Archbishop Bernard Hebda did not see it coming. The day the Vatican announced he would become the Twin Cities’ new archbishop, he stood before a hastily prepared news conference inside the Cathedral of St. Paul and quipped that if he’d been warned, “I would have brought a better suit and made sure I had a haircut.”
His sartorial selection was the least of his worries on that day last year. The gregarious Hebda, sent to Minnesota months earlier for what was to be a temporary assignment, was suddenly in charge of an archdiocese reeling from a priest sex abuse scandal, bankruptcy, criminal charges filed by Ramsey County, and distrust in the pews. The previous archbishop, John Nienstedt, had resigned under controversy.
More than a year later, the ship has reached calmer waters. The Pittsburgh-born prelate has gained a reputation for spiritual and intellectual depth, thanks in part to degrees from Harvard University and Columbia Law School as well as working 13 years at the Vatican. Although he was being groomed to be archbishop of Newark, New Jersey, when he landed here, Hebda is now planted firmly in his 800,000-member Twin Cities archdiocese. He has embraced Minnesota living, including the Minnesota State Fair, Basilica Block Party, Red Bull Crashed Ice race and countless parish festivals. This interview has been condensed from a longer discussion with the archbishop.
When you were in grade school, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I was either going to be a priest or a bus driver. The bus driver was winning out because I thought they actually kept the fares. I thought, “This man gets to drive and he gets paid all this money!” I also was part of a group started by the Capuchin friars that helped young people think about what God might be asking them to do. By the time I was getting out of eighth grade, I had dragged their vocation director to see my parents to ask if I could go to minor seminary. My parents took him up to my bedroom and said, “If he can’t clean his room, how could he go to seminary?’’ (Hebda laughs.) So that was the end of that.
You entered seminary in your mid-20s, a relatively old age.
I went to college and didn’t think at all about being a priest in those years. I studied international relations and then because of that desire [to help people] I found myself going into law school, thinking I wanted to do something in an international organization. It was in law school that I started going to mass every day. And that’s where the Lord kind of planted in my heart that he wanted me to go to seminary.
You spent 13 years at the Vatican. Can you describe your work?
So all around the world we have the Conference of Catholic Bishops — in Africa, Latin America, Asia. In the legal office where I worked, we were doing work for the conferences, which have authority to legislate in a number of areas. Sometimes about liturgy, sometimes about what a priest is supposed to wear, sometimes about [clergy] formation. Those kinds of things. The conference is supposed to send those things to Rome, so our office looked at those legislative proposals. We were kind of like an in-house law firm for the Vatican in terms of canon law.
After all those years in Rome, what was your reaction when you were sent to the Gaylord Diocese in rural Michigan in 2009?
I went to Rome kicking and screaming because even though I grew to like the job, I didn’t imagine I was becoming a priest to be in an office. Then the longer I was there, the more I appreciated the work. But I was anxious to get home. I was in shock when I got called down to the Congregation for Bishops, thinking it was for work. I went down with my yellow legal pad and was ready to take down whatever. I walk in and the cardinal is sitting at a desk with a map of the United States. And he says, “I’m very happy to tell you that the Holy Father has named you Bishop of Gaylord.”
I went back to my office, and the normal thing is to do a Google search for “Gaylord.” I was blocked because it had the word “gay” in it. [He laughs.] So I had to wait until I got home at night to figure out where I was being sent.
Have you met Pope Francis?
I’ve only met him a handful of times. I had the chance to meet him when he came to the United States [in 2015]. I had introduced myself as the coadjutor in Newark and as the [temporary] administrator in St. Paul and Minneapolis. He said, “I know. I did that to you!” That was a great laugh. I think it’s amazing with all his responsibilities, he has a sense of what’s going on.
And when I was sent to Newark, I just happened to be in Rome with a pilgrimage group [and met him]. I said “Do you have any advice?” He said “Talk talk talk. Listen listen listen.” It was great advice in Newark and great advice here as well. When we were doing those listening sessions, that’s what I had in mind.
You landed here as the St. Paul and Minneapolis Archdiocese was making national headlines for a sex abuse scandal. What were the toughest decisions you made?
