On March 22, Archbishop Bernard Hebda received a call from Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, the papal nuncio to the United States, with the news that Pope Francis had appointed him archbishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis.
The news was a shock, he said. As coadjutor archbishop of Newark, New Jersey, he had never seriously entertained the idea of being appointed to the vacant see in Minnesota, although he has served as apostolic administrator of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis since the resignation of Archbishop John Nienstedt in June 2015. Archbishop Hebda will be installed archbishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis at a Mass May 13. Until then, he remains the archdiocese’s apostolic administrator. He spoke with The Catholic Spirit as the news broke. The following has been edited for length and clarity.
Q. What was your reaction when you received the news you had been named our archbishop?
A. My reaction was one of shock for a number of reasons. First of all, that the Holy Father would have that kind of confidence in me. Second, he had already given me the responsibility of preparing to lead the Archdiocese of Newark. Third, that things were moving so quickly. I had just been in Rome this weekend, and there were lots of people offering suggestions about who might be the next archbishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis. That certainly made today’s appointment all the more unusual.
Q. You learned of the appointment March 22, and the Holy See announced it two days later, a faster time line than usual. Why the urgency?
A. I think the Holy Father really wanted to show his closeness to the archdiocese, which was going to have to go through the Triduum without an archbishop. While that’s still going to happen, because I’m not the archbishop until the installation Mass on May 13, the Holy Father’s action was a great encouragement to me and resolved the unsettling uncertainty that so often reigns in the vacant see.
The nuncio thought it would be a beautiful opportunity for the announcement to be made on Holy Thursday, when we focus on the Eucharist, when we focus on the priesthood and when we focus on service. He said those three themes are so important in the life of any diocesan bishop.
Q. What do those themes mean to you in light of this appointment?
A. First, it’s the Eucharist that brings us together. The word that we use, Communion, is a word that expresses what the Eucharist does: it affects our community, it brings about our unity. The bishop is called to be that source of unity in his local Church, and where that takes place is at the table of the Lord.
Second, in terms of priesthood, I certainly look forward to the opportunity to work with the wonderful group of priests that we find in the archdiocese. I was recently at the ordination of a bishop, and the rite speaks about the special relationship between the bishop and his priests. Here in the archdiocese, we celebrate the chrism Mass where the priests renew their priestly commitment the week before Holy Week. But in many places, and traditionally, it would have been celebrated on Holy Thursday. So today is very much a celebration of the priesthood and of that bond that unites bishop and priest. We believe that just as the Eucharist was instituted on Holy Thursday, so, too, was the priesthood. I think that’s a very significant context for today’s appointment.
Third, as will be evident in all of our parishes around the archdiocese with the washing of the feet, all of us are called to serve. Our Lord came to serve rather than be served, and a Holy Thursday nomination is a wonderful reminder for a new archbishop that it’s all about service.
Q. There is a sense that the appointment took longer than it should have. What’s your take?
A. It really didn’t take longer than what an appointment normally takes. Here there’s a sense of urgency because of some of the challenges that we’re facing. All along, I was thinking that it would be nice for us to have somebody on site by the Triduum, but at the same time, the common wisdom was that it would be unusual for the Holy See to remove a bishop from his own diocese right before Easter. All of those things made today’s announcement very surprising.
Q. You’re also taking this role in the Year of Mercy. What does that mean for you?
A. I think that the Year of Mercy has provides a great context for the conferral of these new responsibilities and has prepared me to welcome them. It’s comforting to know that it’s the same Lord who has shown me his tender mercy who, through Pope Francis, is now asking me to accept these responsibilities. The Holy Father has been speaking a lot about how bishops need to be instruments of mercy, and he certainly has given that as a real focus for the ministry of a diocesan bishop. I’ve had the wonderful opportunity here already of being part of 24 Hours for the Lord and the other initiatives we’ve been doing for the Year of Mercy, and it’s been a wonderful way for me to prepare my heart to recognize that the God who asks us to do the unexpected is a loving God who loves us with a father’s tenderness.
Q. In your time as apostolic administrator, how do you characterize your work?
A. Unfortunately, because of the necessity of splitting time between here and Newark and because of the challenges that are here, especially the legal challenges, it seems like so much of the time that I have spent here has been devoted to meetings. I’ve had the opportunity to visit some of the schools in the archdiocese and celebrate Mass at some of our parishes, but not at nearly the number I would love to do if I had been the full-time administrator or if I had known I was going to be here for a much longer time. Even though I’ll certainly miss the Church of Newark and the wonderful opportunities for service there, I am grateful that I will no longer have to split my attention and my time.
