Priest who refused to “Say The Black” loses his parish

Holy Church tells priests that they have to “Say The Black and Do The Red”.  We are to obey the rubrics of liturgical worship and stick to the texts.  Priests cannot – bishops cannot – on their own authority change the rubrics or texts.  In some few cases the law gives us flexibility.  In most we don’t have flexibility.

So, a priest who is not obeying the liturgical law already has a problem. But when he is called to account by legitimate authority, such as the diocesan bishop, and told to stop doing what he is doing and then that priest does not obey, that priest has another problem.

Thus we come to the sad case of Fr. William Rowe in Illinois, who now has a bigger problem than he had before and, by his actions, has hurt a lot of people and caused a scandal.


Illinois priest who freelanced his prayers loses his job

For 18 years, the Rev. William Rowe has done a little improvising while celebrating Mass on Sunday mornings at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Mount Carmel, Ill. [I wonder how much is a “little”.]
Now those deviations have led to his resignation in an incident that may be tied to global changes to the Catholic liturgy.

Last Sunday, instead of saying “Lord our God that we may honor you with all our mind and love everyone in truth of heart,” [The Collect.] during the opening prayer, he altered the phrasing to better reflect the day’s Gospel message, in which Jesus heals a man with a troubled spirit.

“We thank you, God, for giving us Jesus who helped us to be healed in mind and heart and proclaim his love to others,” the 72-year-old priest prayed instead.  [Good grief.]

Three days later, Rowe received a letter from Bishop Edward Braxton accepting his resignation.
“The problem is that when I pray at Mass, I tend to change the words that are written in the book to match what I was talking about, or what a song is about,” Rowe said in an interview.  [So, Father has made Mass be about his personal views?]

The book in question is the Roman Missal, a book of prayers, chants and responses used during the Mass. Rowe has been saying some of those prayers in his own words for years.

But in December the Vatican-mandated adoption of a new English-language translation of the Missal may have given bishops an opportunity to rein in freewheeling priests who have been praying in their own words for decades.
“Since December when the new translation came out, no one has said what would happen to you if you changed stuff,” said the Rev. John Foley, director of the Center for Liturgy at St. Louis University. “But I find it hard to believe a priest in Illinois would be forced to resign because he wasn’t using the exact words from the translation. It’s not a strong-enough offense for that.” [Maybe that’s not the only problem.  It is true that you don’t get the heave-ho for for changing a Collect.  If you change it to something heretical, that could be a more serious problem.  If you do it all the time, that’s a bigger problem.  If you refuse to stop, that’s a bigger problem.]

In the wake of sweeping changes in the church as a result of the Second Vatican Council, some priests in the 1970s began using their own words and phrasing in place of the verbatim translations of the original Latin liturgy in the Missal, Foley said. He said there has never been an established penalty for improvising nonalterable prayers, and bishops have traditionally [wrongly, too] looked past an individual priest’s extemporizing. [Bishops have a lot on their plates and this sort of thing isn’t thought as pressing as other matters.  I think our liturgical worship is a key element of our identity.]

Monsignor Kevin Irwin, professor of liturgical studies at the Catholic University of America, said there are some prayers said by a priest at Mass in which he is “beholden to the structure not to the words.”

But there are also prayers that priests are “duty bound to say,” said the Rev. John Baldovin, professor of historical and liturgical theology at Boston College. Most of the prayers in the Missal, in fact, are not optional, he said.
Rowe said Belleville’s previous bishop, Wilton Gregory, had discussed his off-the-cuff prayer habit with him, referring to the practice as “pushing the envelope.” He said five years ago, Braxton also discussed the matter with him, and asked him to read directly from the Missal.

“I told him I couldn’t do that,” Rowe said. “That’s how I pray.”

Last summer, Rowe said, Braxton made it clear to his priests that “no priest may deviate from any wording in the official Missal.”

In October, two months ahead of the introduction of the new Missal translation, Braxton said he couldn’t permit Rowe to continue improvising, according to Rowe. The priest offered his resignation but didn’t receive a response.

Braxton did not respond to a request for an interview with the Post-Dispatch.

On Monday, Braxton wrote Rowe a letter informing him that he’d accepted his resignation.

The action did not sit well with the nearly 500 families at St. Mary’s, some of whom are contemplating a letter writing campaign to Braxton. “They’re devastated,” said Alice Worth, principal at St. Mary’s School. “Father Bill is the backbone of our parish.”

