon lawyers to consult who can say what reasons there are to suspend priests?

OK, I guess there is some overlap between that last comment and my beef.

But it is important to understand, when covering something like this, precisely what removal of faculties means and also why it’s important. For what it’s worth, it’s explained better later on in the story:

Last month, St. Mary’s parishioners learned that Braxton had officially removed Rowe, their pastor of 18 years. But a separate letter from Braxton recently informed Rowe, 72, that not only would he have to leave the church, but that he could not preach in public anywhere.

Rowe said he could no longer celebrate public Masses or preside at weddings, funerals or baptisms. The only exception, Rowe said, involves a dying person; he can still hear a confession, baptize or anoint that person.

I also would have really appreciated more precision about precisely what the priest in question was doing in a given Mass. We’re told this:

According to Catholic liturgical practice, priests are duty bound to the prayers written in the Roman Missal, but Rowe had deviated from the text for decades. He said he did so when the official words didn’t connect precisely with the message he was hoping to convey.

But it’s hard for me to understand precisely what that means. In which parts of the Mass was the ad-libbing done and what was said?

I do find it interesting how we frame stories when it comes to authority and deviation from authority. Are all people who openly disregard their leaders treated the same, I wonder? Journalists seem to have a soft spot for people flouting authority (I’m one of them) and I wonder if that leads to particular ruts in how we frame stories such as this. I can see how that particular bias shapes my own writing.

Catholic Mass image via Richard Welter / Shutterstock.com

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  • http://www.cyberbrethren.com Rev. Paul T. McCain

    Unfortunately, no pastor in the Lutheran Church ever gets the boot for improvising on the liturgy and creating his own texts and “free styling” it from the altar.

  • Julia

    In February, 2009, Tim Townsend had an article specifically about incardination and faculties in respect to the Polish priest involved in the brou ha ha at St Stan’s in St Louis.
    He cited verbatim a full explanation from a canonist he consulted. That used to be the way Tim operated. So Tim has known for a long time what faculties are and mean. I’m baffled at why he kept repeating the bit about “preaching”. That’s not a term Catholics use anyway; we call it a homily, where the priest is supposed to expound on the readings of the day.

    That 2009 entry in the Post Dispatch is no longer available on-line, but it is part of a local St Louis blog post the day after Tim’s article on Fr Bozek and how the priest would be losing his incardination and faculties, mainly for defying his bishop in Springfield, MO.


    BTW A priest friend told me that back in the day when some priests were illiterate and only trained to say Mass, an incardination might not include permission to exercize all the faculties of a Catholic priest. For example, a priest might not be authorized to hear confessions or give the homily because of lack of theological training. The grant of faculties is like a doctor’s or lawyer’s state license to practice their profession in that state. The lifting of faculties is not the same thing as what is popularly known as de-frocking, more properly called laicization which is permanent. The loss of faculties might be only a temporary suspension.

  • Jerry

    But it’s hard for me to understand precisely what that means. In which parts of the Mass was the ad-libbing done and what was said?

    That’s the heart of the matter. Forgive the analogy, but it’s like saying that someone was arrested for a crime but not stating the alleged crime.

  • Jon in the Nati

    It is actually not an awful article, except for the line about sexual abuse. Whoever sent the note informing GR of the story is correct: the first word that came to my mind was ‘gratuitous’. The implication is fairly obvious; we are to ask ourselves whether what this priest did is bad enough to warrant a penalty usually reserved for child molesters, and arrive at the inevitable conclusion that this is some kind of injustice, or just another case of a Catholic bishop being hopelessly myopic.

    If we did not already know it, this should serve as further confirmation that there is no Catholic-related news story that cannot or will not some how be made about clergy sexual abuse. It is always going to be there, even when the subject of the story could not be less related to the scandal. It is unfair, but more to the point, it is bad journalism, because it does not allow a story (good, bad, or indifferent) to exist on its own merits.

  • Julia

    For those who didn’t look to see what the canonist told Tim Townsend back in 2009, here are the relevant parts:

    Legally (canonically) speaking, a man becomes a priest through ordination (that is, he receives the sacrament of orders). He is ordained first a deacon and then (six months to a year later) he is ordained a priest. When ordained a deacon, a man becomes incardinated into a diocese (these are diocesan priests such as Fr. Bozek); others, if they belong to a religious order (such as the Franciscans or Jesuits or Dominicans) when they are ordained a deacon, are incardinated into the Franciscans or Jesuits or Dominicans, not into a diocese.

    Incardination means that the priest has certain obligations and responsibilities – such as obedience to his bishop – and in turn the bishop has certain obligations and responsibilities – to support his priests and make sure that they fulfill their duties.