Q. Since your appointment in June, a lot has happened in the archdiocese regarding the criminal and civil charges and the bankruptcy. In terms of these more difficult things, where do you think we are now compared to when you started?
A. It’s still a long road that’s ahead of us. We’ve been plodding along like the Little Engine That Could, trying to deal with all of these things in a positive way that reflects who we are as Church. I suspect that other people would be the better judge for how we’ve done, but I can attest that I have experienced a lot of cooperation and even some affirmation. When we entered into the settlement agreement for the civil charges, for example, I had the sense that many people in the archdiocese thought that we were moving in the right direction even though there’s still much that needs to be worked out.
Q. Where do you think we are in terms of handling claims of clergy sex abuse?
A. I think that the archdiocese already has a very effective team and protocols for addressing these issues in a way that certainly appreciates the urgency of protecting children, but also in a way that respects the importance of acting in conjunction with our Church’s understanding of the priesthood and of the dignity of each human life. I would think that our team, whether we’re speaking about staff or the Ministerial Review Board, is as good as any in the country, if not in the world. And I have great confidence in them as they engage in very difficult work in a way that both appreciates the importance of what they’re doing and reflects a great love for the Church and those who serve in the Church.
Q. Last fall you held listening sessions with the intention of gathering information for the next archbishop. What did you learn and how will that information shape your leadership here?
A. The first thing that I learned was that we have a very involved laity in this Church that have a broad array of opinions, but always a great love for the Church and a desire to be part of her future. I was amazed at how easily and how well people articulated their ideas about the strengths and weaknesses of this local Church, and even their hopes for the Church to come. That demonstrated to me that people had already reflected on those issues. There is a deep appreciation for the history of this local Church and great pride in our educational institutions, charitable outreach and social justice. I thought all of those things were constants in each of the listening sessions. In some ways, there was a real uniformity of what was voiced, even though it reflected a great diversity as well.
Q. The other intention was to send the information to Pope Francis to help him make his decision about the new archbishop. How do you think that information impacted his appointment of you?
A. Remembering the qualities that people had indicated that they would be looking for in their next archbishop, I’m somewhat intimidated to have been even considered for the post. I remember at one of the sessions, somebody, after hearing all of the characteristics that people were looking for in their next bishop, said, “Basically you want this person to be able to walk on water.” And somebody else piped in, “Well, at least not to drown.” I’m hoping I can at least tread water and try to respond to those expectations.
Q. How has your work as apostolic administrator paved the way for your new role here? What advantages are there to this unusual transition?
A. It’s not all that different from my other experience — of being a coadjutor. But as a coadjutor, you have a sense that you’re there to stay. I was wrong [laughs]. And here, in contrast, I had a sense that I wasn’t here to stay, and I was wrong. But I think in both areas, what’s really helpful is that there is the opportunity to really get to know a staff, you get to know a little bit about parish life, and you get some insight into what people’s hopes and expectations are. You get to understand somewhat the lay of the land. So, in many ways, I’m really grateful for the opportunity I’ve had here in the past eight and a half months or so to really get to know this Church. And to know that when I’ll actually take possession of the archdiocese in May, that I’ll already have a basic knowledge of the life of the Church here. Hopefully, that will enable me to hit the ground running.
Q. How will your role change — or will it — when you actually become our archbishop?
A. I think it will change, for a couple of reasons; first of all, just in terms of focus. The role of the apostolic administrator is basically to keep things moving forward. He’s not supposed to be an innovator, he’s supposed to maintain the good things that have already been going on in the local Church. I would think that the mindset of a permanent bishop would be very different.
I also think that having more time here will give me that opportunity to come to know the people of the archdiocese even better and to have a better sense of our parishes and schools and institutions, and also to have a better sense for the broader civic community. I haven’t had the chance to get to know all of the issues in our communities, and I know that always takes time. But now that I know I’m here to stay and that you’re stuck with me for the next 19 years, I think I’ll be much more interested in everything that’s going on — not just in the Twin Cities, but throughout the state and certainly throughout the counties of this archdiocese.
Q. What things do you want to do as archbishop that you haven’t been able to do in your interim role?
A. I think to be able to spend more time in our parishes, and to have that opportunity to be more of a support to our parish leaders, whether they be priests or lay leaders, just to be able to deal with those aspects of our local life that aren’t crisis-centered. I look forward to that for sure.
