Archbishop Hebda ‘the type of person you wish would become a priest’

| May 9, 2016 | 0 Comments
Archbishop Bernard Hebda as a young priest in an undated photo. Courtesy the Diocese of Gaylord

Archbishop Bernard Hebda as a young priest in an undated photo. Courtesy the Diocese of Gaylord

When Archbishop Bernard Hebda was a child, he thought he might spend his adult life behind a steering wheel.

“Early on, I thought I wanted to be a bus driver,” said the archbishop, who will be installed the archbishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis May 13.

But, that career option was only a momentary diversion from a path toward the priesthood that began in Brookline, his boyhood neighborhood in Pittsburgh, in a home that was considered a hub on Milan Avenue.

“Everybody loved his family,” said longtime friend Father Tim Whalen, pastor at St. Mary of the Assumption in Glenshaw, Pennsylvania, just north of Pittsburgh. “His home on that street was like Grand Central Station because of Bernie and his brothers and his sister and even his mom and dad. Everybody loved to sit at that kitchen table and talk to his mom. Everybody was welcome. It was just a wonderful, wonderful family.”

It was that family that created ideal soil for both a vocation and a warm personality to grow, Father Whalen said. When Archbishop Hebda was in high school, Father Whalen, who is 10 years older, was already a seminarian, one of about a dozen to come from Resurrection parish in Brookline, where the Hebdas and Whalens were members.

Seminarians routinely came to the church for service opportunities. Father Whalen noticed a teen who tagged along.

“Bernie would show up at these things and then invite me to come to his house afterwards,” Father Whalen recalled. “Everybody was coming to get something to eat at his house. That’s how I got to know Bernie, through serving together.”

A friendship developed that continues to this day. Father Whalen was ordained in 1978; the two had casual talks about the priesthood. Although Archbishop Hebda considers Father Whalen influential in discerning his vocation, Father Whalen wonders whether the opposite was true.

“He had just a really open, pleasant outgoing personality,” Father Whalen noted. “He was the type of person that you wish would become a priest. He went from high school to Harvard and then he went on to law school. So, I really wondered whether he was even thinking about it [priesthood] anymore.”

He was, although he also could envision himself working as a lawyer, raising a family and serving the Church as a layman. That idea surfaced, even though Archbishop Hebda had thought about being a priest throughout his childhood, thanks in part to a long relationship with the Capuchin Franciscans. He had applied to a minor seminary during high school, but his parents thought he was too young to attend.

The Capuchins encouraged him to seize the opportunity to study at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, rather than entering seminary after high school. There he was active in the Catholic student center and started going to daily Mass.

“I think maybe I had been distracted for a bit, and thinking I could do all these other things to better the world, and was losing sight of the great work a priest can do. When I started going to daily Mass, that renewed my interest in serving as a priest,” he said.

After graduating from Harvard in 1980, he studied law at Columbia University. He passed the bar and went to work for a large law firm in Pittsburgh. But, still feeling the pull toward the priesthood, he enrolled at St. Paul Seminary in Pittsburgh to study philosophy before investing more time in his legal profession.

“At the end of the year, the bishop asked if I would be interested in continuing theology,” Archbishop Hebda said. “I was excited about that and then was very surprised when he decided to send me to Rome, which was a little bit unusual for someone who hadn’t been in the seminary very long. But that was a great experience that really affirmed my own vocational discernment.”

As a student at the Pontifical North American College in Rome, he had the opportunity “to experience the love of St. John Paul,” he said. “Anytime we could, we would go to listen to his homilies or to his gatherings, and that really encouraged me and helped me to solidify my desire to serve the Church as a priest.”

He finished seminary and was ordained a priest July 1, 1989, at St. Paul Cathedral in Pittsburgh by Cardinal Donald Wuerl, who was then bishop of Pittsburgh.

Father Whalen attended a celebration for Archbishop Hebda’s 25th anniversary of ordination in 2014, and will be at Archbishop Hebda’s installation Mass May 13.

“I’ve never been there [to the Twin Cities]; I’m super elated,” Father Whalen said. He also noted another connection to the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis: Archbishop emeritus Harry Flynn, who was rector of Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland, when Father Whalen was a seminarian there.

“His example as my rector was very, very powerful,” Father Whalen said. “To have Bernie, whom I also have the greatest respect for, to succeed him — you just see that as the finger of God.”

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