    In addition to being incardinated in a diocese, every priest (generally) is given that which is known as ‘faculties.’ For example, being ordained a priest does not mean that you can hear confessions or witness marriages; in addition to being a priest, you must have authorization from a particular bishop to hear confessions or witness marriages in his diocese. Most diocesan priests have faculties from their diocese of incardination; sometimes, diocesan priests have faculties from two bishops.

    From the facts presented in the story, Father Bozek has illegitimately left his diocese of incardination; therefore, his authorization to minister (his faculties) had been removed; he was disobedient to his bishop and thus suffered a penalty, a penalty intended to help him become aware of his responsibilities. The other penalties – his excommunication – are also intended to heal his disobedience.

    It’s strange that Mr Townsend would link the loss of faculties to child abuse when the most publicized loss of faculties in the St Louis area for decades was the defiant Polish priest, Fr Bozek, who has never been accused of child abuse.

  • FrH

    May I complain about one of the complaints? Priests don’t “perform” sacraments. Okay, some of us do (most of us probably do some of the time), but the sacraments are celebrated, not performed.

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    I don’t get why Townsend insisted on using the “preaching” scheme when he described the situation perfectly well in that paragraph about what Father Rowe can and cannot do — and that involves a whole lot more than preaching. It’s simply mind-boggling that a reporter who’s done pretty good work and shown clear understanding of the Catholic Church that looms very large in St. Louis, would turn something like this in — unless it was an editor who hacked it up before it went out the door.

    As for the framing issue you raise, tmatt, that’s exactly what happens in every story about the Catholic Church, whether it’s about laity who don’t want to take oaths, or uppity nuns on buses, or a priest who decides to leave his diocese and take over a renegade parish, or parents of celiac children who want rice wafers instead of unleavened wheat bread, or lesbian moms who want their kid in Catholic school, or a priest who withholds communion from a professed lesbian at her mother’s funeral, or… I mean, really — besides the occasional Ted Haggard, do we hear about all the little fights that go on in other churches in the national and even international press?

  • Martha

    Mollie, first off, congratulations on the photo you picked to accompany this post. I note that it’s a stock photo, not one associated with the priest or church in the story, but I can see at least three violations of the rubrics in it – so very appropriate!

    As to the story itself – good gravy, why drag the abuse scandal into it, if it’s not meant to imply “Oh sure, say a few free-style prayers and they throw the book at you, but rape tens of kids and they cover it up!” Not the best way to explain the removal of faculties.

    Nowhere did I see any explanation – apart from a bare sentence that “According to Catholic liturgical practice, priests are duty bound to the prayers written in the Roman Missal” as to why this is a big deal.

    “(H)e has clashed with Braxton over altering the liturgical prayers of the Roman Missal — the book of prayers, chants and responses used during Mass.”

    This makes it sound like a clash of opinions. It’s not a “clash”, anymore than a police officer telling a man with a gun and a stocking mask coming out of a bank with a sackful of loot that he’s under arrest is a “clash” of opinions. He can’t do this and the bishop is doing no more than his duty in telling him he can’t do it, and when he continues to do it, suspending him.

    It would have been nice to see one little paragraph about the reason you can’t muck around with the Mass, but we’re left with ‘nice, friendly, popular priest who’s been serving the parish for decades in a modern, relevant manner that meets the needs of his parishioners driven out by bean-counting rules lawyer bishop who sticks to the dusty tomes’.

  • Martha

    There’s an interview with Fr. Rowe where he gives an example of the kind of improvisation he does.

    Now, if he’s changing the words of the Eucharistic prayers, this is a big warning signal. There doesn’t seem to be any claim that he’s been changing the words of institution, but you certainly have to wonder if he’s been phrasing the consecration in ‘language that makes more sense’.

  • Thinkling

    I can see at least three violations of the rubrics in [the photo you picked to accompany this post] – so very appropriate!

    Great catch! For those not familiar, the most obvious is that the chalice is not metal. This would not invalidate anything, but is still a big no-no.

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    Are you sure this is a Catholic Mass that’s depicted in the photo? I only ask because, if you notice, he’s wearing a wedding band. Now I know that there are married priests in the Latin Rite, but they are few and far between and how many of them have photos in Shutterstock? And while I know that some newer churches are horribly designed, I know of none that put the baptismal font (which is what I presume that bowl-thing on the stand is) in the sanctuary. (Besides the fact that all the furnishings seem to have come from the Southern Living catalog.) And the book on the table doesn’t seem to have enough ribbons in it to be a Sacramentary. Just wondering, that’s all.

    P.S. Just noticed my error in no. 7 that it was Mollie who wrote this, not tmatt. Sorry!

  • Mollie

    I know nothing about the photo other than that was how SHutterstock identified it. Taken in Spain, they say.

