A Chicago columnist who is carried by St Paul weekly Catholic newspaper, The Wanderer, Tom Roeser, has published the first in depth report on the happenings in the Diocese of Belleville (way South Illinois) since Bishop Edward Braxton was appointed as its leader a couple of years ago. About half of the priests of the diocese have publicly resisted him almost from day one. First, it was because the Pope didn't call a diocesan synod and ask each priest for their recommendations. And it went downhill from there.
The newspaper is avalable by subscription only. Copies probably available in most large Catholic libraries. Roeser's column, which provides Bishop Braxton's side of the story, deserves more exposure.
First, a cadre of 45 priests of the southern Illinois Belleville Diocese, across the Mississippi from St. Louis — composed of nearly half of the total diocesan clergy — has been calling for the resignation of an African- American bishop here for more than two years. Moreover, a liberal nun has vowed to take the matter to the Vatican, creating a furor.
A majority of diocesan priests led by a rebel nun vowing to dethrone a sitting bishop? Anywhere else it’d be a national news story. But it’s barely known outside the precincts of southern Illinois. Why?
Because it’s not happening in a major urban center. The Diocese of Belleville is sparsely inhabited. It has rich farmland that abuts the nation’s two mightiest rivers, the Mississippi and Missouri.
It’s known as “ Little Egypt” because 1) one of its towns is Cairo and 2) the pioneers rolling south from Chicago in covered wagons equated the land with the biblical story of Jacob’s sons going to Egypt to buy grain to survive a famine. As it turned out they were right. Upper Illinois suffers from early winters and late spring; southern Illinois has much milder weather and produced ample grain, much of which was shipped north. This was the site of Kaskaskia, a French settlement that became the state’s first capitol. Now it’s not Prime TV News country.
But the area was not always unimportant. In Alton, early abolitionist Elijah Lovejoy was murdered by an Alton mob in 1837, marking the formal start of the struggle against slavery. However, the beef by the dissident priests against the bishop is not that he’s black but because he is undiplomatic in trying to establish some semblance of order in a diocese where the last bishop was popular because he caused no waves.
The bishop who is targeted by a phalanx of priests and one activist nun is Edward K. Braxton, 64, a native Chicagoan and former auxiliary bishop of St. Louis who was named Belleville bishop in 2005. He also seerved as Bishop of Lake Charles, LA, for the immediately preceeding four years. Braxton, a Chicago native, served as pastor of St. Catherine of Siena parish in Oak Park for five years. He studied at Quigley Preparatory Seminary, Niles Seminary, and St. Mary of the Lake here, receiving a fistful of degrees — bachelor’s, master’s, and a doctorate of religious studies and a doctorate in systematic theology summa cum laude from the University of Louvain in Belgium. He served as theological adviser to James Cardinal Hickey of Washington, D. C. Once rather liberal he is now increasingly influenced by his late onetime mentor, liturgist pioneer Msgr. Reynold Hillenbrand, one of the founders of Young Christian Workers and Christian Family Movement who called for a halt in continued liberalization of social policies toward the end of his life, insisting that the Church’s mission could be endangered by its becoming a mere activist for governmental programs. A survivor of the radical ‘ 60s and ‘ 70s, Braxton is reportedly convinced that what’s needed is a return to orthodoxy.
A heady charge against Bishop Braxton sounded serious when first made — misappropriated funds. But it turns out that he merely spent $ 17,100 to pay for vestments from a fund that was dedicated to another cause — a rather specious basis for the sensationalist charge made by the dissenting priests. Then it developed that the cadre’s opposition to Bishop Braxton began a full three months before he arrived, making the “ misappropriation” issue trivial. Going the extra mile, the bishop issued a statement apologizing for the technical mistake but pointed out he has discretionary authority for the legitimate expenditure of monies anyhow.
Then he went yet another extra mile by raising private monies to replenish the fund. But these stepsdid not satisfy his critics, proof that the issue is not malfeasance but what they term as his unbending leadership.
True, Bishop Braxton seems to be, says The Chicago Daily Observer, Chicago’s Internet newspaper ( in interests of disclosure: this writer is the editor), not as warm and cuddly as was Bishop Wilton Gregory, his black predecessor ( 1993- 2004) who was also president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. Bishop Gregory was a smiling figure of toleration. As USCCB president he was nothing more than “ a pillar of Jello,” according to one leader of the Review Board that sought to reform ecclesiastical practices. But Gregory was popular in his diocese. And Rome rewarded him for his popularity by ordaining him archbishop of Atlanta.