“The ways Father changed the Mass ritual with his words have only made it more meaningful to us as opposed to distancing us from the church,” Worth said. “Everything he does is based on our faith, it’s not just a whim. There’s a reason for every word he prays.”  [Who was doing the distancing all this time?  Every time Fr. Rowe changed the prayers he distanced himself and the people from the way the Church prays.]

Sad business. I hope this will be resolved peacefully.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. disco says:

    Of course he’s the backbone of the parish! They’ve been getting nothing but the gospel according to Bill for years now.

  2. Sacrosanctum Concilium: 22. 3. Therefore no other person, even if he be a priest, may add, remove, or change anything in the liturgy on his own authority.

    This passage of Vat. II seems to be rather unknown to a certain generation of priests. I was scolded by a priest at the sedilia, when I whispered to him , that he (I assumed at this moment accidently) recited the postcommunio of the sunday the week before. He told me not to interfere in his “right” of doing what he deems useful.

  3. pberginjr says:

    I like how the P-D got the commentary from one of the St. Louis’ Jesuits (John Foley).

  4. digdigby says:

    I read this in the morning Post-Dispatch and e-mailed to Rev. John Foley director of the Center for Liturgy at ‘catholic’ St. Louis University (of St. Louis Jesuits fame). It seems he couldn’t believe a priest would be forced to resign “because he wasn’t using the exact words from the translation.”

    He was not changing a word here or there I argued. He was writing the mass. I am sick of the “Father Jims” and the “Father Bills” who seem to need to be loved by their parish like some sort of charismatic Mega-church Big Daddy. They are not so loving and nice and wonderful as they think they are. If a priest openly disobeys his bishop he is teaching disobedience, ‘do your own thing’ and love ME who REALLY understands you instead of ‘that funky bad old church hierarchy’

  5. Father K says:

    It sounds to me as if this priest has difficulty in distinguishing between private or personal prayer and public, liturgical prayer. “I told him I couldn’t do that,” Rowe said. “That’s how I pray.” He seems not to understand that in the liturgy, the Church prays.

  6. Peggy R says:

    Thank you for covering this. Bp. Braxton issued a letter in 2010 in advance of the new translations and made it clear that when the new translations become effective, the ad libbing shall end. That was very advance notice. Sad that Fr. Rowe couldn’t pull it together. Bishop’s letter:

    [Our bishop has not issued any personal statement about the HHS ruling, sadly. He’s headed to ad limina. He has instructed that the USCCB Q&A be in bulletin inserts. I wish a personal statement of outrage would be forthcoming.]

  7. NoTambourines says:

    I can’t help but notice a generational trend here, or if it is not age-dependent per se, it may be dependent on the time frame of ordination. My parish seems to serve as a “training” parish for newly ordained priests in our diocese, and then they go on after about a year to be pastor somewhere else. Across the board, they have been very reverent, and very attentive to detail. The more experimental priest we have who fills in from time to time is much older.

    At the funeral of our previous pastor, I noticed another pattern. The bishop presided, and scores of priests came from around the diocese and even further away. They seemed either quite advanced in years, or fairly young, without as many in between. It was kind of like how scientists can look at tree rings or ice cores and detect evidence of a period of crisis and renewal.

    Long story short, I think I’d rather be where we are now than, say, 25 years ago. Brick by brick, indeed.

  8. APX says:

    Father Bill
    Can we please stop with this first name basis for priests? First you get too chummy with the priest, and then you get too chummy with God.

  9. tech_pilgrim says:

    Keep in mind this is also from the Diocese of Bellville, which has historically had a very liberal clergy, and Bishop Braxton is a little odd. Not saying he’s bad, and part of his oddness might be caused by having to deal with his screwed up diocese, but there is probably more too this story.

    And speaking of Bellville……. check out the Shrine of our Lady of the Snows ?_?

  10. Peggy R says:

    P.S. The Belleville paper better fleshes out the timeline of communications and meetings between the bishop and Fr. Rowe.

    The BND also has a poll on that page as to whether priests should change the words of the mass. Spike the #s!

  11. tech_pilgrim says:

    my last part of my post is supposed to be ironic, my disapproving smiley didn’t come out right…

  12. Peggy R says:


    I had been critical of the Shrine I recalled from the 70s until I started attending an occasional daily mass there these past few years. I often make a confession before mass. Most confessors are quite good. One was particularly rigorous, while another I usually avoided liked to have a therapy visit. The music is a lot better than I thought it would be. Yes, much of the contemporary stuff, but no guitar band. Reverent and decent music in general, I think.