I’ve already been very impressed with what I’ve seen in our Catholic schools and in the extent of support there is for maintaining those wonderful educational institutions, and I’m looking forward to becoming more involved in that.
Q. How might your priorities change?
A. I think it’s moving from crisis and immediate needs to more long-range planning. So, it’s the difference between running a sprint and running a marathon. In the time that I’ve been here, I’ve been trying not to harm the Church. But I think that the priority of moving forward has to be rather different: How do we really help the Church to grow? How do we help the Church to develop? How do we position ourselves to continue to be able to spread the Gospel of Christ to our grandchildren and their children and their children’s children?
Q. You remain apostolic administrator until the installation. How does this appointment affect your interim work, and what do you have to wrap up in Newark?
A. I have to figure that out, to be honest with you, because I have a good number of commitments there in the next few weeks — confirmations, parish anniversaries and the like — so we’ll have to find some way of getting them to be covered. I’ve been really blessed that Archbishop [John] Myers has been very understanding of the responsibilities that I was given here as apostolic administrator. And he has very graciously freed me from a lot of the administrative responsibilities in Newark. So in some ways, that makes it easier, from an administrative point of view, to make this move, make this transition. Certainly, it will be very difficult in terms of the wonderful friendships that I’ve been blessed with in Newark and some of the projects that were more long-range that I’ll be leaving behind. But at the same time, I have confidence that the Holy Spirit continues to work in the Church and certainly through Pope Francis, and so I’m trusting that there’s some reason why I’m going to be spending those next 19 years here instead of in the Archdiocese of Newark.
Q. Do you have any sense of what this means for Newark yet?
A. I really don’t. Archbishop Myers turns 75 at the end of July, and canon law requires that at that time he has to submit his letter of resignation. So, I’m sure that, freed up from the responsibility of finding the next archbishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis, now the nuncio and the congregation for bishops and Pope Francis will be able to turn their attention to finding a great bishop for Newark.
Q. Obviously, your residence is for sale. Do you know where you might live?
A. I’ll continue to live here [the archbishop’s residence in the chancery] as we consider some options for what would be the best place.
Q. With the bouncing back and forth between Newark and here, has St. Paul started to feel like home at all? What has contributed to that?
A. People have been very kind; that’s helped. There are some similarities to Pittsburgh, my home. That has also made it easy. I realize, however, that there’s so much of the archdiocese that I haven’t seen. I’ve had some experience, when I was in northern Michigan, of rural life. But there’s none of that in Newark, and so I look forward to experiencing our smaller communities and smaller parishes as well. And I know that’s a very important part of life here.
Q. Have you discovered any local favorites, such as restaurants, that can help make it feel like home?
A. Because I lived in Italy for so many years, I have a real love for anything that’s Italian. And I must admit that I didn’t have high hopes for anything this far beyond the Atlantic Coast. Newark has a huge Italian community, and I kind of thought that once I got beyond that area, there would be no hope for Italian food. I have been pleased to discover that there are plenty of great pizzerias here, and many could attest to the fact that I have been sampling these wonderful options throughout this area. And I’m looking forward to exploring more.
Going beyond Italian food, I finally went with some priest friends from out of town to Mickey’s Diner in downtown St. Paul. It was a wonderful experience. I was told it was quintessentially St. Paul, and it didn’t disappoint.
Q. What do you want Catholics to know about this appointment?
A. Just that I hope they’ll be patient with me as I continue to learn about the archdiocese. I want them to know that even though the assignment wasn’t anything that I anticipated, that I have great confidence in Pope Francis and his openness to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, and that I’m really looking forward to this new chapter in my relationship with this Church. And I think especially, I’d like the people of the archdiocese to know how excited I am to be part of the rebuilding as we transition, even physically from this position on Summit [Avenue] to something completely different, and as we eventually move out of bankruptcy and beyond the criminal charges [in Ramsey County].
Q. What short- and long-term goals do you have?
A. The primary short-term goal is to get to know the archdiocese better — most especially, parishes — and to have a better appreciation for the breadth of the diocese. So I hope that I get lots of invitations to visit parishes.
