Bishop Edward K. Braxton turns 75 on Friday, prompting supporters and critics to wonder how much longer he will be leading the Catholic Diocese of Belleville.
Canon law requires bishops to submit resignations at age 75, but it’s up to Pope Francis whether to accept them.
“The ministry of a bishop in a diocese requires a total commitment of energy, and anything, including age, that decreases the ability to dedicate oneself fully to serving the church and the faithful is the reason that retirements are offered at 75,” said Monsignor John T. Myler, diocesan spokesman and rector at the Cathedral of St. Peter in Belleville.
Braxton plans to submit his resignation on Friday, Myler said, but nothing will change with day-to-day operations until the pope makes a decision.
“Sometimes the pope may ask a diocesan bishop to remain for a certain period — months, a year, even several years,” Myler said.
The Rev. James “Clyde” Grogan predicts it won’t be long for Braxton. The retired priest is among those who believe the bishop has been rigid, insensitive, arrogant and non-transparent during his 14 years in Belleville.
Grogan, 76, and like-minded parishioners even had bumper stickers and golf balls printed with the date “6-28-19,” anticipating the bishop’s possible departure in an unusually public way.
“It’s not uncommon on the day a bishop retires for a new one to be appointed,” Grogan said. “It hasn’t become common, but I hope and pray it happens here. There’s been enough pushback from priests, and I think parishioners have written to the cardinal and apostolic delegate. There’s just a lot of pain that people feel.”
The most recent controversy unfolded at Our Lady Queen of Peace Catholic School in Belleville. Some parents were angered last fall, when reports emerged that the bishop had told fifth — and sixth-graders there was no Santa Claus during a discussion of St. Nicholas. The school superintendent said it was a misunderstanding, but Braxton returned to apologize.
The Belleville Diocese serves about 80,000 Catholics in more than 100 parishes across Southern Illinois. Braxton is its eighth bishop since 1888, and Grogan maintains that the majority of parishioners are dissatisfied with his leadership.
Braxton declined comment this month on his resignation or plans for the future. The diocese released the following statement:
“Most likely, when the time comes, the Bishop will first share personal reflections on his life, his decades of ministry, and his years as Bishop of Belleville with the clergy and people of the Diocese. Then he will surely share his thoughts with all of the people of Southern Illinois. Right now, even as he approaches this milestone birthday, his ministry among us continues.”
Judy Keane, spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Bishops, declined to comment on how the pope decides whether to accept resignations or how long the process takes, referring to the canon law that states: “A diocesan bishop who has completed the seventy-fifth year of age is requested to present his resignation from office to the Supreme Pontiff, who will make provision after he has examined all the circumstances.”
Braxton replaced Gregory in 2005
Braxton has a long and wide-ranging resume with the Catholic Church. A Chicago native, he served as pastor or associate pastor in several Illinois parishes, taught at Harvard and Notre Dame and held administrative positions before becoming auxiliary bishop in St. Louis and later bishop in Lake Charles, Louisiana.
In 2005, Braxton replaced Bishop Wilton D. Gregory in Belleville when Gregory was installed as archbishop in Atlanta. Gregory now is archbishop in Washington, D.C.
“My spiritual journey as a priest, like that of every priest, has been filled with many exhilarating joys and not a few deep sorrows,” Braxton said in a 2015 BND profile. “But I have never been sorry that I was a priest.”
Braxton has led the Belleville Diocese through change and controversy, including the formation of parish partnerships in the face of a priest shortage and the priest sexual-abuse scandal that has rocked the Catholic Church globally. Last year, the Rev. Gerald R. Hechenberger — an associate pastor in Mascoutah, Fayetteville and St. Libory — was removed from ministry after being charged with possession of child pornography and methamphetamine.
Braxton, who is black, also has sought to help parishioners understand the U.S. racial divide and encouraged them to take positive action. He is known as a serious-minded theologian who values education, tradition and quiet reflection. His mantra is “listen, learn, think, pray and act.”
