THE DIOCESE OF BELLEVILLE ANNOUNCES A DINNER JUNE 27, 2014
TO BENEFIT CATHOLIC EDUCATION TO COMMEMORATE
THE BISHOP’S 70TH BIRTHDAY
(During the months of May and June, Bishop Braxton marks significant anniversaries. He was ordained a Priest on May 13, 1970 and consecrated Bishop on May 17, 1995. He was born on June 28, 1944 and installed as 8th Bishop of Belleville on June 22, 2005. On June 27, a dinner will be held in his honor to raise funds for Catholic education in the Diocese. Liz Quirin, editor of The Messenger invited him to reflect on these milestones in the following interview conducted at his residence.)
A Messenger Interview with Bishop Edward K. Braxton, Ph.D., S.T.D.
Q: Why did you prefer to have a fundraising campaign and dinner to benefit Catholic education to mark your 70th birthday, instead of a traditional “Birthday Party?”
A: Because I thought that if I was going to depart from my long-standing practice of spending my birthday 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. So, having a dinner on June 27th, the day before my birthday, to raise needed funds for Althoff, Gibault, and Mater Dei Catholic High Schools, the Cardinal Newman Center at Southern Illinois University, and the Elementary Schools Tuition Assistance Fund was an obvious worthy cause.
Saturday, the 28th of June will mark a milestone in my life — what one friend has called the 70th anniversary of my coming into the world. On my 50th birthday, my family arranged a wonderful celebration of my birthday, when I was the Pastor of St. Catherine of Siena Parish in Oak Park, Ill., just months before I was appointed Bishop by St. John Paul II. My 50th birthday intensified my lifelong reflection on the brevity and fleeting nature of every human life, the unbearable lightness of being. I was reminded of this in a very powerful way when I suddenly needed major abdominal surgery on September 13, 2013, which I reflected on in my Autumn Reflection. Knowing well that life would have its way with me, I concluded that it would be beneficial to spend my birthday on retreat every year. This has been a great blessing for me and the two weeks I spend in silence, work and prayer has been a centerpiece in my spiritual life. For the past 20 years, I have celebrated my birthday with Trappist monks at the Monastery of Our Lady of Gethsemani in Kentucky. I have made a retreat there almost every year since my years as a seminarian. It is a very special place of prayer, solitude, tranquility, and faith, far from the madding crowd, imbued with the spirit of the great Trappist mystic, Father Louis (Thomas Merton). So, I have not had a traditional “Birthday Party” on my birthday for many years. (The invitation and donor card are printed here, with information also available online at diobelle.org.)
Q: Please share more about your concern for Catholic education and this event with the readers of The Messenger.
A: My visits to our three Catholic high schools and each of our elementary schools on a regular basis have been an integral part of my ministry as Bishop of Belleville. I have come to know these institutions well. I work closely with Mr. Thomas Posnanski, Director of the Office of Education, the principals, faculties and staff members, the Pastors of parishes with schools, and the leadership of Sr. Thea Bowman School. I am very appreciative of their distinguished work. I am equally grateful to the parents and students themselves for their dedication to excellence in Catholic education and Christian formation.
I regularly stress during my pastoral visits that Jesus of Nazareth is the reason why our Catholic schools exist. This is not a figure of speech. Jesus has commanded the Church to go forth and teach all nations. No matter how great the academic programs and athletic programs may be, our Catholic schools are in some sense failing if they do not create an experience of the Christian community, if they do not help our young people to learn their faith, love their faith, and live their faith, and if they fail to produce Christian ladies and gentlemen who can make valuable contributions to the Church and the larger community.
The Pastoral Plan for Parish Renewal and Restructuring has as one of its goals to examine carefully our schools, to appreciate their strengths, and to address the challenges caused by declining numbers and ever increasing costs. For me the idea of a gala dinner for the benefit of our Catholic elementary, Catholic high schools, and the Newman Center on the occasion of my birthday seems quite consistent with goals of THE PASTORAL PLAN. This dinner is taking place in connection with a broader effort to invite people to make significant contributions directly to the Newman Center, one of our high schools, or the Tuition Assistance Fund for Elementary Education. I can think of no better birthday gift than the gift of Priests, Deacons, Religious, laypeople, parishes, and businesses contributing to the long-term vitality of Catholic education in southern Illinois by purchasing tickets for a table at the dinner, or making a substantial donation to the educational ministry of their choice.
Q: Do you think your personal experience in Catholic schools has influenced your deep concern for Catholic education?