Some of those major decisions were when we were entering into the settlement agreement with Ramsey County. (The county had filed criminal charges against the archdiocese for failure to protect children — a first in the nation.) Trying to discern what was the right path. I think part of it was being willing to recognize that we had hurt people in the past and being willing to say that, which I think made some people nervous. Certainly some lawyers. But at the same time it seemed the right thing to do. And as we were in discussions with the Ramsey County attorney’s office, that was important for them that we would do that.
When lawyers revealed that more than 400 clergy sex abuse claims had been filed over the three years ending in May 2016, you looked a bit shell shocked. How did that affect your faith?
It didn’t really shake it at all. It did give me a strong conviction that the task here is not only to prevent abuse but also to sustain our priests in a way that they’re able to lead healthy lives.
Have you met any survivors of clergy sex abuse? What did you learn from them?
The first thing I’ve learned is that no two survivors are the same, that you can’t lump people into one category. Especially with those that I’ve been working with recently, it’s learning from them how the past abuse continues to have an impact on their lives — whether it be in their marriages, whether it be in their relationship to God. And then in a positive way, to know there are many [survivors] who are really committed to helping the church not only do better but also to reach out to others in a way that’s helpful.
So there’s a group of survivors you meet with regularly?
There’s a little group, and I’ve met with them. Other people on my staff meet with them more frequently. Some of it is just individuals, as well, who just want to come talk to the bishop. Often they have suggestions for what we need to do moving forward in a positive way.
What is the best and hardest part about being an archbishop?
The difficult part is when you’re asked to lead a church that you don’t really know that well. It obviously takes time to get to know not only the people but also the history, and what’s distinct about it. And to see how the limited gifts God has given me were intended to help the church. I had the experience when I was sent to Gaylord, a rural diocese, and then when I was sent to Newark, a very urban diocese. In each of those cases you’re kind of plucked out of your comfort zone and then asked to lead.
The good part is you have the opportunity to see how it is that the Lord uses your gifts, how the Lord guides his church even in difficult times. One of the things that I’ve seen is that in spite of the great needs that we have, we also have people who are really very well prepared to begin to address them.
Did you have any preconceptions of the Twin Cities that you’ve discovered weren’t true?
I didn’t have any great preconceptions. I’d only been here once. I passed through the airport. I was snowed in and I ended up spending a night. I guess something that I just hadn’t really thought about would be the diversity in this area. The Hmong. The Karen. The large Somali community. When I was in a seminary in Rome [in the 1980s] Pope John Paul had asked to open up the seminaries to Ethiopian refugees who were flooding into Rome at the time. I remember a number of them were going to Minnesota. I remember trying to describe to these men who had grown up in balmy Ethiopia what it would be like to have winter in Minnesota.
You are known as a being very accessible, bending your schedule to accommodate invitations to schools, parishes, graduations and other events. Why is that important to you?
Two things. You have to know your flock and those events are ways of doing that in a concrete way. Just to have people share with you their experience of the church firsthand. You hear different things when you have the chance to talk to people in that way. And so for me they’re all opportunities to meet people.
Your job can be stressful. How do you take care of yourself?
One of the ways I relax is by talking to people. I was in Rome for 13 years and part of the custom is having those good conversations over meals. I enjoy those opportunities whether it be with priests, whether it be with lay people. Driving is also a great way to relax. Last Sunday, for example, I went to the Rural Life Mass. I ended up driving to Taylors Falls and around there. It was just beautiful. There’s something very soothing about driving in the country. I like to walk too, in that same spirit of exploration.
The archdiocese filed for bankruptcy in January 2015. What are your priorities for an archdiocese on more stable financial footing?
During the listening sessions [held last year with area Catholics] we heard about the need for transparency and we’ve already been trying to address those things. People were concerned that we need to do more evangelization. So the question of Catholic schools is pressing. One idea we’ve talked about here is a diocesan synod. It would be a way to get broader input on our priorities. It’s a huge undertaking. That would be one of the first things we want to do, and would set the stage moving forward.
Is there anything else you’d like to say?
Just that I’m really happy to be here. Granted this isn’t all about my happiness. But I really felt very welcomed here, even by those people that disagree with some of the things that the church might teach. Even in some of those difficult conversations with survivors of abuse, I always get the sense that people are interested in really entering into dialogue. For me, that’s great.