“You must listen to other people, to other experiences,” Braxton said last year at St. Clare Catholic Church in O’Fallon in a talk on race. “You must learn from those experiences. Then you must think about what you learned and how that suggests you must change some aspect of your life. You must think hard, talk to others, family members who disagree with you (and) talk to others whose lives are different than yours. Then you must pray. ... In prayer, you may discern what you can do.”
One of Braxton’s supporters is St. Clair County Circuit Judge Stephen McGlynn, a former board chairman for Catholic Social Services, now known as Caritas Family Solutions.
McGlynn described Braxton as intelligent, knowledgeable and skilled at giving the Catholic perspective on important issues of the day through writings and lectures.
“He was a good administrator in regard to Catholic Social Services, and I find him personally to be a very kind and decent man,” said McGlynn, 57, a member of Queen of Peace parish. “He reads all his correspondence, and he personally responds to every letter he receives.”
McGlynn credited Braxton with initiating the “Red Mass,” an annual service for all denominations of lawyers, judges, police and others in the legal community, focusing on their duty to seek justice. It takes place in the fall to correspond with the start of the U.S. Supreme Court session.
“When (Braxton) came here, there was a priest shortage,” McGlynn said. “He went outside the diocese and outside the country to recruit quality priests to serve the Catholics of Southern Illinois, and the priests he was able to attract were very well-received.”
McGlynn said many people mistakenly judge bishops by the standards of other clergy, not taking into account their unique roles and challenges.
Joe Hubbard, longtime executive director of Catholic Urban Programs and now vice president of St. Vincent de Paul’s local conference, said he has tried to stay out of controversies involving Braxton.
“I support him because he is the bishop of our diocese, and he is our leader,” said Hubbard, 76, of Belleville. “I don’t always agree with him, but I support him, and I try to help him in whatever way I can. ... I’ve worked for six bishops. I just try to do whatever I can to help and make a difference. (Braxton) has his good qualities and his negative qualities. We all do. I try not to judge people.”
Groups critical on several issues
Before Braxton moved to Belleville, members of the Fellowship of Southern Illinois Laity — an activist organization that challenges Catholic clergy to be less close-minded and more inclusive — protested his request to use church funds to remodel the bishop’s residence.
Since that time, the organization has criticized Braxton for refusing to meet with more than one of its members at a time to receive input or hear complaints and for objecting to the way the Rev. William Rowe, pastor of St. Mary’s Church in Mount Carmel, celebrated Mass, which led to Rowe’s resignation in 2012.
FOSIL, which now stands for Faithful of Southern Illinois, has about 1,500 households on its mailing list and others who follow online. Many dislike Braxton’s approach to confirmations, according to spokeswoman Anne Harter, 77, of Belleville.
“When a child doesn’t answer a question like the Catholic Church wants them to, most bishops will kind of coax them to get the answer, but he doesn’t do that,” she said. “He berates them in front of everyone. The child’s already nervous, and he doesn’t really take that into consideration.”
Harter said many FOSIL members would like to see Braxton retire.
“To us, it seems like he’s more about Bishop Braxton than he is about the Catholic community, or any community for that matter,” she said. “We just don’t think he holds up to the ideals of a bishop. He’s not pastoral.”
Another organization that has been critical of Braxton is the St. Louis chapter of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, which fights for the rights of priest sexual-abuse victims.
In January, members called on the Belleville Diocese to add the names of nine priests to its online list of 17 priests who were “removed from ministry after credibly substantiated allegations of the sexual abuse of minors or serious sexual misconduct with adults,” because the nine once served in Southern Illinois. In April, SNAP asked for five more names to be added.
The names weren’t added in either case. The diocese didn’t give a public reason.