  13. Mike Morrow says:

    This guy is part of the pathetic slime that flowed from the post-Vatican II chaos sluice gate in the mid-1960s that destroyed the Church in favor of newchurch. He apparently has a crypto-catholic congregation of similar ilk. Unfortunately, this scene is common in the USA today, and has been for forty-five years.

    For something that is much more encouraging than an subversive and self-important old pseudo-priest, Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski celebrated very well last night’s elaborate Candlemas Extraordinary Form Pontificial Mass. He even called out Obama by name for censure in the homily. Although the church itself was a hideous newchurch nightmare, and although the choir chose some polyphonic “classical” versions where Gregorian Chant would have been appropriate, it was altogether a welcome sign for the restoration of Catholic liturgy. As is the removal of this Rowe pirate.

    The above Mass was almost three hours long. The church was packed to standing room only with more than one thousand people. The service included the blessing of the candles and Terce before Mass began. It is to be rebroadcast today at 6:30 pm EST at

  14. I’m glad, and I hope more priests loose their parishes because they don’t play by the rules.

  15. kat says:

    I’m so happy to see bishops getting spines. Let the priest go off in retirement somewhere; and give him some books to read, especially those on obedience, and liturgy…

  16. BobP says:

    Ad libbing isn’t so easy in Latin. No need to resign, he might be a good priest otherwise; just don’t say the Mass in vernacular.

  17. JacobWall says:

    Still new to Catholicism (less than a year) and much of what I used to think was “good Catholicism” before turns out to be a little off … (kind of like what I used to think was good coffee, until I actually started drinking good coffee – I’m hoping to try Mystic Monk down the road some time …)

    If anyone could clarify two things for me, I would be very grateful:

    1. I understand that the prayer cited above (“We thank you, God, for giving us Jesus …”) is simply unacceptable because it’s changing part of the mass that can’t be changed. However, is Fr. Z also saying that it’s heretical in its wording besides that? [No.] If he is, could someone tell me how it’s heretical? This could help me start getting a better grasp on these things. (Hopefully knowledge for use outside of mass!)

    2. APX complained about first name address of priests; I thought all Catholics did this. Back in my Evangelical youth, though, “Pastor” + last name was the only way. Is that also considered more respectful for Catholicism? Fr. Rowe – sounds good. One thing I’ve always found strange (I worked for Catholic priests before actually joining the Church) were the chummy short-forms. Most of the priests I know go by full first name – i.e. it would be Fr. William instead of Fr. Bill – which to me sounds somewhat better. Here in Mexico, title usually goes alone, but when defining which Father you’re talking about, first name is used. This is considered to show high levels of respect in all parts of society. (People call me “Maestro” or “Maestro Jacob” = “Teacher Jacob.” “Teacher” is a title and role worthy of communal respect and formality – not as much as “Padre,” though.) But that’s a cultural difference. In any case, is it better to address priests by Father + Last Name? or simply “Father”?

    Thanks ahead of time to anyone who has some input.

  18. digdigby says:

    If any of you remember ‘Mr. Bill’ from Saturday Night Live – it seems that ‘Father Bill’ has finally met ‘Bishop Hand’.

  19. Slappo says:

    I believe Fr. Z was just pointing out that heretical ad libbing is a more serious offense than regular ad libbing. Although both are problems.

  20. Slappo says:

    And yes Fr. Last Name is more formal than Fr. First Name. Formality has been lost in recent years. It’s like the difference between saying President George or President Bush. The former just isn’t supposed to happen, and the latter is proper.

  21. JacobWall says:

    BobP – I suspect Father Bill would sooner resign than say mass in Latin – but this is fairly premature speculation on my part based on very little experience in Catholicism (see above). I met one priest who is a delightful person, and actually helped me a good deal in understanding certain aspects of Catholicism. But when I read this story it reminded me of this priest I know.

    He is the only short-form name priest I know. He ad libs in mass, but only single words; eg “disciples” in the Eucharist Prayer was changed to “friends” regularly. (This rubbed me the wrong way – besides the changes, which I already knew were probably not a good thing, I’m not a fan of the fact that all relationships – parents, teachers, priests, siblings, spouses, etc. – get turned into “friends” these days. I destroys the richness and variety of roles and duties we are meant to have for each other. And, of course, I don’t like the idea that Jesus is our “buddy.” I think this is what APX was talking about.) I never caught more than one word changes. He once delivered a sermon heavily attacking the idea of having mass in Latin. I was quite let down since I had just begun working up some courage to go to him or our regular parish priest to talk about the possibility. I suspect (again, without the experience to say so with any confidence) that many of these things – very informal addressing, ad libbing, and anti-Latin – come as a package.

