The road ahead: Q&A with Archbishop Hebda

| Interview by Jessica Trygstad and Maria Wiering | July 10, 2015 | 0 Comments
Archbishop Bernard Hebda is spending his first full week in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis following his appointment as its apostolic administrator in June. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Archbishop Bernard Hebda is spending his first full week in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis following his appointment as its apostolic administrator in June. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

The Catholic Spirit sat down for a wide-ranging interview July 9 with Archbishop Bernard Hebda in his first full week working in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. Pope Francis appointed him the archdiocese’s apostolic administrator after Archbishop John Nienstedt’s June 15 resignation. Archbishop Hebda, 55, is also coadjutor archbishop of Newark, New Jersey. The following is edited for clarity.

Q. Tell us how you’ve spent your time in Minnesota so far.

A. Unfortunately, most of my time has been in meetings. I think that’s natural for a new assignment. It’s a way to meet the staff, a way to meet the people who participate in the boards. Last night was the first time I got to sample some of the fresh air. It was nice just to get out into the city. I was happy to see people. I went out to dinner with a friend near the Cathedral [at W.A. Frost in St. Paul].

Q. Describe yourself. What do you want Catholics to know about your leadership style?

A. My leadership style is still developing. I’ve been a bishop for five years. I was [first] bishop in a very small diocese. It was a great place to begin, but it was such that the bishop was very much like a pastor, so you ended up knowing a lot of people in the diocese. You knew the priests very well. It was a hands-on style of management and leadership. In Newark, it’s a very different experience. I was trying to learn and adapt to a much larger situation with a much bigger staff, and at the same time trying to have contact with the priests and the people in the pew, even though it is a much larger church.

It seems to me that St. Paul and Minneapolis is a little between the two, but much closer to Newark than Gaylord [Michigan]. You have a wonderful staff here. I feel really blessed to be able to work with them, and I look forward to seeing what life is like in the parishes. I haven’t’ done that yet, but I’ve met so many of your priests and been impressed with their dedication. Already I’ve been swamped with letters from people in the pews telling me the wonderful things that have been going on in their communities and their parishes.

Q. What does hearing from Catholics mean to you, since you’re new to the archdiocese? Does that help guide you?

A. Absolutely. I really have had very positive letters so far, and they really speak to the deep level of lay involvement of the Church here. The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis has always been famous for that. I’m happy to see how that’s lived out in 2015. It’s wonderful to note that people in our parishes really love their priests and respect the work they’re doing. Certainly it’s great to recognize the ownership people have of their parishes.

Q. What do you think your welcome Mass on July 12 will offer in that respect?

A. I’m not sure. It obviously gives people a chance to see what I’m like, but I’m much more excited for me to see what the people are like. I’ve had limited experience with the liturgy here in the archdiocese. I celebrated with all of the priests when we were in Rochester, but so far I’ve said Mass for the Mexican sisters [who care for the archbishop’s residence], so it’s been a much smaller experience.

Q. Are you staying in the archbishop’s residence?

A. I am these days. I don’t think I’ll be doing that long term, but it’s really convenient and the sisters who live there need someone to celebrate Mass.

Q. You’ve given us your first impressions of the archdiocese. What are your impressions of the challenges we face?

A. They’re substantial. Many of the challenges are challenges being faced across the country. Some of the letters I got say the priests are overworked and we need more priests. Some are saying we need more priests who speak languages — Spanish, for example. That’s certainly a reality across the country as we try to welcome people who come from so many cultures and really help them to see the Church as being their Church. That’s hard when we don’t have priests or deacons to do that.

A second general challenge in dioceses across the country concerns how it is we keep our young people engaged. In some ways, St. Paul is really well known for some of those programs that really do help keep young people engaged. When I’m in Newark, I live at Seton Hall University, and there we have St. Paul’s Outreach, which is based here in the Twin Cities. To have young people with that sense of being missionaries and with that sense of how important it is to reach out to their peers in a faith context is something I’ve really been impressed by, and I’m excited they grew out of this local Church and are very much a part of life here. Also, [the same] with NET Ministries.

When I was in the Diocese of Gaylord, it was difficult for us to organize events for youth or young adults. [It helped] to be able to have a group like NET come through and bring so much vitality, as they would talk about what life was like in Minnesota, too.

Q. You became the apostolic administrator during unusual circumstances, with the resignations of Archbishop Nienstedt and Bishop Lee Piché. How do those circumstances affect how you plan to lead with the challenges we’re facing?