A: There is no question about that. I always believed that the Catholic Church’s ministry of education was a unique gift to our country and our individual communities. Growing up in the Archdiocese of Chicago, my parents made sure that my brother, my three sisters, and I attended Catholic elementary and secondary schools. I remember well Sister Mary Mildred, Sister Mary Jean-Marie, and Sister Mary Antoine, all Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary and my sixth, seventh, and eighth grade teachers. I have profound admiration for and feel deep gratitude to these great Sisters who imbued in me a love for learning, a desire for knowledge, a curiosity about the Church and the world, an appreciation for beauty, and a disciplined approach to reading and study.
These qualities have sustained me through the years at Quigley Preparatory Seminary in Chicago, St. Mary of the Lake Seminary in Mundelein, Ill., my doctoral studies at Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium, and my years on faculties of theology at Catholic University of America, the University of Notre Dame, and Harvard Divinity School. Other than my parents, no one played a greater role in my Christian formation and my commitment to a life of study. Like my mother and father, they directed me on the path of faith seeking understanding and enkindling in me the Eros of the mind to know everything about everything. They changed my life. As Sr. Mary Antoine used to say, “The real trip is in your mind!”
Q: You have published several articles on the challenges Catholic education is facing. Would you comment on some of these challenges?
A: Catholic education has long been a hallmark of the ministry of the Church in the United States and in southern Illinois. However, it should be obvious to everyone that what some have called the “golden age of Catholic education in the U.S.” is over. That age, when parish after parish had its own thriving elementary school, staffed largely by Sisters, when high schools were numerous, staffed largely by Priests and Religious, when tuition was free or very low, when the cost of maintaining a school was reasonable, when many Catholics had large families and sent all of their children to Catholic schools, when Catholic identity seemed stable and vocations were plentiful, is something of the past.
As we look to the future, we see that Catholic education faces a number of serious challenges. When I was in the sixth, seventh and eighth grades, 12 Sisters of Charity lived in our parish convent and served as teachers and principal of the school. This made two things possible: the tuition was very low and the disciplined faith-filled presence of the Sisters all but assured the Catholic identity of the school. Today, the cost of Catholic education has dramatically increased and the Sisters are largely absent from our schools. Lay teachers of exceptional ability and dedication stand in their places in far fewer schools. More and more families, finding the cost prohibitive, send their children to public schools. This means many parishes are struggling to maintain a parish school and a parish school of religion at a great cost.
In the culture of our largely secular age in which religious belief and scripture-based moral values have all but vanished from the public square, our lay teachers and Catholic parents face enormous challenges in their efforts to instill life-long Christian values in the lives of our students. So much of what they encounter in popular culture (music, movies, television, the Internet, and the life-styles of celebrities) is either indifferent to the good news of Jesus or in direct opposition to it. Maintaining Catholic identity might be the greatest challenge our schools may face as we move into the future. When I confirm children in our parishes, as I am doing during Eastertide, I am acutely aware that for the majority of these young people, their Confirmation preparation is the very last experience of structured Christian education. Parents, the parish, and diocesan youth ministry must play a crucial role in helping our young people to continue to learn, love, and live their faith.
Q: Since today, May 13, 2014, is the 44th the anniversary of your Ordination to the Priesthood and Saturday, May 17th is the 19th anniversary of your Episcopal Ordination, I’d like to turn from the topic of fundraising for Catholic education and invite you to share your thoughts about these important milestones.
A: May and June are very important months in my life. In addition to my birthday and my Ordination anniversaries, my parents, Evelyn and Cullen Braxton were married on May 5, 1940. My First Communion and my Confirmation were also in May. My dear father died on May 23, 1995, eight days after my Episcopal Ordination. And I was installed as Bishop of this diocese on the Feast of St. Thomas More, June 22, 2005. Thus, these months are times of quiet introspection.
For me, there is natural connection between my desire to provide additional support for catholic education and my ministry as Priest and Bishop. My life as a Priest has been directly involved in education from the beginning and that involvement has continued throughout my Episcopacy. I was ordained a Priest by John Cardinal Cody, Archbishop of Chicago, with 31 others, in the Chapel of the Immaculate Conception at St. Mary of the Lake Seminary in Mundelein, Ill.
