The news Thursday that Acting Archbishop Bernard Hebda will become the permanent leader of the Twin Cities archdiocese came as a relief to area Catholics — and as a shock to Hebda and Vatican observers.
Hebda, who has been splitting his time between the Twin Cities and Newark, N.J., since Archbishop John Nienstedt resigned last June, will be installed officially May 13.
When Hebda celebrated mass at the St. Paul Cathedral Thursday night, he was still wrapping his head around the fact that the cathedral is now home. He said he had no idea when he left Newark on Tuesday that the pope would make the announcement two days later.
Given the speed of events, Hebda said he had no master plan for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. However, he plans to work with clergy, staff and parishioners as he charts his path forward.
"Up to this point … my primary concern is to do no harm," Hebda said at a news conference Thursday morning at the Cathedral. "After May 13, [the day he is installed] it's going to be my responsibility to set a longer course."
Hebda had been slated to become archbishop of Newark in July. That he was moved permanently to St. Paul is a sign of how seriously the Vatican takes the situation in the Twin Cities archdiocese, Vatican experts say.
"This is more than unusual; it is exceptional," said Massimo Faggioli, a former theology professor at the University of St. Thomas and Vatican expert. He said the archdiocese's financial and clergy abuse crisis may have given it priority within the Vatican.
"We [the archdiocese] have been headless — without real leadership — for a number of years," said Faggioli, referring to Nienstedt's troubled final years before he stepped down. "Maybe this is considered an emergency."
Hebda joked that if he'd known the pope would announce his appointment Thursday, he would "have gotten a haircut and brought a better suit."
Hebda's new status was greeted warmly by the Catholic community, including those who had clashed with the former archbishop. Hebda brings to the job a mix of humanity, smarts and a knack for listening, they said.
"To be honest, I'm not sure where he stands on issues I'm concerned about," said Mary Beth Stein, a member of the local Catholic Coalition for Church Reform, which opposed Nienstedt. "But I've gone to several listening sessions, and I've found he's willing to listen."
"I am thrilled," said Paul Mandell, a longtime Catholic and lay preacher from Inver Grove Heights, who also attended a session. "He seems to want to empower people in the pews, and sees the church as a big tent."
Hebda's knack for personal engagement was evident when he entered the cathedral to speak at Thursday's news conference. He stopped to greet members of his clergy advisory group, archdiocese staff and others gathered for the historic naming of the Twin Cities' ninth archbishop.
"I'm very excited," said the Rev. Nate Meyers, of St. Francis Xavier Church in Buffalo, Minn., who was among those shaking Hebda's hand. "You can feel the [boost in] morale."
Meyers said he was pleasantly taken aback after his church recently completed a successful capital campaign and he received a personal note from Hebda. Said Meyers: "You haven't seen that before."
"It's what we all wanted," added Tom Mertens, chief financial officer for the archdiocese, who also was in the audience. "He brings a common-sense approach — the legal side and the church side."
Back in Newark, Archbishop John Myers issued a statement saying, "Pope Francis has often said that God is a God of surprises. Today is surely a perfect example of that."
Myers praised Hebda for his willingness to manage the travel and work involved in juggling two major leadership positions. "His tireless, positive approach to dealing with the challenges presented him will be one of the graces that he will share. …" he said.
Hebda said his nine months in the archdiocese gives him a jump start on the job. It has helped him appreciate both the long-standing strengths of the archdiocese as well as get "a taste of those challenges that have molded its recent history."
Those challenges include more than 400 claims of clergy sex abuse that have poured in over the past two years, an archdiocese in its second year of bankruptcy court, and continued revelations of clergy misconduct.
Hebda also inherits a significant criminal lawsuit filed by the Ramsey County attorney's office, charging the archdiocese with "failure to protect children."
Asked if the appointment means he will become more involved in dealing with the clergy sex abuse scandal, Hebda answered, "I don't know how I could be."
Advocates for victims of clergy abuse, however, charge that Hebda has not reached out to abuse victims during his time here, and that he's been no better at handling clergy abuse issues than Nienstedt was.
"This is a disappointing choice for an archdiocese that deserves better and by a pope who knows better," wrote David Clohessy, director of SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests).
Jeff Anderson, a St. Paul attorney representing archdiocese abuse victims, said he expects Hebda will now step up his leadership on the clergy abuse issue.
"A matter of this gravity requires the full engagement of top officials," Anderson said.
Hebda brings formidable credentials. He has a B.A. from Harvard, a law degree from Columbia University, and a licentiate of canon law from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.
Hebda was ordained in 1989 in his native Pittsburgh. In 1996, he was appointed to work in the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts in Rome, which interprets Catholic laws. In 2009, he was named bishop of the Diocese of Gaylord, Mich. In, 2013, he was named coadjutor archbishop of Newark.
Thomas Reese, a Vatican expert for National Catholic Reporter, said the Vatican made a smart decision keeping Hebda in Minnesota, largely because of his success in building connections and confidence.
In addition, he's up to speed on the critical legal and financial issues.
"Any new person would have to come off better than him," Reese said. "If not, it could be a whole different setback for the archdiocese."
Hebda's installation mass is scheduled for 2 p.m. on May 13 at the cathedral.