FUNERAL HOMILY FOR FATHER VLADIMIR DZIADEK
St. Joseph Catholic Church, Tampa, FL
Monday, May 18, 2014
Most Reverend Robert N. Lynch, Bishop of St. Petersburg
There are three things that are for certain in every human life: birth, death and taxes. While we ourselves are responsible for the third, our taxes, our staunchly pro-life teaching has always held and argued that God alone is the author of all human life and God alone is to be the determiner of when life begins and when it ends. Our Father Vladimir, however, a week ago chose both the time and the manner of his departure from our midst and the end of his life. This morning we may think we know of the contributing factors of his decision, but none of us is gifted with the power to see into his mind, his thinking, and his decision-making last Sunday night and Monday morning a week ago. No amount of money is worth the taking of a human life, no amount of shame can ever completely erase the good a person has done, no sin is truly unpardonable, no potential embarrassment even approaches the shame, anger, guilt which befalls those left behind to deal with the unforeseen reality occasioned by suicide. I want everyone here present this morning, the children of the parish and in the school to know that the single act which brings us together this morning is wrong.
The act, however, can at times be severable from the person. For all of his priestly life, Father Vladimir put himself at the service of the Lord Jesus, serving in missionary territory in Venezuela prior to coming to the United States and to our local Church. In the years he was here, he endeared himself to God’s people. At Most Holy Name of Jesus parish, they cared for him enough that they gave him time to improve his English and when the Church became vacant they asked that he be made their shepherd. He was happy there, serving God’s people and loving in a special way the Hispanic population he was linguistically better prepared to minister to.
When I asked him three years ago to come to St. Joseph’s to succeed the beloved Father Felix, he did not hesitate. He came. It was not easy for him. There was the school which had been losing money and enrollment for many years and a whole new effort begun by the University of Notre Dame to not just save the school but to build it up. He lived to see that happen. There were walls to be painted in the Church and at times he was more difficult and demanding of the artist painting than Pope Julius was of Michelangelo applying fresco to the Sistine Chapel. Through it all, mostly alone, he heard your confessions, celebrated Mass for you in two languages, baptized your children, and anointed your sick. On two occasions he told Monsignor Morris and I how much he loved St. Joseph parish and that it was an honor to be your pastor. Publicly all seemed well. Internally what some of us knew to be true was that dear Father Vladimir suffered bouts of depression although in recent years he showed signs of improvement and greater control.
However, little known to most and unknown to me, there was an affliction within him called an addiction, which first came to light less than two weeks ago. Addictions are not always sinful. To be sinful, in classic moral theology, three things are necessary: grave matter (taking a loaf of bread from the super market to feed one’s starving family, though I do not recommend it, is not grave matter but taking large sums of money is); second, one must know and understand the gravity of the act (since addictive behavior is often repetitive behavior, this requirement for serious sin can sometimes be missing); third and finally, in performing the sinful act one must willfully and knowingly intend to break God’s law and the harmonious relationship between ourselves and our God and fellow women and men.
Neither you nor I this morning are in a position to judge Father’s actions. He did not give us a chance to do so. But all three readings from Scripture remind us that our God is merciful, loving, compassionate and forgiving. The task of judgment passes from our minds and hands to Our Lord’s. Less than fifty years ago, a funeral Mass for a victim of suicide was not allowed by our Church and priests were not even allowed to pray over the caskets of the dead. The Church and society have embraced the notion that mental illness often causes people to do the unexplainable and what was once considered a capital sin remains wrong but can be an occasion for mercy, a call to pardon, a sign of love. We gather this morning not as investigative reporters but people of faith.
Allow me to speak just for myself for just a moment. The past week has seen my emotions run the gamut from anger to guilt, from disbelief to compassionate concern for Father’s family in Poland and in West Tampa, from shame to sorrow, and usually back to guilt. On Saturday morning I rejoiced at the ordination of our three new priests, but I could not rid myself of the image of “the one who got away and how I wished I could have taken him back.” And I am sure that many of you have shared the same thoughts and the same feelings. A leader of belief, a shepherd of souls, a model of Christian living and loving, chose to end his life and leave the rest to us.
Now we must leave the rest to God. There is no reason why we can not remember Father for all the good that he has done but there is no reason why we could or should embrace the manner in which he chose to leave us. Hoping and praying that he died in the Lord, we can embrace the words of the writer of the Book of Revelation, “Yes. . .let [him] find rest from [his] labors, for [his] works accompany [him]. Rev.14.13. As Wisdom says in the first reading: He who pleased God was loved; he who lived among sinners was transported, snatched away, less wickedness pervert his mind or deceit beguile his soul. For the witchery of paltry things obscures what is right, and the whirl of desire transforms the innocent mind.” Wis.4:11-13.
It is my duty as your bishop to assure you that we can pray for Father Vladimir confident that God will judge him justly. It is also my duty to draw the distinctions between right and wrong and in a proper time and manner to share with you what I know when I know it about what has and can be done to right the wrong, which was done. But it is also my duty as your bishop to say to Father Vladimir and to his family, despite all this, we are grateful for his better times and better moments among us and we send you our love and sympathy as we commend his soul to God, the most high. Eternal rest grant unto you, Vladimir, and may perpetual light shine upon you.
