The Vatican has partially reinstated an American priest who was removed from ministry by his bishop this summer after it was reported that he was in the habit of improvising some words of the Mass.
In a seven-page letter to Fr William Rowe, former parish priest at St Mary Catholic Church in Mount Carmel, Illinois, Cardinal Mauro Piacenzo of the Congregation for the Clergy in Rome, states that he may again serve as a priest and celebrate Mass in all dioceses outside Belleville. It points out that that Belleville diocesan Bishop Edward Braxton had not followed proper procedures in stripping Rowe of his priestly duties, but goes on to warn that the only way Fr Rowe will be allowed to serve as a priest in future will be if he admits he was wrong and starts to strictly follow the liturgy.
Cardinal Piacenzo writes: "While it is desirable that you return to the habitual exercise of the sacred ministry and the celebration of the Church's sacred rites, this can only come about when you shall have acknowledged your error and formally promise to dispose yourself to adhere to the rites and rubrics of the sacred liturgy set down by the lawful ecclesiastical authorities."
The letter states that Bishop Braxton has 60 days to appeal against the decree.
Fr Bill Rowe, 72, who was parish priest at St Mary's for 18 years, and a well-loved figure in the wider community, was removed and suspended from all priestly duties by Bishop Braxton in July. This severe punishment is usually only meted out by the Pope to priests accused of grave crimes such as child abuse. As well as not being allowed to celebrate public Masses or preside at weddings, funerals or baptisms he was told he could not hear confessions, unless a person was dying.
There has been a huge wave of support from parishioners and colleagues of Fr Rowe. Many took part in a protest outside the Bishop's office. The local Dean, Fr Jim Buerster resigned from the position in protest and several fellow priests wrote letters of support. More than 1,500 people have signed a petition appealing for the decision to be reversed.
Since he left St Mary's, Fr Rowe has been serving as a volunteer teacher, catechist and school cafeteria assistant in another parish, St Joseph's in Olney, more than 30 miles away.
Commenting on the latest development, Fr Rowe said in a statement: "Right now everything is 'on hold' until the Vatican responds to Bishop Braxton's request to allow the suspension. If the Vatican upholds its decision nullifying the suspension, then I'll be free to celebrate outside the diocese. Lot's of 'ifs' right now so I'm just trying my best to help out where possible at St Joe's school and parish. The 'light really won't shine' until the Vatican gives its final word on the suspension."