A. Certainly, the two realities — one, the history that is dealing with the problem of sexual abuse, and, two, the twin problem of dealing also with Reorganization — make this diocese unlike any other in the country for the moment. All over the country and all over the world people are struggling with how it is that we as a Church address the fact that sometimes our priests, sometimes our employees, sometimes those who are involved in ministry in different ways have committed acts of abuse. Certainly, we’re trying to make sure that as best we possibly can we minimize the probability that that would happen in the future. Certainly, all over the country and now, with the initiatives Pope Francis has started, all over the globe, we’re trying to be attentive to child protection, and also provide outreach to those who have been victims of persons ministering in the Church.

I’ve personally been impressed in the short time I’ve been here by the resources that have been committed by the archdiocese to dealing with those challenges. I think bishops and people in the Church and around the country will be learning from St. Paul and Minneapolis best practices that move us forward. [There are] great human resources here — people who are committing a lot of thought, a lot of time, a lot of energy to how it is that we can maintain high standards, how it is that we can protect our children throughout society, and how it is that we can be a source of healing for those who have experienced the tragedy of sexual abuse in their lives.

To be sure, that’s a huge challenge here. In a practical way, that speaks to the huge challenge of Reorganization, which is so often called bankruptcy. It’s a humbling experience for our local Church, but it’s also a moment for us to really regroup and reconsider our priorities and then to have that opportunity for a rebirth. I wouldn’t have anticipated being thrust into a situation like this, but it’s certainly one of extreme importance, and I feel privileged to be part of the whole process of helping the archdiocese emerge from this situation.

Q. When the Holy See appointed you apostolic administrator, did you receive any specific goals for your time here?

A. Not yet. I haven’t. Certainly there might be some down the line, as I try to seek guidance for determining priorities here. Implicitly, there are some priorities that are expressed. When the nuncio [Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano] spoke with me, he said it was going to take a good percentage of my time. Normally, if a bishop is named an administrator in another diocese, it’s his secondary position, and it’s the reverse here in terms of time. I’m really hoping I can use that time well. I’m still trying to work out the schedule. It’s hard when things were already planned both here and in Newark, but I’m hoping I might be able to use that time well to prepare the archdiocese for its next bishop.

Q. You were appointed to Newark as it faced criticism and loss of trust in its leadership over its handling of safe environment policies. What have you learned there that could help this archdiocese?

A. A couple of things. One is the importance of transparency. Secondly, the importance of having good relationships with law enforcement. A third area would be how important it is for a bishop to really know his priests and those involved in ministry. One of the things I’ve also experienced in Newark is how open people are who have suffered abuse to the outreach of the Church, even in painful times. I’ve learned a few things in Newark, but I already know there are things I’ll be bringing from the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis to Newark as well. I think you’ve done an excellent job here of addressing those issues.

Q. What specifically will you take to Newark?

A. They have a great approach here in the sense of involving people in many sectors of archdiocesan administration so that there’s easy communication, and people are aware of what’s going on in the other areas, especially when there are issues. Having that kind of discussion in an intentional way will help us avoid a situation where one person knows one thing suspicious and another person knows another thing that on its own is suspicious but it’s not significant. When you’re able to bring those things together there’s a real potential for being able to avoid problems. Here the archdiocese has been very intentional in doing that. I think that’s terrific. Also, in terms of the resources that are devoted to that area, it’s been good for me to be reminded of how important that is.

Q. What kind of resources?

A. Human resources. To bring in people that are respected on review boards or on staff — that’s certainly going to be a lesson I’m learning here that has such great benefits.

Q. You mentioned transparency. Many Catholics — including the Basilica of St. Mary’s rector Father John Bauer in a recent open letter — have called for the release of the reports related to Archbishop Nienstedt’s investigation and associated costs. What do you think of these requests?

A. I think they’re very reasonable requests. The situation is complex enough that it requires a well thought-out response. I was certainly happy to see that Father Bauer had mentioned the balance of interests that would go into something like that as well. Being able to recognize that those who might have been involved in the investigation and might have provided testimony might have done that with the presumption or the promise that they were speaking confidentially. Those sorts of things we would have to work out.

Q. Do you think that trust can be restored in leadership without the release of those documents or overtures to transparency like that?

A. I think that it’s going to be important for there to be great communication. That is absolutely going to be essential for that rebuilding of trust. That’s going to involve people having a sense of where we are as an archdiocese, but also knowing that we respect individuals as well.

Q. Is there a timeline where people will hear definitively whether or not these documents are going to be made public?

A. It’s certainly a question for us as well. Give me more time to figure out the answer to that. I think your point is good, that there has to be a response — not that it’s going to answer all the questions, but just so we can help clarify just where it is that the archdiocese stands.

Q. Who have you been meeting with in the chancery and what has been the breadth of what you’ve discussed? Where do you begin when you take on a job this large?

