Metro-East News

Braxton reflects on 45 years as priest, 20 years as bishop

Edward Braxton, bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Belleville, spends an hour each morning in quiet reflection, whether its praying the Rosary, walking his dog or reflecting in the chapel at his residence.

Then it’s on to what usually is a busy day.

He values silence. “My parents taught me the importance of serenity — to remain serene — which has been so helpful to me as a priest and a bishop,” Braxton said.

For the past decade, Braxton has lead the diocese through sweeping changes 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.

This month, Braxton, 70, celebrates the 45th anniversary of his ordination as a priest and the 20th anniversary of his consecration as a bishop.

“My spiritual journey as a priest, like that of every priest, has been filled with many exhilarating joys and not a few deep sorrows,” he said. “But I have never been sorry that I was a priest.”

Braxton chose May 17, 1995, for his ordination as a bishop, because he celebrated his first Mass on Sunday, May 17, 1970.

“As a bishop, many aspects of my life are similar to the life of a parish priest. Other aspects are different. Instead of moving from parish to parish, a bishop may be asked to move from diocese to diocese,” he said. “As pastor of St. Catherine of Siena Parish in Oak Park, Illinois, it was possible for me to come to know the names and life experiences of the majority of my parishioners.”

“As the bishop of a diocese, especially one as far flung as the Diocese of Belleville, it is impossible to establish a personal relationship with all of the Christian faithful,” Braxton said. “Nevertheless, I, like all of the members of the presbyterate, live in union with every Catholic in Southern Illinois in the breaking of the bread and the blessing of the cup.”

Braxton was installed as the eighth bishop of Belleville in June 2005. He came to the metro-east from Lake Charles, Louisiana, where he was also bishop. The Diocese of Belleville includes nearly 115 parishes in the 28 southern-most counties in Illinois. He leads nearly 120,000 Catholics.

“I have brought about a greater contact with the priests and people of the diocese in a variety of ways,” Braxton said. “These include my parish pastoral visitations, my regular visits to the Catholic elementary and secondary schools, my custom of calling or writing every family in the diocese when I learn of the death of a family member, my practice of frequently visiting and calling parishioners who are ill at home or in the hospital, and my custom of frequently inviting priests and parishioners to my residence for receptions, the Wisdom Community luncheons for priests and other events.”

Daily life for the bishop varies everyday. Some days are filled with meetings while other days he spends studying and writing in his library at his personal residence in Belleville.

The bishop as teacher, he said, should be able to prepare for his people “informative and inspiring and thought provoking writings,” he said.

Braxton said he enjoys getting up early — about 6 a.m. — and spends an hour reflecting and praying in the chapel at his home. He also takes his dog — a 15-year-old golden retriever named Erika — on a walk. “She’s a lovely animal,” he said. “All the children love her.”

He enjoys spending time in his garden area, which he calls his “fortress of solitude.” It’s filled with plants and flowers with a fountain in the center and a circular table, where he sometimes shares a meal with friends.

Braxton prefers eating meals at his residence rather than going out. He likes to eat healthy. He said a typical dinner for him consists of grilled chicken, a plate of grilled asparagus and mushrooms, a small salad and jello made without sugar.

“If you impair your health by not eating right, not getting enough rest, not exercising and gaining too much weight, then your ministry is diminished to me,” Braxton said. “It’s a constant challenge, because people bring me cakes and pies. They come in the front door and go out the back door and are given to someone else. I cannot eat whole cakes and whole pies.”

He does send a thank you note to those who bring him baked goods. He also pens letters of sympathy to families in the diocese who have lost a loved one. And if it’s an unexpected or violent death, he said he may call the family personally or visit their home.

Some people have wondered why a theologian like Braxton was selected to lead the Belleville Diocese.

“I’m aware of the fact that some people in this diocese think that someone who thinks as I do and expresses themselves as I do, I think they undermine themselves when they say, ‘We are just country folk who sit around, drink a beer and eat bratwurst, we want a bishop who sits around in his overalls and just hangs out,’” he said. “That may be a very good bishop. I’m not that person.”

Much of what the bishop does is done confidentiality, Braxton said. “I’ve learned the wisdom of never repeating and reporting what I’ve heard from people about the life of the church,” he said. “I want to respect each priest, each sister, each lay person. But bishops inadvertently learn things about people that are challenging for them and challenging for the church. I try to address every situation passively and with sensitivity.”