  • http://authenticbioethics.blogspot.com AuthenticBioethics

    The article does the reader several disservices, which have been pointed out. First, the issue of having faculties removed is a lot like being suspended or relived of duties: You’re not allowed to do what you were previously required to do. He cannot function as a priest publicly.

    Related to this is the notion of why this penalty is imposed. Even if there were a gratuitous mention of the scandal, it could have been included with other reasons — in general, it is a serious penalty imposed if a priest is doing something seriously wrong. And so is some better clarity about when a priest without faculties can administer absolution, baptism, and anointing, which is not just a dying person, but an emergency situation — like he happened to be in the vicinity of an auto accident or at the scene of some disastrous event, and not to minister to a terribly sick person who is dying but who nonetheless will live for sufficient during which a priest with faculties could visit.

    Second, is the issue of the nature and duration of the liturgical innovations he has been doing. Persistent disobedience to the bishop on just about anything (assuming the bishop is not commanding something objectively sinful) is a reason for having faculties removed. If anything he did would jeopardize the validity of the sacraments, and he is obstinate, well it would seem that removing his faculties is not so much to punish him, but to protect the faithful.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    I wonder how many media outlets would keep on their staff a reporter who was hired to do in depth weather reports and charts, but decided to regularly do “his own thing” and report on the latest sports events and scores.
    Over the years it seems there have been a number of media people canned for doing something completely out of line.

  • Julia

    re: the photo.

    What is that triangle he’s holding?

    Why is there a sheet of glass on the altar?

    The really strange looking large basin at the rear has what looks like a small pumpkin and an egg beater or whisk in it?

    What else did Martha notice?

  • http://www.catholiccincinnati.org Dan Andriacco

    Other than saying the priest has been winging it for decades and once subsmitted his resignation, the story gives no indication of how long the bishop has been asking him to mend his ways, how many times they have met to discuss it, etc. When a public figure (i.e., Giuliani or Sebilius) is asked refrain from taking communion, that is usually a step taken only after many private efforts by the bishop. I suspect that something similar happened here.

  • http://fkclinic.blogspot.com tioedong

    Yes, the article made me wonder. Was he “thrown out”, punished with a temporary ban, or stays a priest in good standing but just can’t say the Mass?

    Since bishops don’t monitor masses, it makes me think a lot of parishoners were complaining about him. Presumably there were quite a few complaints about this, probably over the years, Yet none of them were interviewed by the reporter.

    And limited removal for performing the sacraments wrong is not unknown: one of our priests when I worked in Africa was banned for a short time after he baptized a baby whose father was a polygamist (where the bishop’s rule was to wait until these children reached the age of reason, since often these children would not be brought up as Christian).

    Limited permissions, usually due to intellectual problems, are not not unknown: Solanus Casey (up for sainthood) had limited faculties due to low marks in the seminary.

  • http://!)! Passing By

    The triangle is a Host, probably taken from the priest’s Host. Actually, I received Communion today in a Host like that (although smaller).

    The bowl with pumpkin and whisk has to be a baptistery (look at the water jar next to it) , but as someone noted it’s in the wrong place.

    The sheet of glass is strange, but maybe the altar guild doesn’t like cleaning spills out of the linens. Who knows.

    And the glass chalice was acceptable until less than 10 years ago. The picture definitely has an 80s air to it.

    Ok, on the article, it’s pretty much the noble individual (head tilted up, jaw thrust forward, far-away look in the eyes) intent on helping people, versus the big, bad bishop. More 60s anti-authoritarianism. Bad journalism? Especially from a writer who’s done otherwise good work? It’s definitely boring, old, and stale.

    Throwing in child abuse was especially cheesy.

  • Martha

    Thomas, you raise a good point there re: the ring on his finger – he could be a married clergyman of another denomination, although it doesn’t look Lutheran to me and the Episcopalians tend to have better furnishings ;-)

    Then again, I have no idea what Spanish Anglican churches might look like?

    But I have to say that I have seen the tendency to drag the baptismal font up right to the very front of the church and even to the sanctuary; the late 70s remodelling of my parish church did exactly that, and there’s another church in the town proper which is a dreadful example of what I’ve seen called “wreckovation”; late 19th century mildly Victorian Gothic style that has been hacked about; they more or less demolished the side-altar to St. Joseph and hauled the baptismal font up from the traditional position near the main door to where they ripped out the side-altar, so that it’s near as can be to the sanctuary.

    You do not want to ask me what they did to the main altar. Believe me, you do not want to ask that.

  • Martha

    tioedong, other articles online mention that this is the second bishop he’s defied more than one bishop (Bishop Gregory, the predecessor of the current bishop) and there were complaints over the years by the parishioners.

    But if you want to see an example of the kind of thing that has been going on in the parish, here’s a Youtube video of a celebratory school Mass in honour of Fr. Bill.