    Once again, I think there are many good points about the priest I mentioned, and I respect greatly him as one of my first priest – present at my confirmation – but I don’t think there would be much hope to convince him to say mass in Latin. I feel Fr. William might be similar.

  22. ChronicSinner says:

    This is an example of several things, not the least of which is damage that is done to the Body of Christ by the pride of a poorly informed priest.

    As a priest, he should know that the chief purpose of the Mass, is to have the infinite merits of Christ applied to us finite sinful creatures for the benefit of our souls. This is done in the first place, by the Holy Roman Catholic Church herself, who alone was given the exclusive right by God to administer the sacraments. Hence, the Apostles and their legitmate successors are the only ones who have the right to determine how the sacraments should be administered. No priest can substitute his personal preferences against established norms, because it would violate justice. In the end, this hubris on the part of Fr. Rowe diminishes the meritorious fruits of the Mass for himself, his flock, and indeed, for every member of the Church wherever they may be, because it offends justice and renders the extrinsic aspects of the Mass he offers less pleasing to God. Also, by inserting his own personal will into what should be a sublimely prayerful and therefore by definition humble act, he insults true charity by making the Mass man centered as opposed to God centered, as God after all, is the final end of true charity. Again, all this does is render a less pleasing sacrifice to God, and thereby diminish the potential meritorious fruits of the Mass that could be applied to the souls under his care.

  23. JacobWall says:

    Thanks Slappo! So, just to confirm – that prayer per se isn’t heretical, it’s just that it doesn’t belong in Mass. Unless someone informs me otherwise, I’ll assume this is the case.

  24. JacobWall says:

    I just saw your [No] as well, Fr. Z. – Thanks!

  25. Rob Cartusciello says:

    So, after two decades of flaunting liturgical norms and praying pursuant to the dictates of his own personal “ME-gesterium”, the bishop decided to take him up on the offer.

    I just wonder how many letters the chancery office has received over the years about this fellow.

  26. Kent says:

    So we had a substitute retired priest a couple of weeks ago who changed the words of the gospel from “Fishers of Men” to “Fishers of People”. It seems to me that this would rank higher on a ‘level of offense scale’ than changing Mass prayer wording?

  27. AnAmericanMother says:

    If this priest drew even the softest of rebukes from now-Archbishop-of-Atlanta Gregory, he must be a really bad actor.

  28. It’s a good thing something was done….Though it’s to my knowledge that religious priests you refer to by their first name Fr. (Insert first name), and secular priests you refer to by their last name Fr. (insert last name)

  29. AnAmericanMother says:

    The execrable “New Revised Standard Version” says in Mark 1: “come with me, and I will make you fish for people.” I haven’t heard it in a long time, but I remember the “fish for people” part as though I heard it yesterday, I was so shocked.
    Reason # 4,302 to leave the Episcopalians.

  30. wmeyer says:

    “If this priest drew even the softest of rebukes from now-Archbishop-of-Atlanta Gregory, he must be a really bad actor.”

    Being resident in the archdiocese myself, I was trying not to make a similar observation. But I do agree.

  31. AnAmericanMother says:


    He’s not exactly Bishop Odo of Bayeux, is he?

    I suppose we should be grateful, given that he came from Belleville and Chicago. If he were a gung-ho sort of bishop, it would probably be in the exact wrong direction.

    I really miss Abp. Donoghue. There was a tough cleric if you like. Lux aeterna . . . .

  32. wmeyer says:

    AnAmericanMother, LOL! He is not.

    It was under Abp. Donoghue that Atlanta got its one and only Latin parish, St. Francis de Sales.

  33. APX says:

    I don’t like the idea that Jesus is our “buddy.” I think this is what APX was talking about.

    Yes, that’s exactly what I was talking about. It’s turning into waaay too much of this:
    (BTW: I’m amazed I haven’t heard that during Mass yet.)

  34. AnAmericanMother says:

    A cousin (who is also a co-worker) is a parishioner at St. Francis de Sales. When our choir duties allow, we attend (although my husband, who is not a little guy (actually, he’s a moose. 6’6″, 250#), gripes about the lack of room between the pews – he is unable to kneel. He also gripes about the length of the service, but that’s another story. I excuse him on the grounds that he used to be a Methodist . . . )
    Archbishop Donoghue not only authorized the parish, he blessed the church himself in the full-dress Latin ceremony.
    I’m glad our choirmaster was tasked with the music at the Vespers when Abp. Donoghue lay in state at Sacred Heart. It was a small pickup choir but good competent classical musicians throughout. He chose the Palestrina “Magnificat Primi Toni” which we sang in its entirety, with improvisation/decoration on the organ in between verses. It was a worthy offering.