The spring is a busy season for Braxton as he presides over confirmations at churches across the diocese nearly every evening from Easter through May 24. He spends a great deal of time preparing for confirmation Masses by reading letters written by the candidates for confirmation, called confirmandi. During the confirmation Mass, the bishop is known for asking students questions about their chosen saint name and their faith.

Over the past week, Braxton celebrated the baccalaureate Mass at the Cathedral of St. Peter, presided over a Mass in recognition of hospitals week at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Belleville, toured the construction of the Cottages at Cathedral in Belleville, and hosted a private luncheon at his residence.

The bishop hosted a welcome luncheon for the new diocesan chief finance officer, Michael Gibbons, on Tuesday at his residence in Belleville. It was an intimate gathering, which included James Mroczkowski, the outgoing chief finance officer; the Rev. Monsignor John McEvilly, vicar general; and the Rev. Monsignor John Myler, rector at St. Peter Cathedral.

Braxton provided the following statement regarding the hiring of Gibbons: “(His) background in financial matters, his broad experience and personal qualities led me to conclude that he was the most appropriate person for the position. I was particularly pleased to note Michael’s awareness of the fact that, while he would be assisting us with temporal affairs, he would be working with and for the Catholic Church, which must always maintain a concern for the personal and pastoral needs of all members of the community of faith.”

Braxton praised the work of Mroczkowski, who came out of retirement to fill the position of chief financial officer. “Jim’s knowledge and financial acumen have been great contributions to our diocese. I have great respect and affection for him and will support him and his family with my prayers as he enters the next chapter of his life,” Braxton said. “I am confident that Michael will bring continuity to the good work that has gone before him.”

During his five-year tenure as CFO, Mroczkowski said he would meet periodically with Braxton to update him on the diocese’s finances.

“It was never a problem to say what I exactly wanted to say to the bishop,” Mroczkowski said. “I found conversations with him to be very open, very frank, stimulating at times, humorous at times. He’s just a fun person to work with. I learned a lot from him.”

On Monday, Braxton toured The Cottages at Cathedral Square, a residential community for senior citizens under construction, located next-door to the Cathedral, Grade School and the McCormick Center with Myler.

Myler said construction is expected to be completed by Aug. 1. The bishop commented on the wide hallways and large-sized rooms. “They are roomy,” Braxton said.

Myler said he likes the big windows in each of the units, especially the ones that have a view of the Cathedral. “This is a great spot,” Braxton agreed as he gazed out the window at the Cathedral in downtown Belleville.

Construction workers were installing floors during the bishop’s tour. “You are making great progress,” Braxton told a group of workers.

The project is privately funded and developed and is not owned by the Diocese.

In addition to the 32 units, the Cottages will also have a courtyard, a community room, a kitchen, an exercise room, a medical office and a barber/hairdresser. “Someone thought of everything,” Braxton remarked. The community will also be gated.

The bishop asked whether all the units have been spoken for yet. Myler said there’s a waiting list with 60 names on it.

Once residents move in, Myler said the plan is to open up the McCormick Center nearby at 6 a.m. to allow the residents the opportunity to walk around and get some exercise, similar to “mall walking.”

Prior to the tour of the construction, Braxton presided over a colleague recognition Mass on Monday in the chapel at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital.

During his homily to the two dozen or so attendees at the Mass, he said the first gift of the hospital is to offer hospitality. Braxton said he would pray for all the hospital employees and all the patients.

During the baccalaureate Mass on May 7 at St. Peter Cathedral, Braxton shared an “important lesson of life” with the 250 graduates of the three Catholic high schools in the diocese: “God is not God the way you would be God, if you were God.”

Braxton presided over the Mass, which celebrated the graduates from Althoff in Belleville, Gibault in Waterloo and Mater Dei in Breese. He spoke during the homily about the various commencements the high school seniors will experience in their lifetimes, including graduating from college, finding your life’s work/profession and getting married.

“The mystery is no one knows how many commencements you will have,” he told the graduates. “You know and I know the commencement of death can happen at any time. Life on Earth is brief.”

He said not all commencements are happy ones like graduation. “Some are full of joy ... some will be full of sorrow,” he said.

Braxton encouraged the teens to learn about the world around them and what’s happening in their country. He referenced the thousands killed in a recent earthquake in Nepal as well as the crisis in the city of Baltimore related to the “racial divide in the United States.”

Braxton said the graduates have the power to make important decisions in the coming years, like voting for a woman candidate for president. He urged them to vote for “who will be best leader of the United States.”

