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Issue Date:  January 13, 2006

Bishop shuts us out, say priests

Belleville's Braxton, one of John Paul's last picks, said to be 'imperial'

Belleville, Ill.

A third of the active priests in the mostly rural, southern Illinois diocese of Belleville have gone on record publicly objecting to the “monarchical” leadership style of Bishop Edward Braxton. It is destroying the morale of clergy and laity, they say, and disrupting the operations of the diocese.

A statement signed by 24 of the 72 active priests claimed Braxton makes decisions without consultation, is unavailable for advice or discussion, and has an arrogant, off-putting manner. As a result, they said “crisis situations” have developed in some parishes since Braxton, 60, was installed as bishop last June. Specific action recommendations will be considered by the priests at a follow-up meeting Feb 1. Braxton has some support in the diocese. However some priests and an increasing number of laity are growing restive.

The statement was signed after 32 active priests met in mid-December, airing their grievances in a session described as “loud and angry.”

Attempts by NCR to contact Braxton or his vicar general for comment were unsuccessful.

“At this point we don’t know what to do,” said Fr. Mark Stec, pastor of four parishes in the southeastern part of the diocese. “If the bishop won’t help us, we’ll have to act on our own.” Stec, who is a diocesan dean, said he has been trying to get a response from Braxton for three months on personnel matters within his deanery. “I have written letters including certified mail,” he said. “I have called his office repeatedly, four times in one week. I’ve sent e-mails. I get no response whatsoever.”

Msgr. Carl Scherrer, a pastor in Columbia, said, “Something is awry in our church, and it’s time that somebody says enough is enough. The bishop’s role is to serve the whole church and it’s not being served under an imperial leadership.”

The rector of the Belleville cathedral, Msgr. James Buerster, said Braxton’s style is often described by people as “pretentious and arrogant,” and it “just drives them crazy. We have a difficult situation here and it’s gotten more difficult from the beginning.”

In fact, the beginning started before Braxton arrived in Belleville. When the diocese’s former bishop, Wilton Gregory, was installed in the Atlanta archdiocese last January, Belleville priests were asked to inform Cardinal Francis George, archbishop of Chicago and metropolitan of the Illinois dioceses, concerning the needs of Belleville and the characteristics they would prefer in the new bishop. This is a normal procedure under Canon Law and presumes wide consultation with the papal nuncio, with area bishops, diocesan priest consultors and possibly with other local priests and laity. The procedure usually takes about six months.

But before the Belleville priests had gathered their recommendations, Braxton was appointed Belleville’s new bishop by a dying Pope John Paul II on March 15. Priests and laity were upset, said Msgr. Bill Hitpas, a diocesan consultor, in part because they were “denied any voice in the selection” and in part because Braxton had a “track record that was not particularly good.”

Since ordination, he has had a varied, upwardly mobile career in the church. He taught theology at several universities including Harvard, Notre Dame and the University of Chicago. He served as personal theologian to Cardinal James Hickey in Washington, and was a scholar in residence at the North American College in Rome. As a pastor in Chicago in the 1990s, Braxton stirred controversy for his conservative theological views and his summary firing of a gifted sister on the parish staff. None of this delayed his rise in church circles. He was ordained bishop in 1995, appointed auxiliary in St. Louis, then named an ordinary in Lake Charles, La., in 2000. In both places controversies concerning his manner and decision-making style were reported.

In May, some 50 Belleville priests signed a letter to George, to the apostolic nuncio and to curia officials in Rome, protesting their exclusion from the selection process. A committee of seven priests, including Scherrer, then met with George. Scherrer said the cardinal seemed surprised at the way the appointment was handled, indicating he had not been consulted.

George, who has since declined to speak about the situation, arranged for a meeting between Scherrer and the papal nuncio, Msgr. Gabriel Montalvo, in Washington. Scherrer said the nuncio proved unhelpful, saying all bishops’ appointments are ultimately made by the pope and this was the first time in his experience that anyone had presumed to question the procedure.