“On abuse, Braxton has really been awful overall,” said SNAP spokesman David Clohessy. “Under pressure from the attorney general, he did post some names of predator priests on his website, but unlike the overwhelming majority of his peers, he did so quietly, which shows that he remains committed to the same patterns of secrecy that have plagued the Catholic hierarchy when it comes to the protection of children for decades.”
In December, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan said a state investigation concluded that Catholic dioceses in Illinois hadn’t released names of at least 500 clergy accused of sexually abusing children. The Belleville Diocese issued a statement to defend itself.
“The Attorney General’s preliminary report cites combined statistics for all six Illinois dioceses of the Province of Chicago without delineating between them,” it read. “This could give the false impression that a significant number of credibly accused Belleville clergy has not been disclosed. This is incorrect.
“The Diocese of Belleville has publicly identified all members of its clergy who were credibly accused and removed from ministry, and the Attorney General’s Office has not advised the Diocese of any perceived omissions or errors in its public listing.”
Retired priests ready for change
Grogan has been a priest in the Catholic Diocese of Belleville for more than 50 years, serving in Herrin, Equality and Stonefort, East St. Louis, Carbondale, Mount Carmel, East St. Louis again, Belleville (Blessed Sacrament and Queen of Peace) and Ruma before retiring in 2014.
Grogan said he wishes no harm to Braxton but feels obligated to speak out in the same way he felt obligated to speak out in the 1990s against priest sexual abuse when many in the Catholic hierarchy stayed silent.
“I think there’s just too many wounds out there,” Grogan said. “We’ve got fewer and fewer people coming to church and fewer and fewer people who want to become priests.”
Opposition to Braxton’s leadership approach is nothing new, Grogan said, noting 46 priests in the Belleville Diocese signed a statement objecting to his appointment as bishop in 2005. Some had known him as a seminary student in Mundelein or as auxiliary bishop in St. Louis.
Another semi-retired priest hoping for Braxton’s retirement is the Rev. James. A. “Jim” Voelker, 75, a priest for 50 years who now serves as sacramental minister at St. Michael’s Catholic Church in Paderborn.
“I think it’s time for a change,” Voelker said. “I think (Braxton has) been kind of controversial and not really popular among the people. He’s misplaced. He’s an intellectual. He’s a teacher, and I don’t think he has good people skills. ... He writes well. He speaks well. His thoughts are clear. He’s intelligent. That’s his gift, and that’s OK. I think he should be at a university.”
The canon law requiring bishops to resign at age 75 also applies to Archbishop Robert J. Carlson, who is turning 75 on Sunday. He leads more than 500,000 Catholics in the Archdiocese of St. Louis.
The archdiocese emailed a statement saying Carlson plans to submit his resignation to the pope on Sunday.
“The time frame in which Pope Francis will accept Archbishop Carlson’s resignation and announce who will be installed as the next archbishop of St. Louis is to be determined by the Pope and is unknown at this time,” the statement read.
“Upon retirement, Archbishop Carlson is looking forward to spending time with more friends and family, leading religious retreats, praying, reading and writing. He plans to move to Florida, but looks forward to traveling to St. Louis to visit the people of the archdiocese he has served for 10 years.”
Braxton will celebrate his birthday with a Gala Dinner to benefit Althoff, Gibault and Mater Dei Catholic high schools; the Cardinal Newman Center at Southern Illinois University Carbondale; and the Elementary Schools Tuition Assistance Fund, according to a Q&A in the June 13 issue of The Messenger, the diocese’s newspaper.
The fundraising dinner will be held Friday at St. Clair Country Club in Belleville. The suggested donation is $100 per person.
“On my 70th birthday, I decided if I were going to depart from my long-standing practice of spending the day on retreat with the Trappist monks, rather than having a party, I should do something in support of the Church’s ministry of education, which has been an important part of my service to this Local Church,” Braxton wrote in the Q&A.
“We raised $91,000 for education” at the 2014 fundraiser, he added. “And we hope to raise even more this year.”
Teri Maddox is a reporter with the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.
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