Though the day was cloudy and overcast like today, it was a joyful and sun-filled day for me, my extended family, and my new 31 brother Priests. During the years since that Spirit-filled day, my life as a Priest has taken me down paths I could never have foreseen, far beyond my home Archdiocese. The years have been filled with diverse and fulfilling pastoral opportunities to serve the People of God in a number of parishes. From the beginning, I was engaged in teaching in Catholic parish elementary schools and at Loyola Academy in Wilmette, Ill.
The journey of my Priesthood has also allowed me the opportunity to serve the larger Church by teaching theology in different universities and serving as Director of Calvert House, the Catholic Student Center at the University of Chicago. Even while teaching, I lived and served in a parish. At the diocesan level, I continued in educational ministry, serving James Cardinal Hickey as his personal theologian in the Diocese of Cleveland and the Archdiocese of Washington. While serving in this capacity, I always lived either in a seminary or in a parish, which automatically infused my theological reflections with everyday pastoral experiences.
My spiritual journey as a Priest, like that of every Priest, has been filled with many exhilarating joys and not a few deep sorrows. But I have never been sorry that I was a priest. One of the many joys is the fact that there are still people in my life whom I met and served in parish ministry at Holy Name Cathedral in Chicago and Sacred Heart Parish in Winnetka, Ill., more than 40 years ago. Though many of them now live far away, they are a part of a support in my life and ministry that is a source of serenity and quiet happiness.
The most profound experience of the Priesthood for me has been and continues to be daily ministry of caring for the Body of Christ, the Church. The celebration of the Eucharist and preaching the Word of God is the heart of this ministry. One of my spiritual directors in the seminary urged me to try to celebrate every Mass as if it were my first Mass: slowly, reverently, deliberately, focused on the great mystery of Christ’s sin-shattering, life-giving presence. I have always tried to do this and I will try to do it tonight when I celebrate the Confirmation Liturgy at St. Teresa of the Child Jesus Parish in Belleville.
I chose May 17, 1995 for my Ordination to the Episcopacy because I celebrated my First Mass on Pentecost Sunday, May 17, 1970. My consecration by Justin Cardinal Rigali was in the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis. As Auxiliary Bishop of St. Louis, as the Bishop of Lake Charles, La., and as Bishop of Belleville, my life has remained essentially that of a Priest, albeit sharing in the fullness of the Priesthood. For me, this has meant the priority of prayer, service to the People of God, and the faithful proclamation of the Church’s authentic teachings concerning the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
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. As Pastor of St. Catherine of Siena Parish in Oak Park, Ill., 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. Nevertheless, I, like all of the members of the presbyterate, live in union with every Catholic in southern Illinois in our common participation in the celebration of the Eucharist.
I have brought about a greater contact with the Priests, Deacons, and people of the diocese in a variety of ways. 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, my quarterly formation meetings with the Deacons and their wives, and other events.
While the years as Bishop of Belleville have been filled with a wide variety of pastoral activities including the year-long celebration of the 125th anniversary of the erection of the diocese by Pope Leo XIII, perhaps the most important of these has been The Pastoral Plan for Parish Renewal and Restructuring. This ongoing Plan is intended to help all of us Priests, Deacons, Religious and lay faithful to face, in an honest way, the challenges we must address in the next 10 to 20 years. While we continue to pray and work for vocations to the Priesthood and the revitalization of our parishes, if the trend of the past 25 years continues, the population of our diocese will be older and smaller; and the Priests will be older and fewer in number, even with the presence of generous fidei donum missionary priests from abroad. The resources of the diocese will continue to be limited by the state of the economy and other factors. The Pastoral Plan is deliberately dynamic, gradual, and organic. Nevertheless, I continue to stress that it will ultimately have an impact on every parish in the diocese.
These challenges are not unique to our diocese and, after nearly 20 years as a Bishop, I remain confident that the Church will meet the challenges of the future with renewed dedication. A central part of that future must be, in my judgment, a strong Catholic education ministry. This is why I hope readers of The Messenger will support the Gala Dinner to Benefit Catholic Education and contribute to the educational ministry of their choice. I give thanks to God for my family, for my ministry as Priest and Bishop and for the opportunity to lead, guide, and serve the Catholic community in southern Illinois. I would like to express my personal gratitude to everyone in the Diocese of Belleville who collaborates with me in working for the building up of the Body of Christ. Every person in every parish is called by Baptism to play an indispensible role in determining the shape of the Church to come!
(For more information on the benefit dinner or to make a reservation, please go to the diocesan website diobelle.org where you can donate to the school of your choice or the scholarship fund for elementary education or purchase a ticket to the dinner.)