‘His hobby is people’

| Christina Capecchi | July 1, 2015 | 1 Comment

Archbishop Hebda, a shepherd living among the flock

Archbishop Hebda and a priest pose for a photo Nov. 5, 2013, following a Mass of welcome for Archbishop Hebda at the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Newark. Archbishop Hebda, recently named apostolic administrator for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, had been bishop of Gaylord before Pope Francis appointed him coadjutor of Newark, where he automatically succeeds Archbishop John Myers, upon his retirement or death. CNS

Archbishop Hebda and a priest pose for a photo Nov. 5, 2013, following a Mass of welcome for Archbishop Hebda at the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Newark. Archbishop Hebda, recently named apostolic administrator for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, had been bishop of Gaylord before Pope Francis appointed him coadjutor of Newark, where he automatically succeeds Archbishop John Myers, upon his retirement or death. CNS

Months after newly elected Pope Francis moved into a modest Vatican guesthouse in lieu of the Apostolic Palace, Newark’s new coadjutor, Archbishop Bernard Hebda, made a similar choice, declining a comfortable seminary residence and settling into a one-bedroom dorm.

“It’s a dormitory,” said Peter DeMarais, who was also living at Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey, at the time and now serves as associate mission center director of St. Paul’s Outreach in Minnesota. “It’s not mahogany. It has that white carpet that’s never really white but kind of brown-gray.”

Archbishop Hebda embraces Pope Francis’ exhortation that priests be “shepherds living with the smell of the sheep,” several people close to the archbishop told The Catholic Spirit. For the Pennsylvania native with blue-collar roots and a Harvard education, a man who became a lawyer before he entered seminary, dorm living was an attractive alternative.

It meant he got to rub elbows with students every morning while he waited in line for coffee at the campus Dunkin’ Donuts and hear about their days when he joined them for night prayer in Xavier Hall.

This is a bishop who loves to be among the people — slipping into a table in the back corner of a reception hall rather than the reserved seat up front, sliding into a shadowed pew at Mass rather than concelebrating on the altar, joining a group of catechists at a picnic after completing his many duties.

“His hobby is people,” said Father Louis Vallone, who is pastor of two parishes in the Pittsburgh diocese and has known Archbishop Hebda since he was a seminarian in the mid-’80s. “His ambition was always simply to be a pastor. Everything that’s in his portfolio is not what he sought out but what, as a good son of the Church, he responded to when asked.”

Archbishop Bernard Hebda greets a young girl when the cathedral in Gaylord, Michigan, was dedicated to St. Mary, Our Lady of Mount Carmel July 16, 2012. Courtesy the Diocese of Gaylord

Archbishop Bernard Hebda greets a young girl when the cathedral in Gaylord, Michigan, was dedicated to St. Mary, Our Lady of Mount Carmel July 16, 2012. Courtesy the Diocese of Gaylord

Perpetual student

When you’re around him, lay Catholics say, you forget he’s an archbishop; his self-deprecating humor and warm demeanor melt your inhibitions. He jokes about his weight and banters about the New York Mets. “He’s so funny you feel like he’s been your friend for 20 years,” said Carla Repollet, executive director of Newark’s development and stewardship office. “You want to tease him back.”

But he doesn’t skate by on charm. He does his homework. In a meeting on his first day as Newark’s coadjutor, Archbishop Hebda shared statistics on archdiocesan seminarians, recalled Newark Auxiliary Bishop Manuel Cruz. “He’s a man who takes things very seriously and pays attention and learns,” he said, adding that Archbishop Hebda is sensitive to other cultures and reads Spanish in a superb Mexican accent.

The archbishop’s humility and curiosity make him a perpetual student. He once asked a biology major at Seton Hall University to weigh in on a New York Times article he had read on genetics. As bishop of Gaylord, Michigan, he secured a grant to enroll his priests in the Catholic Leadership Institute’s “Good Leaders, Good Shepherds” training program and attended all but one of the 28 sessions with them. The night of his sole missed session, he asked an instructor to brief him on what was covered.

Career snapshotBorn in 1959, Archbishop Bernard Hebda grew up in Pittsburgh, earned a political science degree from Harvard and then studied law at Columbia. After working as an attorney for a year, he entered seminary, receiving most of his formation at the North American College in Rome.

He was ordained in 1989 for Pittsburgh and soon returned to Rome to finish studies in canon law. By 1990 he was back in Pittsburgh, and in the following six years gained a range of experience, from parish and college ministry to a role in the diocesan tribunal.

He returned to Rome in 1996 to work at the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, which interprets the Church’s laws. He was named the council’s undersecretary in 2003. Six years later, he was installed as bishop of Gaylord, Michigan, and then in 2013 was named coadjutor archbishop of Newark, positioned to lead the diocese upon the retirement of 73-year-old Archbishop John Myers.

Putting others at ease

Archbishop Hebda was ordained a priest in 1989 by then-Bishop of Pittsburgh Donald Wuerl, who is now a cardinal and head of the Archdiocese of Washington. Cardinal Wuerl tapped him to be the face of the diocese in 1990 by serving as master of ceremonies for liturgical events such as confirmations.

Archbishop Hebda mingles with parishioners, including this young boy, from throughout the Diocese of Gaylord. He traveled to Gaylord to be in the grand parade for Alpenfest in 2012. Courtesy the Diocese of Gaylord

Archbishop Hebda mingles with parishioners, including this young boy, from throughout the Diocese of Gaylord. He traveled to Gaylord to be in the grand parade for Alpenfest in 2012. Courtesy the Diocese of Gaylord

“He has the warmest sense of humor. He’s just nice to people,” Cardinal Wuerl said. “When the bishop comes to the parish for a confirmation or some parish celebration, people tend to be a little nervous because they want everything to work just perfectly, and [then] Father Hebda had a way of making them feel at ease and letting them know everything was fine.”

