There was a hum of excitement in the air Sunday morning before mass began at the Cathedral of St. Paul.
A full house had come to hear interim Archbishop Bernard Hebda celebrate his first public mass since being thrust into leadership of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis following the June 15 resignation of John Nienstedt.
Hebda, wearing green-and-gold vestments, emanated warmth from the start. In his homily, he referred to Bible readings that reminded those in the pews that "All of us are both summoned and sent," but touched only briefly on clergy sex abuse, lawsuits, bankruptcy and criminal charges that have buffeted the archdiocese, enveloping Nienstedt and his predecessor, Harry Flynn.
"We can never be lone rangers," Hebda told those gathered during an hourlong service. The work of the church is always communal … [and] at times we'll have to share the blame.
"It's not how quickly we resolve court cases," he said. "But how effectively we share the love of Jesus and only Jesus."
Hebda pairs the short stature of a "jelly bean," according to one worshiper's description, with the soothing voice of a radio announcer. The man said he'd like to see Hebda remain in the Twin Cities, even though he is slated to become archbishop in Newark, N.J., next July.
"Things change," the man said.
Hebda was sent by Pope Francis to the Twin Cities archdiocese as a healer, and his message resonated with many Sunday.
"I thought it was beautiful," said Erica Bye, 24, a parishioner at the cathedral for the past year. "It's encouraging to hear someone who is coming to our archdiocese with a new light."
Mass concluded, Hebda surprised many when he paused halfway down the cathedral's center aisle to shake hands, touch babies and pose for photos. His easy smile was in contrast to Nienstedt's stoic countenance.
Tom Motola, who recently moved back to the Twin Cities from Chicago, said he found Hebda's homily "very inspirational."
"I think the church wants to heal," he said. "I think the church needs change. There were some wrongs that were done, and let's get past them and start the healing process. I think a lot of people are open and welcoming to that change."
Tom Thompson, who attends St. Bernard's down the street from the cathedral, brought a dozen or more people from his parish to welcome Hebda.
"He's a holy, holy man and … I think it's going be fantastic for our archdiocese," Thompson said. "The pope picked him to help us heal and get us going again. We're real happy to have him. We try to support the [arch]bishop all we can."
SNAP (the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests) wasn't nearly as enamored. In an e-mail Sunday, the group said it was "very saddened and worried about recent claims made" by the new head of the Twin Cities archdiocese. The group pointed to an interview Hebda did with Minnesota Public Radio in which he said "great strides have already have been made" in monitoring abusive priests.
"We challenge Hebda to cite facts about the alleged monitoring of pedophile priests," David Clohessy, director of SNAP, wrote. "Parents and parishioners need and deserve details, not deception."
Hebda has hard work ahead of him, and he talked about some of it Friday in an interview with the Star Tribune.
He said that his priority during his temporary stay in the Twin Cities is to tackle such legal issues as the bankruptcy and clergy abuse lawsuits confronting the archdiocese. He said he is "considering" the growing demands to release an internal investigation into reports of sexual misconduct by Nienstedt. That investigation was conducted last year by the Greene Espel law firm but never made public.
Nienstedt's resignation after seven years came shortly after the Ramsey County attorney's office charged the archdiocese with "failing to protect children" from now-defrocked priest Curtis Wehmeyer and others.
Hebda has a law degree from Columbia University and a canon law degree from Rome, where he spent 13 years working at the Vatican. He said, though, that he hasn't practiced law in 30 years.
The 55-year-old Pittsburgh native joined the priesthood in 1989 at St. Paul Cathedral in Pittsburgh and was appointed bishop of the Diocese of Gaylord in Michigan in 2009.
Hebda is coadjutor archbishop in Newark, N.J., where he is slated to succeed Archbishop John J. Myers when he retires next July. Hebda said it came as "an absolute shock" when Pope Francis asked him to come to Minnesota, but in the same "spirit of trust" that he accepted the job in Newark, he accepted his second job in St. Paul, he said.
Tim Cone, 28, who is studying for the priesthood at St. Paul Seminary, said after mass that Hebda "is a man who knows the heart of Jesus, and he is a man who will bring us to it. What is it about the church that people need to tear it down?" Cone asked.
"That doesn't mean shoving it under the rug. It's about bringing Jesus Christ to every person. He's going to do great things."