Another popular Belleville prelate was Bishop James Keleher ( 1984- 1993) until it was disclosed that priests of the diocese virtually ran things themselves. The laxity led to reports that a ring of at least five priests engaged in private and group homosexual behavior with each other and with minor boys. That ended the Keleher tenure whose popularity was immediately diminished. It was a scandal that Wilton Gregory satisfactorily cleaned up. But his attention was diverted from his tasks by his USCCB presidency and reportedly things went back to lax- normal in the Diocese of Belleville.
Because Bishop Braxton is not as public relations- savvy as Gregory was, the 45 priests initially complained that Pope John Paul II had not consulted them about whom they wanted as bishop.
Daily Observer reporter Charlie Johnston ( who had lived in Belleville, was a parishioner there, and attended Mass at St. Peter’s Cathedral, playing trumpet for the choir) has written that the papal nuncio, the Most Rev. Gabriel Montalvo, “ was astonished at the priests’ presumption” since bishops are appointed by the Pope with guidance from the nuncio who in turn solicits the views of many but certainly does not conduct a plebiscite among the priests.
If the priests’ major issue was the spurious one of so- called misappropriation, a second, writes Johnston, was “ the apparent lack of coherent communication strategy on the part of Bishop Braxton. His most ardent supporters concede he is lacking in some social and public relations skills.” But is this reason for priests to stage a rebellion?
Writes the Observer’s Johnston, “ The search for a common thread at the core of the uproar appears to be the dissenting Catholic group ‘ Call to Action’ which advocates sympathetic treatment of homosexuals in the Church, ordination of women, and an end to mandatory priestly celibacy. Also active is the Fellowship of Southern Illinois Laity ( which goes by the delicious acronym FOSIL).” He also mentions one Sr. Jan Renz, who is regional superior of the Adorers of the Blood of Christ in tiny Ruma, Ill. ( population: 260). She wrote a letter critical of the bishop to The Belleville NewsDemocrat, calling for renewal of “ trust and hope that had been supposedly lost by actions of the bishop.”
Damned If He Does, Damned If He Doesn’t
What other actions by Braxton caused the “ lack of credibility”? The Belleville Diocese has been classified as a “ missionary diocese,” that is, one that does not produce sufficient priestly vocations to serve its people. Indeed, one prominent priest critic, Fr. Mark Stec, has complained that he has been forced to shuffle between four parishes in far southeastern Illinois because of a shortage of priests. But when Braxton imported two Nigerian priests to relieve the pressure, that too was a source of controversy.
Ergo, as Johnston says: “ If the bishop does one thing he’s damned and if he does another, he’s also damned.” Evidently the adversaries wished to use the priest scarcity as a case example for the need of women priests, which was foiled by the bishop’s action.
Another is the fact that Bishop Braxton has urged parochial schools to display portraits of the Pope, the bishop, and the pastor in their buildings. This is regarded as horrific and a lamentable expression furthering the “ cult of personality.”
But display of the Pope’s and bishop’s portraits were de rigueur
When this writer went to Catholic grade school in Chicago. We knew how Pius XI looked, how George Cardinal Mundelein looked, with bespectacled visage, from first grade on, just as we did our pastor, Fr. Thomas Hogan. What’s so problematic about this? Answer: Nothing. The rebellion is not just religious radicalism but political dissent as well.
Johnston identifies one source of the upheaval as Fr. Clyde Grogan, formerly of St. Patrick’s in East St. Louis who is now ministering to the Adorers of the Blood of Christ in Ruma. On the day Bishop Braxton was installed, Fr. Grogan allegedly linked him in an amalgam of priests and conservative politicians whom he called “ the Killer Bees” whose surnames start with B.
They are indeed a disparate list: Pope Benedict XVI, Braxton, President George W. Bush, Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, a Democrat, and Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt, a Republican. What do the names Benedict, Bush, Blagojevich, and Blunt have to do with Braxton? Especially Blagojevich who is whistling past the graveyard waiting for a federal indictment for putting jobs up for sale for campaign dollars? Nobody knows.
What is likely to happen? While no public relations genius, Bishop Braxton is winning adherents because of his calmness in the midst of a storm and the storm is dying out. As one cathedral parishioner e- mailed The Observer: “ If priests want to express dissent they should do it where it counts — against Catholic pols like Dick Durbin and Mayor Daley up in Chicago who receive the sacraments and who stridently push abortion and gay rights. Or if they have guts they should be protesting one of their number up in Chicago — Michael Pfleger,” a noted Chicago liberal priest who backs Obama.
Please pray for Bishop Braxton, the people of the Diocese of Belleville, and those rebellious priests and nuns.