Last week, the Rev. Marek Bozek and St. Stanislaus' lay board were excommunicated.
ST. LOUIS -- The new pastor of a Polish parish at odds with the Archdiocese of St. Louis said Wednesday he risked excommunication to be a shepherd and spiritual leader of Catholic faithful who've been without a priest for 17 months.
"It's not my intention to be a hero or to dispute canonical issues," the Rev. Marek Bozek told reporters. "I am coming to St. Stanislaus to be its pastor, a parish priest, and nothing else. A good shepherd will feed and care for his sheep. This is my purpose in life.
"I believe in my heart they are indeed the people of God."
Bozek, 31, left the Diocese of Springfield Cape-Girardeau this month where he was an associate pastor after his bishop, John Leibrecht, in consultation with St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke, refused to grant him a leave of absence to minister to St. Stanislaus.
He said it would have been "so much easier" to stay at St. Agnes Cathedral in Springfield, but after much prayerful deliberation, he decided he could no longer say no to the parishioners of St. Stanislaus Kostka, a traditionally Polish, Catholic church in St. Louis. Bozek said Leibrecht understood his motives, but couldn't endorse his decision.
On Friday, Bozek and St. Stanislaus' six-member lay board were declared excommunicated by Burke, the most severe penalty the church can impose, the latest wrinkle in a dispute over control of the parish's property and assets.
Burke also said St. Stanislaus would no longer be recognized as Roman Catholic in the archdiocese.
Excommunication excludes Bozek and the board from taking part in church sacraments and functions and from holding positions within the church.
Burke said last week that Bozek and the lay board committed an act of schism in an arrangement that lacked Leibrecht's permission.
Still, preparations were under way for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day Masses celebrated in English and Polish. Archdiocesan spokesman Tony Huenneke said Wednesday, "There's nothing we can do to stop it."
He said Burke has called the Mass and other sacraments presided over by an excommunicated priest, "valid" because Bozek is nonetheless ordained, but "illicit." Burke further said it would be sinful for anyone to participate, or receive the sacraments from an excommunicated priest. Bozek disagreed.
He said Catholics are spiritually fed by the sacraments, but St. Stanislaus has been deprived for more than a year. He said parishioners were being born but not baptized, fell sick but not annointed, died but not given a ritual funeral. He said he has to answer to God, why didn't he minister to those who need him?
St. Stanislaus has not had a resident priest since August 2004, when Burke removed the parish's two clergymen.
The parish brought unidentified priests from Poland to celebrate Mass last Christmas and Easter.
Bozek said he prays for reconciliation between St. Stanislaus and the archdiocese and would welcome a chance to meet Burke. The parish, where he celebrated his first Mass in Polish after being ordained in 2002, is special to him, he said.
St. Stanislaus, founded 125 years ago, is the religious, cultural and historical home of Polish Americans in St. Louis.
Bozek said that upon arriving in St. Louis days ago, he has received greetings of welcome, as well as unsigned hate mail.
Unlike most other Catholic parishes around the country, St. Stanislaus Kostka's board -- rather than the archbishop -- has governed the parish's finances, according to an arrangement dating to the late 19th century.
Since Burke began serving as archbishop in January 2004, he had increased pressure on the parish to conform to current church structure and hand over control of its assets.
St. Stanislaus' lay leaders refused, accusing Burke of wanting the parish's assets, estimated at more than $9.5 million.
The growing conflict has seen the Vatican weigh in on Burke's behalf.