    Oh, boy. Where to start? They didn’t show the consecration, so I have no idea what kind of prayers he did for that, but just have a gander at this video – from about 7.31 onwards.

    That’s the school principal reading the Gospel. Anybody want to explain why this is a big no-no? Apart from the fact that she’s probably not an ordained deacon?

    Then she – well, I can’t say preaches the homily, since it’s a panegyric to Fr. Bill, but good grief. Be glad women can’t be Pope, because if I were in the Chair of Peter, the congregation formerly known as the Holy Inquisition would be dusting off the racks and oiling the thumbscrews for all involved.

    If this is a sample of what the bishop has to deal with, I don’t envy him!

  • Julia

    The triangle is a Host, probably taken from the priest’s Host. Actually, I received Communion today in a Host like that (although smaller).

    I don’t know about that. The fractioned host in a typical Mass is a lot more randomly broken. This triangle looks intentionally shaped.

  • asshur

    Re the photo.

    What troubles me more is the lack of a Crucifix (and candles) on the Table (this is one of the cases i’m not willing to call it an Altar). And nothing in the background but the bapstismal pile, it’s really a strange church

    If it is Spain the ring is probably not a wedding ring. If i’m not mistaken, the priest wears it on the left hand. In most parts of Spain we wear it on the right hand.
    OTOH, i recall, at least when I was a kid -never checked lately- that priests -and for sure, nuns- used to wear here “wedding rings” to signify its “marriage to the Church”.

    Re the article.
    It misses totally the Why -at least-. Specially assuming some not catholic readership. As other commenters said before, that a priest has been suspended (or similar) for “improvising”, is something very unusal and should have had a long previous history. And has to be very, very obvious and scandalous (given the number of options one finds in the Missal and that the use of missaletes with the variable parts is nearly extinct, it’s not easy to detect). But absolutlely no hint in the article

  • Martha

    asshur, if the Youtube video of the school Mass in honour of Fr. Rowe is any indication, then it’s not simply a matter of him interpolating a few ad-libbed prayers into the liturgy; he’s been letting things slide very badly.

    I know a kid’s Mass is not going to be the same as the proper Mass in all details, but having a laywoman read the Gospel is something that should not be allowed. The appearance of the table used as an altar, its displacement to the side, the lack of proper vestments (and what the heck is up with the walking around with his hands behind his back all the time?) – those are not good indicators.

  • Maureen

    Holy crud. That “thank you Mass” is SUPER CREEPY! (Not to mention gagworthy and stupid.) Instead of an offertory to God, they offer gifts for the priest! What?!

  • Meg

    Wow, lots of comments about journalism here.

  • Julia

    Fr Bill’s replacement is a very sociable graduate of the North American College in Rome. He’s also a musician. He wrote a very traditional piece for our choir to sing, but also has a band/singing group that plays modern music at local venues. Good choice to ease these folks back into what the Mass is really supposed to be. During one Lent, Fr Murray celebrated a Mass interspersed with explanations of what was going on and why. Hopefully, he will do that for the folks at St Mary’s, too.

    The papers should do a follow-up on how the transition to Fr Murray works out – with a profile as friendly to him as all the previous ones have been to Fr Bill.

  • Julia

    News article on Fr Trevor Murray and his classic rock band.


  • Kristen

    Wayyy too few comments on the journalism here…

    Especially disappointing to see a veteran who usually is praised do this kind of piece…but I think most diocesan chanceries tend to keep pretty mum about situations like these, and they don’t really care what kind of press they get. Their primary concern is, yes, protection of Catholics from invalidly celebrated sacraments. (And hopefully to limit the embarrassment of extra stories, which few outside the church will be sympathetic to.)

    Well, since we are all kinda veering off the journalism track, here is my take:

    From the facts we are given, the bishop very likely had a legitimate concern that this priest was not celebrating the Mass in such a way that the sacrament of Eucharist would be valid, because the words of consecration were extemporaneous. To a non-Catholic, sure, it sounds like quibbling. But, in fact, at least in our church, invalid sacraments are a good way to merit an episcopal slapdown.

    In order for the sacrament to be valid, it has to have proper form (the words spoken) and proper matter (the materials of the sacrament, such as water for baptism, or unleavened bread and wine for Eucharist).

    Here is a cool little “quizlet” I found that lists all the proper forms and proper matters for all seven sacraments.

    Betcha very few Catholics in the pew know that one. (Heckm most prolly cannot name the 7 sacraments.) Now you know I am a geek.

  • Kristen

    Ouch – i shoulda looked more carefully at the quizlet – lotsa typos there…some are pretty funny. The proper matter of Christian Marriage is only one Christian man and one Christian woman. Hahahaha

  • Thinkling

    It seems this story is ruffling someone’s feathers. The video Martha #20 linked to has been taken down.

    Behold the power of New Media.