Cardinal Wuerl said he enjoyed the priest’s company as they drove around the diocese and his ability to sniff out a good frozen-custard joint on the way home. The fact that he was not legalistic or bookish but such a people person is why the cardinal encouraged him to study canon law in Rome, completing a licentiate at the Pontifical Gregorian University in 1990.

“You precisely want someone who doesn’t see the law as the end in itself,” Cardinal Wuerl told The Catholic Spirit, “but the law is supposed to be something that helps all of us. The pope keeps saying, ‘Law without mercy really isn’t the law.’”

Those who have watched Archbishop Hebda up close praise his ability to gather and process information. “He had a nice way of reminding me from time to time that he had a different view on something,” Cardinal Wuerl said. “He’d be able to say, ‘You know, there’s another way to see that.’ I always welcomed that, because I always found that very helpful.”

Father Vallone echoes that observation: “He thinks everything through. He’s very open to any input from any direction. And people will open up to him because he has that inviting personality. But then when he takes it in, he will sit down and use his not inconsiderable brainpower to organize, to sort through, to prioritize, then he’ll use his pastoral heart in responding to it. You get the complete package from him.”

Archbishop Hebda blesses a baby in the Diocese of Matagalpa, Nicaragua, during a trip to the country while serving as bishop of the Diocese of Gaylord. Courtesy the Diocese of Gaylord

Archbishop Hebda blesses a baby in the Diocese of Matagalpa, Nicaragua, during a trip to the country while serving as bishop of the Diocese of Gaylord. Courtesy the Diocese of Gaylord

Collaborative style

As an archdiocesan employee in Newark, Repollet found him a true collaborator, never an adversary. “He’ll say, ‘These are just suggestions, but this is how I feel about what was written,’” she said. She describes him as a leader who is thoughtful and thorough.

“Sometimes he’ll just pop into my office and say, ‘You know what, I was thinking more about this or that, and why don’t we do it that way?’ He’ll bring a different perspective,” she said. “Our development work has many layers, and I think he understands all those layers.”

At one parish gathering, Repollet said Archbishop Hebda offered to field people’s questions about Catholicism and made the rounds, table by table, making them comfortable asking anything and offering explanations that were charitable and clear. “He’s willing to sit down and have those deep conversations and say, ‘Whether you agree or not. . . .”

In doing so, Repollet said, he transcends liberal or conservative labels and brings healing to an increasingly polarized Church. She recalled a press conference where a reporter seemed to bait him by asking how he differed from his predecessor, Archbishop John Myers. His response: “I like to eat more than Archbishop Myers.”

He diffuses tension with humor but never sugar coats, Repollet added. As a preacher, Father Vallone said, he’s not afraid to challenge.

“He understands that preaching the Gospel has to involve the heart and the soul and the mind of a person, so when he preaches, he’s aiming for response, not acceptance,” he said. “That’s the difference in teaching and preaching. When you teach, you’re aiming for acceptance in what you’re teaching. When you’re preaching you aim for response.”

All those talents equip him well to guide the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis through a difficult juncture, Cardinal Wuerl said.

“I think the people of St. Paul-Minneapolis, when they come to know Archbishop Hebda, are going to see in him a real shepherd whom they can love,” he said.

“He’ll bring the healing and the grace,” Father Vallone said. “He’ll set you up for it. He’s the perfect choice for what you need at this moment.”


Coming full circle with St. Paul’s Outreach

When Peter DeMarais met Archbishop Bernard Hebda in 2013, the graduate student introduced himself as a missionary with a Catholic formation program called St. Paul’s Outreach.

Not only did the name ring a bell with the archbishop, but the face also did.

“Oh, I remember you,” Archbishop Hebda replied. “You were on that retreat!”

That retreat had taken place in 2007, “Fan into Flame,” a St. Paul’s Outreach service led by the SPO lay team — then 19-year-old DeMarais among them — for some 200 seminarians, transitional deacons and priests in Rome. DeMarais, a lifelong parishioner of St. Louis, King of France in St. Paul and a 2011 graduate of the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, was floored that the archbishop remembered him.

Newark’s new coadjutor archbishop had participated in two SPO retreats during his time in Rome and expressed his appreciation for a retreat led by lay people offered for clergy. Once installed in Newark, he proceeded to be an enthusiastic SPO supporter, attending two benefits and visiting the men’s house for a steak dinner.

“It was like talking to a friend,” DeMarais said of his visit. “It was easy for the guys to see a holy life in a very personal way. There never was the pomp that is associated with a bishop.”

Now that Archbishop Hebda is serving the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, he finds himself in the city where SPO was founded and remains headquartered.

“It’s one of those connections you never could’ve planned, but I guess the Spirit is moving,” said Edward Moccia, senior mission director for St. Paul’s Outreach New Jersey.

The archbishop has a heart for college students, Moccia said. “I think he knows it’s an important time in a young person’s life.”

When they last met, Archbishop Hebda asked Moccia if SPO did any post-college work, perceiving the need to guide Catholics in their mid- and late-20s as they discern their vocations and set out to fulfill them.

In his characteristic good humor, the archbishop also teased the young dad when he learned that his office is bare bones and utilitarian, without a single photo. Moccia recalled Archbishop Hebda’s response: “You don’t have a picture of your kids in your office? I have a picture of your kids! I have your Christmas card on my desk!”

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  • Dottie Johnson

    Archbishop Hebda sounds like an extraordinary person as well as our future leader in faith. As a congregation, we can celebrate our good fortune.