Bishop Edward K. Braxton, who has been head of the Catholic Diocese of Belleville for a decade, granted the News-Democrat a lengthy interview in his personal residence. This month, Braxton is marking the 45th anniversary of his priesthood and 20 years of becoming a bishop.
Below are excerpts from that interview:
Can you talk about the changes the Diocese of Belleville has experienced under your leadership over the past 10 years, including the formation of parish partnerships?
“The Diocese of Belleville, like every diocese in the country, is facing demographic realities. The Catholic population in many areas is getting older and smaller. Catholic families tend to have fewer children. The cost to maintain churches and schools has become greater, and many families send their children to public schools who have sent them to Catholic schools in the past. The Diocese of Belleville in the Pastoral Plan for Parish Renewal and Restructuring, which was promulgated in 2011, is doing what almost every diocese is doing. ... Look at the reality of where the Catholic population is; how many churches there are; how many people are going to churches; how many priests are available to serve in those parishes; the age and health of the priests; the number of seminarians we have who might be ordained as priests in the future; and developed a plan. …
“What we have done is involved all the parishioners in conversations with their neighboring parishes in creating what we call parish partnerships, so for example, the Cathedral parish is a parish partnership with St. Mary’s parish in Belleville. T hey can look at their situation and see what things can we do together: Can we arrange our Mass schedules in such a way so if there’s only one priest, both parishes can be served by the one priest? Can we arrange our religious education so programs preparing for confirmation can be done all at the same time? Can we look at the arrangements we make for our youth ministry, and can our youth ministry be done together? Looking for ways parishes can do things together so that if we reach a point where there are not sufficient people to do two versions of it, it can be done by one person.”
Can you explain the most recent decision to restructure the Catholic grade schools in Belleville?
“The school situation is very challenging. The Catholic Church is renowned in the United States for her work in education — elementary schools, secondary schools, colleges, universities. After all, the mandate of Jesus in the Gospel is go and teach all nations. The church’s ministry of education like the church’s ministry of health and welfare in service to the poor and the needy is well-known and generally regarded as outstanding. Our schools graduate outstanding students who go onto colleges and universities, but the Catholic population is changing and the cost of education is changing. And our elementary school system was based on realities that no longer exist. Our elementary schools were almost all founded by religious sisters. ... They established the school associated with the parish at the invitation of the bishop, and the school would be served completely by the sisters. The whole school system was based on the availability of dedicated religious sisters who were skilled in education who would minister the whole school. Little by little, the number of sisters began to decline.
“The nature of Catholic schools changed. The cost of sports programs, the cost of science programs, the cost of language labs, the cost of computers made the cost of schools more and more expensive. In every diocese in the country in some places, tens and in some places dozens and dozens of schools have closed in the last 30 years or 40 years or been merged with other schools. This is related to many, many things: the cost of Catholic schools and tuition that goes up to a point where it becomes unavailable to people or it becomes more of a private school than a religious school, or the parents begin to see that the public school other than for the religious program seems as good or better than the Catholic school. So what happens is parishes end up trying to run two schools. You have the Cathedral of St. Peter elementary school for those children who go to Catholic school, but the Cathedral also has a Parish School of Religion. The Parish School of Religion is serving those Catholic children who are not in the Catholic schools, providing them with religious education once or twice or three times a week. Now the Parish School of Religion sometimes serves more children than are in the actual Catholic school, and yet in some cases parishes are contributing as much as 20, 30, 40, 50 or 60 percent or more of their income just to maintain the Catholic school, which is getting smaller and smaller.
“Catholic schools on the elementary level are striving to maintain their Catholic identity and recognizing that the number has been declining and is continuing to decline, so it requires some type of creative way to allow some schools to close when the numbers reach such a small level or when the amount of income the parish is contributing regularly — 50 or 60 percent of its total income — to maintain the school. It becomes clear to everyone while people are generous, the parish can do very little else, because so much of its resources are going to the school. Like the work that’s being done here in Belleville, three Belleville schools have come together as one with the new name — Notre Dame — one school with three campuses: St. Peter, St. Mary and St. Augustine.”
What are some of the challenges that face the diocese and the Catholic religion as a whole now and in the future?
“The world and the West especially is no longer enveloped by what Peter Berger called the Sacred Canopy — that is kind of a universal awareness of the holy dimension of life. The church has to find a way to proclaim the good news to people who may in many ways feel, ‘Look, I’m healthy, I’m young, I have a good job, I have plenty of money, eat, drink and be merry, I don’t need God, I don’t need Jesus, I don’t need the church.’ Religion seems irrelevant to many people, because of the rise of secularity and the rise of a certain understanding that the world and the universe is self-explanatory. Thoughtful people know life is still latent with mystery. ...
“On the one hand, the decline of the number of priests is a very serious challenge, but the eruption of the emergence of the renewal of the permanent deacon has been a great blessing, and I work very closely with my deacons. Obviously, one of the challenges of the church is to regain credibility amongst the people in the midst of the terrible sin and scandal of priests harming children. Even though this is something that the instances are largely in the past — mainly in the ’60s, ’70, ’80s and early ’90s, and some have continued. Even though statistically, they have been no more than any other male population harming children. From the point of view of the church, one is one too many, A priest is not just another human being; he is another human being but has dedicated his life to the service of the people and people trust the priest, and in serving, trust their children with the priest. The need for the church to show its great ... remorse and penitence for this, but to do all it can to help anyone who comes forward because they believe they have been harmed by a priest to address this forthright, because it’s extremely important. And to make sure we redouble our efforts in screening and psychological testing for men who may want to become priests.
“There have been no allegations of priests harming children since I have been here. There is no one in our parishes that have harmed children that is known to me. Hopefully, there will never be another. There were many priests removed from ministry before I came here because of allegations of the misconduct in harming children. This harmed the diocese because these priests were liked and admired. Hopefully, there won’t be any other instances.”
What do you view as the strength of the Diocese of Belleville?
“There are many blessings. The faith and love of the people. Their service to their families; their concern for the poor and the needy. Their involvement in works of social justice. How many lay people volunteer in their parishes. Active members of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, Altar Rosary Society, the Catholic Daughters, the Knights of Columbus, the Knights of Peter Claver. There are so many groups of Catholic people in parishes throughout the diocese who give so much of their time, their talent and their treasure for the building of the church.
“Every priest, every bishop should be quick to express gratitude to them and for them. They show concretely that they have taken seriously the mandate given to them to learn their faith, love their faith and live their faith. We have so many reasons to be grateful.”