Catholics in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis finally have the intelligent, healing leadership they deserve in newly named Archbishop Bernard Hebda, who, after first serving as interim, has been appointed to the post permanently by Pope Francis.
Hebda’s formal installation mass next month will mark a new chapter in a community that has suffered deeply in recent years, both from the botched handling of numerous cases of priest-involved child sex abuse and from the bitter and costly fight over same-sex marriage launched by the previous archbishop.
Hebda brings skills that have served him well in the nine months since his arrival. At 56, he has a broad, sophisticated worldview shaped by degrees in political science and law from Harvard and Columbia, and by years spent practicing law before he became an ordained priest at age 30. He has served at many levels in the church — as a parish priest, a diocesan leader, an interpreter of canon law at the Vatican and, finally, as a coadjutant archbishop for Newark, N.J., where he had fully expected to return as archbishop. That Francis instead redirected him to St. Paul and Minneapolis speaks to the depth of the crisis in this archdiocese and the urgent need for a new vision.
Those who have worked with him as an interim administrator say Hebda’s interest in people and diverse viewpoints, his humor, and his incisiveness have been warmly welcomed in a church community wearied to exhaustion from the struggles of the last decade. “He is very attentive and approachable, and wants to hear from everyone, not just people with one point of view,” said Paula Ruddy of the Catholic Coalition for Church Reform. “I am very hopeful that he will be able to bring people together and heal the divisions we’ve been experiencing.”
The challenges are daunting. The archdiocese filed for bankruptcy last year, sold off the archbishop’s Summit Avenue residence and this week received approval to sell its chancery. It will be under judicial supervision for three years, the result of a civil settlement with Ramsey County prosecutors late last year. Litigation and bankruptcy costs have topped $5 million. A criminal case involving sex abuse allegations is ongoing.
As part of its overhaul, the archdiocese in 2014 hired Tim O’Malley, former head of the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, for the new position of director of ministerial standards. O’Malley said that with Hebda, the “right people” are in place for a needed culture shift in the church, one that creates a safe environment and openness. O’Malley called Hebda “one of the most genuine and humble people I’ve ever met. He is motivated by the right factors: doing what’s best for those already harmed and figuring out how to prevent future harm.”
The Catholic community here is diverse, representing many strains of American Catholicism. It needs a leader who respects and values that full spectrum, who seeks not just to heal old wounds, but also to build a unified, vital organization that promotes a positive vision Catholics can be proud of.
Hebda appears to have many of those qualities, but he will need help. Those who have felt alienated or isolated, as well as donors and churchgoers who turned away, should consider recommitting to an archdiocese struggling for renewal.
The Rev. Mike Tegeder, of St. Frances Cabrini, an outspoken opponent of previous Archbishop John Nienstedt, summed it up. “We’ve lost so much goodwill, hurt so many people,” he said. “How do you earn that trust again? I think Hebda can be a positive force. But it will take everyone, not just one person.”