He discussed the Supreme Court’s expected ruling on same-sex marriage and reiterated the Catholic religion’s stance that marriage should be between a man and a woman. In the future, he said that as the United States moves more toward civil unions, marriages performed by the Catholic Church may just be symbolical marriages as in Europe.

He urged them to “care about the larger world” and to “love God with your whole heart.”

Braxton told the graduates they are “the light of the world” and encouraged them to share their faith with others and not to succumb to the temptations of life like drinking alcohol and sleeping in on Sundays and skipping church.

He encouraged the graduates to befriend people of different racial backgrounds and faiths. He said there are 1.3 billion Catholics in the world, and there are even more people who follow Islam — 1.4 billion.

“The future of the world in which you live will be one where Islam will have a dramatic role,” Braxton said. “You want to learn about this religion.”

He told the students he has enjoyed the time he has spent with them during their Catholic education. “I will pray for you,” Braxton said. “Learn your faith, love your faith, live in your faith, pray to Jesus Christ.”

Toward the end of the Mass, three high schools students were recognized with Bishop’s Discipleship Awards. They were as follows: Marie Harla from Althoff, Andrew Reinholz from Gibault, and Kimberly Thole from Mater Dei.

Braxton’s nearly 10 years as leader of the Belleville Diocese has not been without controversy, which included the diocese’s appeal of a $5 million judgment handed down by a St. Clair County jury in 2008 in a case where a Catholic priest was accused of sexually abusing a former altar boy. The diocese lost its repeated appeals and paid the victim more than $6.3 million in 2011 — which amounted to the $5 million judgment plus interest at a rate of $1,250 a day.

Braxton said it’s understandable that some people would be critical of the diocese’s decision to appeal the verdict.

“You want to balance both accountability for wrongdoing when there has been wrongdoing as well as good stewardship of the church’s resources,” he said. “It’s sometimes very difficult to sort out if this person has been harmed in his or her youth by misconduct of a priest. That’s a terrible thing, but by what process do you determine how much money (it’s) worth?”

David Clohessy, the St. Louis-based national director and spokesman for the Survivor’s Network of those Abused by Priests, has been a vocal critic of Braxton.

“He (Braxton) has done nothing beyond what he’s absolutely required to do regarding kids’ safety,” Clohessy said. “We don’t see a single move he’s made above the absolute bare minimum. ... His most-significant actions on the abuse crisis have essentially been legal hardball.”

Overcoming the priest sexual abuse scandal that has plagued the Catholic Church is one of its major challenges, according to the bishop.

“From the point of view of the church, one is too many,” he said. “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. ...”

Another challenge has been addressing a shortage of priests by creating parish partnerships within the diocese.

The Diocese of Belleville is doing what almost every diocese is doing, Braxton said: looking at the realities 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 who might be ordained as priests in the future. After much examination, the diocese developed a Pastoral Plan for Parish Renewal and Restructuring in 2011.

“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 in a parish partnership with St. Mary’s parish in Belleville. ... They can look at their situation and see what things can we do together,” Braxton explained. “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.”

Braxton’s tenure was also marked by clashes with detractors, including some who criticized him for renovating the bishop’s residence off Centreville Avenue in Belleville. Some members of SIAP — the Southern Illinois Association of Priests — were critical of the way Braxton was running the diocese, which led to a formal mediated session between the bishop and priests in 2008 to air their differences.

There also was the resignation in February 2012 of the Rev. William Rowe, pastor of Saint Mary’s Church in Mount Carmel, Ill., after ongoing concern from Braxton about how Rowe celebrated the Mass. The resignation specifically followed the implementation of the new English translation of the Roman Missal in late November 2011.

Braxton doesn’t take a day off. “I tend to work everyday, but I take periods to rest and reflect,” he said. “I take time to spend quiet in my chapel, which is very important to me. Silence is very important to me. I need silence.”

The bishop said he tries to “maintain an inner peace and inner tranquility so that no matter what’s going on, what people may say or do good or bad, to maintain an inner calm, an inner serenity. I’ve never said a harsh word to anyway,” he said. “There’s nothing gained by raising your voice.”

Braxton enjoys traveling and visiting friends around the world, including Rome. He frequently gets asked to visit other countries to give talks. He’s traveled throughout western Europe to New Zealand, Australia, China and Japan.

For two weeks a year, Braxton goes on a retreat where he spends time living among the Trappist monks at Gethsemane Abbey in Kentucky. There, he helps them make their cheese, fruit cakes and fudges.

“I don’t take a day off, but I’m not a workaholic,” he said. “I know the great importance of taking time for yourself, and I do take time for myself.”