In terms of long-term goals, I certainly want to continue to build upon those strengths that were so readily identified in the listening sessions, and to find ways of continuing our great educational outreach and our social outreach, which is certainly in line with the priorities set by Pope Francis. I was blessed to be in Rome for the first Mass of Pope Francis’ pontificate and heard firsthand his often-cited comment that he wanted us to be a poor Church for the poor. And so I look forward to unpacking that with this Church. As I said, there’s already a rich tradition here of social action and of drawing the connection between liturgy and social action. Also as a long-term goal, I’m embracing Pope Francis’ call for us to be missionary disciples, helping this local Church to continue to grow in its role as an evangelizing church — in our outreach to those who have no faith, our outreach to those who have drifted or who feel alienated, our outreach to the young, and our outreach to the new immigrants who, like me, find this part of the world as their new home.
Q. How do you think you might go about achieving your goals? How much will you rely on the lay faithful or different partners?
A. One of the benefits I’ve had is that I realize there are already great structures for collaboration here and that there are so many people interested in educating the new archbishop about the life of this local Church and who are ready to be partners and collaborators in those great missionary efforts that the Church is called to embrace. And so I find comfort in the fact that I don’t have to do it alone. I’ve found myself in a situation from day one where there was a great deal of collaboration among staff here at the archdiocese. I’ve had some opportunities to work with our college of consulters, with our archdiocesan finance council, with our corporate board, and I know all three of those structures can be very effective in helping a new bishop to get a sense for what has to be done.
One of the things in a sede vacante period is that you don’t have a presbyteral council, so I haven’t had the chance yet to see how that works. But a number of the priests encouraged me to meet with the deans unofficially in place of the presbyteral council, so that’s given me a somewhat better understanding of what incredible talent we have here in this local Church and how willing people are to collaborate for the attainment of common goals.
Q. What are you most looking forward to in your new role?
A. At the moment, one of the things is trying to discern why God and his Church have called me here — to see how I might be of some help to this local Church. That’s not just the general question about “why be a priest?” or “why serve as bishop?” but rather, “why has the Holy Father and the Church asked me to be the archbishop of this local Church?” I’m hoping there are some talents, skills or experiences that I have that maybe I haven’t even seen that will later prove to be of some service to this local Church and the future that we have together.
Cardinal Newman has that great meditation that begins “God has created me to do him some definite service.” Basically he goes on to say, “I may not know it in this life, but I’ll know it in the next.” But for me, I’ve always really appreciated getting just some glimpse into the “why.” All of us have such complicated lives, yet there’s not one part of it that the Lord doesn’t know or love or use. I remember early on when I first entered seminary, I thought I must have wasted time in law school and while working as a lawyer. Who would’ve ever guessed I would be sent to an archdiocese where there are some legal issues? And while I certainly am not now engaging in the practice of law, that background surely helps me to appreciate what other people are doing for the Church.
Q. What will your greatest challenges be, then?
A. I think the greatest challenges will be patience with myself and others, [and] living up to the incredible history of this local Church. As I hear about Archbishop [John] Ireland, as I consider all of the incredible things that have been done by the Catholics in this part of Minnesota, I certainly want to be able to move that forward in some humble way and to build upon that great foundation. I consider it a privilege to be doing it, but at the same time it’s a challenge because I don’t want to in any way impede this Church from that great trajectory of service and of giving witness to Christ’s presence in the world.
Q. What gives you hope for the future of our local Church?
A. I would point to the educated and committed laity, I would think of the Church’s attentiveness to the needs of our young people: young adults, high school students, grade school students. I get excited when I look at some of the outreach efforts that go on in our colleges and universities, as well at something like Theology on Tap for our young adults. When I see the great response, I know that there’s an incredible future here in the archdiocese.
Q. Your installation Mass will be May 13, the feast of Our Lady of Fatima. Does the feast day have any significance for you personally?
A. I was in Fatima [Portugal] just last year, just about this time, and I found it to be a place of great peace and great encouragement. Certainly knowing that Our Lady is so involved and so interested, with a mother’s love, in everything that goes on in our lives is comforting for me. Not that being a shepherd here in the archdiocese is exactly like being a shepherd in Fatima, but it’s certainly significant to me that the visionaries in Fatima were children tending their sheep and that Our lady was so tender with them. And I’m hoping she’s going to guide me as well as I’m striving to really embrace the responsibilities that come with being the archbishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis.
Q. How do you feel about this appointment?
A. I have great confidence in God’s love, and so I’m exited about the challenge, and I’m really delighted to be able to serve wherever the Church asks me to serve.
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