An often-outspoken group of Twin Cities Catholics packed a conference hall Monday for a rare opportunity to tell church leaders what they think of the archdiocese and what they want in their next archbishop.
With the St. Paul and Minneapolis Archdiocese reeling from a sex abuse scandal, bankruptcy and a theological divide, acting Archbishop Bernard Hebda hosted the first of seven "listening sessions" at St. Catherine University in St. Paul.
It's an unusual strategy, as archbishop recommendations typically are made by church leaders selected by the Vatican Embassy in Washington, D.C.
It wasn't a bashful group.
"There's a lack of trust, both in management and finance," said Paul Mandell of Inver Grove Heights, one of about 200 people attending. "There's a frustration with not being heard. There's morale problems among priests and laity who don't feel empowered."
Mary Beth Stein told the archbishop that the sex abuse scandal, clerical coverup and financial woes were among burning issues the next archbishop must address.
"There's a strong sense of polarization in this archdiocese," said Stein, of Shoreview. "We need to find a way to bridge Catholics, from conservative to progressive."
Hebda spent two hours with the group that gathered at tables where they discussed three questions: What are the strengths of the archdiocese? What are its challenges? What should the Vatican consider when appointing a new bishop?
The key recommendations from all seven sessions will be summarized and sent to the Vatican Embassy as it makes its recommendations to Pope Francis.
It's an unusual move, Hebda acknowledged. Ordinary Catholics aren't typically asked their opinions on such matters. The usual process is for the embassy to seek insight into an archbishop appointment by sending questionnaires to local archdiocese leaders, said Hebda.
Both will be done in the St. Paul, where former archbishop John Nienstedt resigned in June after the Ramsey County attorney's office filed criminal charges against the church for failing to protect children.
Hebda said the listening sessions reflect the spirit of the pope, who encouraged bishops who met with him in Washington, D.C., last month "to engage in dialogue."
"We're going to be looking at common themes in these listening sessions," he said, joking that people in this group were the "guinea pigs" testing out the method.
At each listening session, the crowd will be divided into small discussion groups that will offer their input to Hebda.
Archdiocese strengths were first on the docket Monday, and answers were varied: Passionate, educated laity. Strong Catholic schools. Strong social-justice focus. Diverse members who cross differences of race, theology and geography.
"And we're patient," joked one group member.
Emotions ran a little higher when folks laid out the archdiocese's challenges: Church members burned out and pained by the sex abuse scandal. Distrust over financial integrity and church credibility. Lack of recognition of women. Young adults and disaffected Catholics bailing out. Doctrine trumping understanding.
"There's been more promotion of [religious] rites than personal relationships," said Denise Anderson of St. Paul.
When describing preferred traits for the next archbishop, "humility" was mentioned most often. He must be a good listener, knowledgeable about church finance, a "bridge-builder,'' a "communicator," transparent.
"I think what you said will resonate with Pope Francis," Hebda told the group.
Hebda said he spoke with the pope briefly in Washington and asked him to pray for the archdiocese. "It's clear that he understands the urgency of the situation here," said Hebda.
On Tuesday, Hebda will hear from Catholic priests and sisters in St. Paul, and then lay folks at Pax Christi Church in Eden Prairie. The last session is Nov. 4.
Not all Minnesotans are waiting for listening sessions to speak their minds. Hebda joked that the papal envoy in Washington tipped him off that he has already received "more than one or two letters'' from Twin Cities Catholics.
Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511