Archbishop Bernard Hebda took the temporary reins of the St. Paul and Minneapolis archdiocese last week, bringing an Ivy League law degree, an impressive list of Vatican connections and a touch of Pope Francis’ populism.
Hebda, who traveled to Minnesota wearing a backpack, is commuting from his three-room priest apartment in New Jersey. Known for his affable disposition, he’s also serious about his faith. He is fluent in Italian, having long lived in Rome, but also speaks Midwest Catholicism.
Hebda will need to tap his impressive skill set, say Catholic church experts, as he steps into one of the most tumultuous archdioceses in the nation. His job — being watched across the country — is daunting: Heal a Twin Cities Catholic community of some 800,000 people who are reeling from a child sex abuse scandal, bankruptcy, fundraising pains, and frustration in the pulpit and the pews.
And he’s expected to do this in a style reflecting that of Pope Francis, who sent him to the Twin Cities archdiocese following the June 15 resignation of Archbishop John Nienstedt.
“Archbishop Hebda’s challenge is to restore trust in the archdiocese both for lay people and the priests,” said Robert Kennedy, chairman of the Department of Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas, and a lifelong St. Paul Catholic.
“As a temporary administrator, he can come in, make the tough choices and clear the path for the next archbishop. I think he was chosen specifically because of his background.”
The Columbia University law degree, for example, will be an asset as Hebda works with the bankruptcy court and addresses Ramsey County’s charges against the archdiocese for failing to protect children, he said. Connections to Rome will be invaluable in leveraging support. His affable personal style meshes with Minnesotans.
Also helpful: “He’s a guy used to scandal,” said the Rev. Thomas Reese, senior analyst for National Catholic Reporter and Vatican expert.
A test case for Hebda
The Vatican appointed Hebda as Coadjutor Archbishop of Newark in September 2013, as the archdiocese was rocked by its own sex abuse controversy, particularly its handling of a priest accused of sexual misconduct. Outrage reached the point where the president of the New Jersey Senate and at least three other state legislators joined a chorus of calls for the resignation of Newark Archbishop John Myers.
Hebda, 55, has worked there nearly two years, as heir apparent to Myers, who will retire next year.
The Twin Cities presents a test case for Hebda, said Reese, because he’s had limited authority in Newark. Advocates for clergy abuse victims are watching to see how Hebda tackles Minnesota’s clergy sex abuse crisis, because he’s not been visibly involved in the crisis in New Jersey, they said.
“Now the ball is in his court,” said Mark Crawford, director of the New Jersey chapter of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
Crawford said that to his knowledge Hebda had not met with abuse victims in the Newark area or engaged in any outreach or leadership on the issue. Survivors had expected much more of him, he said.
In the Twin Cities, it will be far more difficult for Hebda not to be actively engaged because clergy abuse is at the center of the church’s many troubles — the victims’ lawsuits, the bankruptcy, the fundraising troubles, the demoralized faithful, said Terry McKiernan, co-director of BishopAccountability.org, a national Internet archive of clergy sex offenders.
“The issue is everywhere,” said McKiernan.
However, Hebda has won the trust and respect of Newark’s religious leaders during his tenure. They are keeping their fingers crossed that Minnesota is just a temporary stop.
“He’s about the best I’ve seen in a bishop in a long time, and I’ve been a priest for 40 years,” said the Rev. Robert Stagg, pastor of the Church of the Presentation in Upper Saddle River, N.J. “The confidence level that people have in him is extremely high.”
Hebda “has plunged into everything,” as he’s visited parishes, schools and Catholic agencies, said Stagg. He’s comfortable “at a hot dog roast, a cathedral ceremony, or a boardroom.”
In Minnesota, the word “courtroom” could be added to that litany. Hebda’s limited public role in clergy abuse issues could be to his advantage, said Reese.
“His fingerprints aren’t on any of the problems,” said Reese. “He can come in and deal with the problem without the baggage.”
'Optimism among the clergy'
Hebda, a Pittsburgh, Pa., native, arrived in Minnesota via an unusual path. He was an associate at a Pittsburgh law firm, was ordained a priest at age 30, earned a canon law degree in Rome in 1991, and for 13 years worked in the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts in Rome, which is responsible for interpreting the laws of the Catholic church. In 2009, he was named Bishop of Gaylord, Mich. In 2013, he was named coadjutor archbishop in Newark.
In New Jersey Hebda lives in a modest apartment on the campus of Seton Hall University. His colleagues describe him as unpretentious, quick witted, and comfortable in his own skin. He enjoys a good joke, a good meal, a good read. He’s devoted to his faith.
Those characteristics came through during Hebda’s visit to Rochester last week, say several priests who met him at the archdiocesan assembly there. He did not grant media interviews.
“There’s a lot of optimism among the clergy,” said the Rev. Terry Rasmussen, pastor of St. Joseph Parish Community in New Hope and Plymouth and a former Nienstedt critic. “The archbishop was a very welcoming man, interested in hearing from the priests and laity about their concerns.”
Hebda was careful not to overstep, added the Rev. Tom Kommers, pastor at the Church of St. Joseph in Red Wing. “He didn’t over-promise what needs to be done.”
Gaining the confidence of clergy is critical to Hebda’s success in Minnesota, as most Catholics view the church through the lens of their parish priest, said Charles Zech, director of the Center for the Study of Church Management at Villanova University in Pennsylvania.
“He’s got a honeymoon period now,” said Zech. “People are looking for him to make right all that has gone wrong. He can’t afford any mistakes.”
Tom Flynn, a longtime Twin Cities Catholic who serves on the board of several Catholic nonprofits, is among the Sunday worshipers relieved to see change afoot.
Folks in the pews are curious about who Hebda is, he said, and what he will do.
“We would like to see some policies in place to put this sex abuse behind us,” he said.
The challenges begin
Hebda is expected to divide his time between Newark and St. Paul, spending more time here initially. He’ll need to get up to speed on Land of Lakes living; his previous experience in Minnesota was limited to the airport and a visit to the Mall of America, he told the Catholic Spirit newspaper.
Hebda is expected to conduct the kind of listening tours he’s known for in Newark, and the archdiocese is expected to appoint a council of clergy advisers.
Hebda has no time to waste. Newark Archbishop Myers must retire when he turns 75 on July 26, 2016, at which point Hebda is slated to replace him.
Reese said it’s not impossible for the pope to have a change of heart on that transfer.
“If Hebda comes to Minneapolis-St. Paul and does a good job, and the people fall in love with him, the Vatican would be crazy not to keep him there,” said Reese. “On the other hand, if he cleans up and gets the place ready for someone else, that’s a good outcome.”
Priests and parishes in New Jersey are hoping for the latter. Said Stagg: “We hope he doesn’t get too comfortable in Minnesota.”