Meanwhile, Braxton further roiled the waters. Waiting for his installation, he sought diocesan funds to remodel the episcopal residence on the edge of town. With the advice of the consultors, the vicar general, Msgr. James Margason, said the most the diocese would pay for renovations was $25,000. Braxton then obtained gifts from friends for a complete overhaul of the structure, totaling, according to several sources and local press reports, more than $250,000. The sum was at least less than the $380,000 that was spent for Braxton’s residence in the Lake Charles diocese, according to news reports citing public records.

Since his June 22 installation in Belleville, which was picketed by laity, it is Braxton’s unilateral governing style that has been the major subject of conversation. Among the issues:

  • The bishop recently issued new procedures for confirmation, calling for parishes to cluster together in central locations or come to the cathedral for reception of the sacrament. “There was no discussion with clergy or laity about this,” said Stec.
  • In November Braxton authorized Sunday celebrations led by a deacon or layperson in parishes as a result of the priest shortage; permission of the bishop is required for every such celebration and the deacon or lay presider must be approved by the bishop. Msgr. Carl Schaefer, chair of the priests’ council, said he first learned of this decision when he was informed by a letter sent to all the priests.
  • Just before Christmas the clergy were told, also by letter, that two Nigerian priests would begin working in the diocese in early January. “This was news to all of us,” said Stec. “We have no voice, we’re simply cut off.”
  • Braxton has had one brief meeting with the diocesan consultors since his arrival, during which he indicated, said Hitpas, that unlike his predecessor Gregory, he would not be using them much for consultation.

Braxton has yet to meet with the personnel board, which means that decisions about priest replacements or transfers are left hanging. He has, however, met on occasion with the priests’ council, said Schaefer, during which some decisions have been made. But in many cases, he said, discussions were “after the fact,” that is, the matters had already been decided by the bishop. During his convocation with the priests last summer, Braxton gave a lengthy talk, then departed without any opportunity for questions or discussion.

The Belleville diocese has a long history of lay activism, largely through a church reform group, the Fellowship of Southern Illinois Laity. Members have been visible since Braxton’s arrival, demonstrating on occasion regarding the selection process and the lack of dialog and writing letters to the local papers. During Gregory’s tenure, a delegation from the group met quarterly with him, and the group’s leaders have sought to continue that contact with Braxton. But Braxton indicated he would meet with one member of the group only. Anne Harter, the fellowship’s co-facilitator, said such a one-on-one arrangement “would not be fair to us or him.” Harter said she hopes for a breakthrough on the matter.

Braxton is not without defenders regarding his decisions and leadership style. One letter writer to the Belleville newspaper commenting on the large amount spent on his residence asked, “Didn’t he work hard to get where he is today? Is he not like a general? I have been at generals’ homes for Mass at Scott Air Force Base. They were breathtaking. Wouldn’t you think Bishop Edward will have to be making a lot of important decisions for our diocese and would like to make them in beautiful, peaceful surroundings? His home will be his castle.”

Fr. John Myler, a pastor in the city of Belleville, said, “I think he has been courageous in handling difficult matters in the diocese.” He cited the bishop’s decisions about Sunday celebrations without a priest and his invitation to the Nigerians. When reminded that these decisions were made without input from the standard representative organizations, Myler said, “That doesn’t mean no one was consulted. I know he has consulted with priests and some lay people too.” Furthermore, added Myler, “My brother priests embarrass me. They promised the bishop respect and obedience, and from the beginning that has not been given.”

Other clergy tried to take a middle course. “I’m conciliatory,” said Schaefer, chair of the priests’ council. “I believe in giving a person a chance before you go after them, and besides I don’t want to find myself cut off.” Schaefer wondered if conditions are really worse in Belleville than in other dioceses. “I’m the state representative to the National Federation of Priest Councils,” he said. “I get a sense things are pretty much the same all over.”

Robert McClory, a longtime contributor to NCR, lives in Chicago.

National Catholic Reporter, January 13, 2006

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