  35. wmeyer says:

    APX: the day I hear that at Mass is the day I shake the dust from my boots and depart

  36. Father P says:

    Part of the problem is that many priests don’t actually use (or use well) the provisions and options already in the Missal that can be used to connect the readings and the rest of the liturgy. A brief intoduction, the intro and oration for the universal prayer + the intercessions themselves, and a well chosen Preface does the job.

  37. PeterK says:

    Considering how fast and loose many parishes and dioceses have been with the Mass since the end of Vatican II, I imagine that this priest saw nothing wrong with what he was doing. Since he is 72 his priesthood has been during the height of the nonsense resulting from Vatican II.

    I suspect that we will see similar incidents during the coming year or two as many of the V2 priests are brought into line

  38. JacobWall says:

    APX – there are two things I couldn’t believe. One is that the song and video are serious. I made it to the end of the video, waiting for some indication that it was meant as a joke. I’m still waiting. Along with some bazaar Christian following, the video comments show that potheads and atheists love it – it’s probably a worse mockery of Christ than they could come up with.

    The other thing I can’t believe is that they’re Catholic. I saw some stuff like that in the Christian circles I grew up in, although not quite as bad. Then again, I have heard a pre-programmed keyboard rhythm for “liturgical music” (in a Catholic church) – but, even though the music was painful, at least the words being sung were still much better.

    But “Jesus is my Friend.” What happened to my Saviour, my God, my Lord, etc? I guess it was preparing the Christian world for Facebook, where we’re all “friends” without any of the burdens of real relationships and roles. I think in Facebook we can even “like” Jesus. That’s what we do with friends – we “like” them. No adoration, love or worship. We “like” our “friend” Jesus.

    I think I’m going to have nightmares about that band tonight.

  39. Clinton R. says:

    If this sounds bad (and it is), you should see (or rather don’t) what they’ve got cooked up for the Religious Education Congress in the LA Archdiocese. Jazz Mass, Hawaiian Mass, Spanish Mass, every type of Mass except the TLM. Oh goody, liturgical dancers! And more “let’s hug it out and pretend mortal sin and hell don’t exist” presentations. Purgatory? So dark ages! Indulgences? Didn’t St. Martin Luther condemn their use? And lest I forget about the huge gathering of elderly nuns who have long ago shed their habits, along with sound Catholic teaching, sadly. There is much work ahead of us to restore Catholic tradition.

  40. Joseph-Mary says:

    These innovations, abberations, and ad-libbing were always a grave disservice to the faithful and showed forth both pride and dissobience. Slowly this is going away.

    Sadly, I know of two parishes that have experienced a schism with the renegade priest going off and forming his own ‘church’ just like the protestants.

  41. Pingback: FRIDAY EVENING EXTRA |

  42. My gut tells me that this story is about a lot more than a priest changing the words at Mass, which as we all know has been extremely common over the last 30 or 40 years.

  43. FidelisV says:

    As in other areas, improvisation can lead to carelessness or arbitrariness. As the brazilian saying goes, “the agreed is not expensive, nor cheap

  44. Warren says:

    I pray for these errant men, that they may repent and become model priests. However, and may God and you all forgive me for saying so, after years of witnessing liturgical nonsense I mostly pray they will go far, far away. Products of their generation, these misinformed and manipulative priests have become who and what they are after decades of inventing themselves. Barring a bolt of lightning, they are likely unwilling and thus unable to change their obstinate misbehaviour. May God forgive them the damage they have done and are doing.

    Due to recent developments, my judgement is clouded. Perhaps that is obvious by now.

    While our STB/DTR pastor is on a well deserved sabbatical, our parish is saddled with an older priest who is the epitome of misbehaviour: irreverent humour from the pulpit; routine improvisation; frequent omission of rituals with which he openly disagrees; and atrocious homilies wherein he attempts to justify his agnosticism while deriding ardent orthodox believers.

    Among my fellow parishioners I am hardly alone in my anger, frustration and concern. Beloved priests! – please offer us the Mass as servants, not masters, of the Liturgy.

  45. Kent says:

    I understood that the readings for Mass were to be taken from New American Bible translation which sites “fishers of men”. Like you, I was shocked when I heard fishers of people. Thanks for the information.

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