– Interim Archbishop Bernard Hebda met with priests Wednesday as he assumed the reins of an archdiocese rocked by the resignation of its leader and charges of clergy sex abuse.

Hebda arrived in Minnesota Tuesday evening and on Wednesday joined a few hundred priests gathered in Rochester for an assembly that convenes every two years.

Minutes after the bells rang midday at St. John the Evangelist Church, Hebda emerged smiling after celebrating mass and walked with other priests to the Kahler Grand Hotel in downtown Rochester. He did not speak to the media.

Priests also declined to speak with reporters as they left the church, but the archdiocese later released a statement by Rev. Kevin Finnegan, pastor of Our Lady of Grace Church in Edina. Hebda “was very encouraging about our future,” Finnegan said. “I pray this is a fresh beginning.”

Hebda took over the leadership of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis Monday following the resignations of Archbishop John Nienstedt and Auxiliary Bishop Lee Piché. Their departures came days after the Vatican announced the creation of a tribunal to hold bishops accountable for the abuse of minors in their jurisdiction, and little more than a week after the Ramsey County attorney’s office charged the archdiocese for failing to protect children from an abusive priest.

The Rev. Mike Tegeder of St. Frances Cabrini Church in Minneapolis, a frequent critic of Nienstedt, said priests in the archdiocese are divided between a sizable number still loyal to Nienstedt and a majority who are not. But he said Hebda, who shook hands with priests following the mass, was “very warmly received.”

A theme of his message was “that we are brothers and he wants to work with us,” Tegeder said.

The purpose of this week’s assembly is for active and retired priests in the archdiocese to discuss issues facing them and their ministries, according to the Rev. Robert Pish, chair of the assembly committee.

The archdiocese said Hebda planned to fly back to Newark, N.J., Wednesday evening. He is expected to divide his time between the Twin Cities and Newark, where he is coadjutor archbishop, in line to succeed Archbishop John J. Myers. His role here, called apostolic administrator, is expected to be primarily administrative, while the Vatican decides on a permanent replacement for Nienstedt.

“Archbishop Hebda is not here to make big changes,” Finnegan said. “He’s not here to start new programs. He’s here to be a healing presence.”

Hebda issued a statement to the archdiocese’s 800,000 Catholics referring to his experience as bishop in northern Michigan, “where I first came to know the vibrancy of the faith shared by Catholics of the Upper Midwest. I am hopeful that there will be opportunities to meet many of you in the weeks ahead.”

Hebda, a Pittsburgh native, has a background in both secular and canon law. He has a B.A. in political science from Harvard and a law degree from Columbia Law School. After seminary, he spent several years in Rome at the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, a Vatican group that interprets church law.

 

Twitter: @MarcusEHoward