Father Vladimir Dziadek endeavored to be a good man and a good priest. Prior to coming to the United States, he left his native Poland and served for seven years in the missions of Venezuela. In 2002, he came to the Diocese of St. Petersburg, able to speak perfect Spanish while perfecting his English. After a few years as an Assistant Pastor at Most Holy Name of Jesus Parish in Gulfport, he was named Pastor of the same parish in 2009 with the support of many parishioners. He was loved at that parish and when I asked him to assume the leadership of St. Joseph Parish in West Tampa, he readily agreed, was missed by the community in Gulfport, and began to bring people, mostly Hispanic Catholics back to St. Joseph’s. He was a good shepherd.
Two weeks ago, our Executive Director of Finance visited St. Joseph Parish because there appeared to him to be a significant lessening of support and an interesting, albeit alarming reduction in the balance sheet of the parish. It did not take long for him to discover that the pastor had been using the parish bank debit card to withdraw large sums of money at the local gambling casino over the last fifteen months. Father Vladimir readily acknowledged that he had withdrawn the money for gambling purposes but stated that he had tried to replace some of the funds.
The next day Monsignor Robert Morris, our Vicar General, and I met with Father Vladimir and it was clear that the situation was far more serious than even thought the day prior. After a preliminary inspection of the accounts of the parish during the three years that Father had been pastor, it appears that $199,685.00 was taken for the purpose of gambling and $35,300.00 had been returned to the parish. This otherwise good priest appeared to have a serious addiction to gambling. I assured Father Vladimir that I was ready to help him in any way I or the diocese possibly could. Father Vladimir left my office ashamed of what he had done, sorry for what he had done, but in denial in some ways of the true nature of his actions. I immediately removed Father Vladimir from anything involving administration of St. Joseph Parish. I assured him that I was ready to assist him in any way possible, asked him to allow us to find assistance for him for his addiction (which he continued to deny having) and that while I hated the circumstances in which we found ourselves, I still loved him as a bishop should and we would attempt to get through what was coming. Monsignor Morris and I were concerned before his arrival in our office of his emotional stability. He had a history of fighting with deep depression, once which required hospitalization and a lengthy leave of absence in Poland to work on recovery. Both of us asked him not to return to the Rectory that night and be alone but to stay with either of us. He refused, insisting that he would be all right. The next day I ask a brother priest who was also Polish to call him up and ask him to move in with him and again he refused. There were several phone contacts with Father Vladimir which followed.
Concerning the funds taken from St. Joseph Parish, all institutions of the diocese are insured against such losses but the insurance carrier rightly demands that appropriate law enforcement be notified. In cases such as this, priests are not treated differently from lay employees. I met with the Diocesan Finance Council and sought the advice as well of Legal Counsel for the diocese.
Last Monday morning, May 12th, I was terribly saddened to learn that Father Vladimir had taken his own life. The pain that has been felt by parish staff members, parishioners, friends, family members, fellow priests and myself is immeasurable. I went immediately to the parish, to speak with staff members and have cooperated with the investigators from the Tampa Police Department.
I have chosen to appoint Father Carlos Rojas as Administrator of St. Joseph Parish. Father Rojas is an energetic young priest of our diocese with a passionate heart for ministry. I am confident that he can and will bring much-needed healing to the parish community of St. Joseph’s.
The parish turn-out for his viewing and Wake Service on Sunday was “standing-room only” for three hours. At his funeral on Monday, they were standing in the back half of the Church as there were not enough seats. Sixty-five of his brother priests came for the funeral Mass. The parish community knew everything by the week-end, except the exact amounts I have shown above since the local media had reported the story. They came to forgive, to mourn, and to ask divine mercy on a man whom they loved in life. On Monday night after the funeral I met with about twenty leaders of the parish community and told them everything which I knew, including not just the amounts taken and replaced but the pattern of financially accounting for them as well. All monies missing will be quickly reimbursed to St. Joseph’s parish. Sadly, the parish did not have an active, fully functioning, fully accountable Finance Council; it met seldom and usually were just used to sign reports required of the diocese. That changed at St. Joseph as of Monday night. This morning I said Mass for the school children and spoke to them at length about “heaven”.
This has been the hardest, most challenging and emotionally draining moment of my time here as bishop. Father Joseph Waters, the Rector of St. Jude Cathedral upon learning of the suicide and reasons texted me this message: “suicide leaves behind many victims.” He was so spot on. I have celebrated the funerals for three suicide victims in my priestly life, all teen-agers. I then had no real sense of the deep feelings of guilt and anger and questioning which those three families experienced, until now. I blame myself and even though everyone who loves me says, “don’t”, to this moment I can’t stop. I feel I could have and should have done more. This all transpired on the Sunday when the Gospel said that the good shepherd would leave the ninety-nine to reclaim the one.
I end as I began. Father Vladimir was a good man who made some very serious errors in judgment, yet had a deep love for Christ and the people of his Church. Please join me in praying for his eternal rest and for the people of St. Joseph Parish who will miss him terribly.