Colleagues: Archbishop Hebda a pastor through and through

| Sam Patet | May 19, 2016 | 0 Comments
As part of a sister-diocese project of the Diocese of Gaylord, then-Bishop Hebda helps deliver water filters to families in a remote area of the Diocese of Matagalpa, Nicaragua. Courtesy the Diocese of Gaylord

As part of a sister-diocese project of the Diocese of Gaylord, then-Bishop Hebda helps deliver water filters to families in a remote area of the Diocese of Matagalpa, Nicaragua. Courtesy the Diocese of Gaylord

Humble. Down to earth. Intelligent. Funny. Prayerful.

Talk to anyone who’s worked with Archbishop Bernard Hebda, and they’re likely to use one of those words to describe him. As a priest and, for the last six-and-a-half years, as a bishop, they say Archbishop Hebda has let his joyful personality guide all his interactions with God’s people.

“Pope Francis used the phrase that the shepherd should smell like the sheep. And I think in Archbishop Hebda, you have one who loves the people, loves the sheep, loves the whole flock,” said Father John Gordon, a priest of the Archdiocese of Newark and director of the archdiocese’s Office for Evangelization.

He first met Archbishop Hebda more than 30 years ago, when they both were seminarians at the Pontifical North American College in Rome.

Bishop David Zubik of Pittsburgh, who was a priest of the Pittsburgh diocese with Archbishop Hebda before they were made bishops, said the archbishop “is in every sense of the word [a] pastor.”

“The foundation for everything that he does as a canon lawyer and a civil lawyer is, in fact, his love of people,” he said.

Archbishop Hebda’s love for people didn’t materialize out of thin air. It was something he nurtured throughout his priesthood.

Between 1990 and 1992, he served as master of ceremonies for then-Bishop Donald Wuerl, now a cardinal. While other men might have viewed it as an administrative job, Archbishop Hebda didn’t, Bishop Zubik said. He made “everyone feel important, beginning with the servers who were there, all the liturgical ministers who were being assistants.”

Archbishop Hebda’s concern for people continued when he was made bishop of the Diocese of Gaylord in 2009. Sister Rita Epple, a member of the Sisters of Mercy, first met him the day before his episcopal ordination.

“You know you sometimes meet people and you click? Well, this is kind of what happened here: We clicked,” she said.

As pastoral administrator of a small parish in Metz, Michigan, Sister Rita sometimes had difficulty securing a priest for the church’s 7:45 a.m. Sunday Mass. So in January 2010 when she needed a priest, she decided to see if then-Bishop Hebda was available. To her surprise and great delight, he was.

Bishop Bernard Hebda of Gaylord, Michigan, ordains Father Brian Medlin a transitional deacon in 2012 (above) and a priest in 2013. Courtesy the Diocese of Gaylord.

Bishop Bernard Hebda of Gaylord, Michigan, ordains Father Brian Medlin
a transitional deacon in 2012 (above) and a priest in 2013. Courtesy the Diocese of Gaylord.

Over the next several years, Archbishop Hebda made it a point to visit Metz every January. He endeared himself to the congregation with his warmth, friendliness and relatable homilies.

Archbishop Hebda not only cares for the lay faithful of his diocese, but he also has a special love for his priests, those who know him say. Bishop Zubik discovered this when, at Archbishop Hebda’s invitation, he led a retreat for the priests of Gaylord.

“They all shared with me in no uncertain terms their great love for Archbishop Bernie,” he said.

One of those priests was Father Peter Wigton, whom Archbishop Hebda ordained in 2012.

“From the moment that I met him, the word ‘humility’ really struck me,” he said. He is “a very simple, humble, yet joyful man.”

One of the ways Archbishop Hebda’s humility is manifested is in his willingness to consult others.

“He’s just very deferential to so many people,” Bishop Zubik said.

People saw this at work in the Diocese of Gaylord. Then-Bishop Hebda held listening sessions when he first arrived, so he could learn more about the diocese, Sister Rita said. And even when he had an idea of what direction the diocese should go, he didn’t implement changes in isolation. Instead, he acted like yeast, Father Wigton said, leading others in a more hidden way.

With his skills and talents, Sister Rita knew Archbishop Hebda wouldn’t be long in Gaylord.

“We knew with his background and with his intelligence and his skills . . . Gaylord wasn’t going to keep him long, even though he thought he’d be there for a lifetime,” Sister Rita said.

On Sept. 24, 2013, Pope Francis named Archbishop Hebda coadjutor archbishop of the Archdiocese of Newark. No longer was he serving 66,000 Catholics spread across 11,171 square miles, but instead, 1.3 million Catholics across 513 square miles.

Yet, despite moving from a rural diocese to a metropolitan one, he continued to let his down-to-earth personality shine through.

“He comes to Newark, and now it’s a whole different kind of relationship that we’re going to have. We’re not seminarian buddies, but rather, he’s the archbishop and I’m one of the priests in his diocese,” Father Gordon said. “And yet, I never experienced him in a sense of, ‘OK, now I’m the boss.’ I just experienced him coming to know me better, and as he came to know me, to encourage me in the position that I now have. And it was just a great encouragement for me, a tremendous blessing.”

As Archbishop Hebda begins his permanent role in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, he’ll have a lot of decisions to make, not least of which will concern the archdiocese’s continued efforts to establish safe environments for children and address the pain of clergy sexual abuse.

But as he did both in Gaylord and Newark, those who’ve seen his leadership firsthand say he’ll let his humility and genuine concern for God’s people guide all his decisions.

“One of the most important roles of a bishop is to help build up people’s trust in the Church, because people’s faith has been shaken by some of the things that have occurred,” Bishop Zubik said, referring to the sex abuse scandals of the past decades. “Just by his down-to-earth, very direct, very sincere, very spiritual manner in which he leads, I think he’s going to be able to rebuild the Church of Minneapolis-St. Paul.”

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Category: Featured, Welcome Archbishop Hebda