A. There are obviously some structures that you find in every diocese — the finance council, the college of consultors. Here in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, [there’s also] the corporate board. I’ve also had the chance to meet with the staff briefly and had a great meeting with the department heads in which I went way over the time allotted to me — not for me to speak, but to hear what’s going on. As I listened to the great things that are being done in Hispanic ministry, for example, I was greatly encouraged.

It really balanced out what we’ve been hearing in terms of bankruptcy — to hear about the great things being done in Hispanic ministry, the groundbreaking things being done in our Catholic schools and in the area of evangelization. It really excited me and gave me a sense of how important it is, even in my small part, that I help the archdiocese to move through this difficult time because the potential is so great here. The desire to build the Church is so great here. It saddens me that we’re not able to do so many of those things because of those difficult challenges that we spoke about before.

Q. What does the collaboration between you and Bishop Andrew Cozzens look like?

A. I can’t tell you that I knew Bishop Cozzens all that well before coming here, but I had a wonderful experience years ago when I was an adjunct spiritual director at a seminary and Bishop Cozzens was part of a retreat team. He wasn’t Bishop Cozzens then, he was Father Cozzens, but already at that time I recognized this was a man of great spiritual depth, a man who loves the priesthood and who loves the Church. When I learned from Archbishop Vigano that I would be coming here, one of the things I was excited about was working with Bishop Cozzens.

I can tell you that in the meetings that we’ve participated in, and certainly in our own discussions, he hasn’t disappointed in the least. It’s wonderful to see how the priests respect him and how he embodies such a wonderful spirit in the archdiocese. He’s obviously had a very difficult time in the duration of time as bishop, and yet he always moves forward with a sense of Christian hope, a sense of confidence that the Holy Spirit guides the Church, and if we always make good decisions in the sense of choosing what’s good and important, that everything else is going to fall into place. I’m very grateful for that opportunity to work with him.

Q. I know you don’t know how long you’ll be here, but what can local Catholics expect from your time here?

A. I hope that I’ll have that opportunity to experience pastoral life here in the archdiocese. I hope that means I get to be in parishes for the celebration of Sunday Mass and those events that are part of life in the parish. Not that I can substitute for the archbishop, but certainly I can show that there’s an interest on the part of our archdiocese in the wonderful work that is going on in our parishes. For most Catholics, the parish is the place where they really experience the life of the Church. Unless we have vibrant parishes, it’s difficult for us to have a healthy Church. I want to be able to encourage that in this interim period so that parishes don’t lose momentum or feel that somehow they’ve been cut off from the rest of the Church.

I really hope that the people of the archdiocese will come to see in the appointment of an apostolic administrator a real sense of concern on the part of the Holy Father for this local Church. Not that I’m such a great contribution to the life here, but the fact that the Holy Father would want there to be an apostolic administrator, and that he would give it the kind of priority to take a coadjutor archbishop from important work somewhere else to bring him here, should be telling the local Church that the Holy Father cares and that he’s very much part of our future and desires the best for the Church.

Q. What would have been the alternative?

A. The rule would be that the college of consultors would elect a diocesan priest as an administrator — which is great and organizationally works fine in the Church. To appoint as an apostolic administrator, especially in this case when you see so many competent priests, [Pope Francis] certainly wasn’t choosing the route of an apostolic administrator because of a lack of confidence in the priestly leadership of the archdiocese, but rather it was that effort to show “I care, I want to walk with you as you go through a difficult time.”

Q. What else do you want Catholics to know about the place where the archdiocese finds itself in 2015?

A. Throughout history the Church has often faced great challenges. Nonetheless, because the Church was instituted by Christ, we know the Church is going to survive, and Christ is going to triumph. Even in those dark times and those difficult moments, we have to have confidence that when we stand with Christ the victory is ours. [We want] to be able to look forward to those times when we’re able to embrace some of those more joyful moments of ecclesial life. Not that dealing with sexual abuse isn’t an important part of the life of the Church — it’s something that we’re always going to have to be attentive to making sure that we do all that we can to prevent child abuse and protect our children. That’s always going to be part of our life as the Church; that’s one of the good things that we’ve learned from this difficult experience. But there are so many other parts of what we need to be doing as Church.

Pope Francis has certainly laid out a very powerful vision for us in his “Joy of the Gospel.” I find it so significant there that he calls all of us — whether we’re bishops, priests or lay faithful — to be missionary disciples, to have that sense of going beyond the doors of the Church and reaching out to a community, and helping people to experience God’s love and God’s mercy.

As I mentioned earlier, I don’t know how long I’ll be here. But if I were a betting man, I’d hope I’d be here as the universal Church begins the Year of Mercy [on Dec. 8, 2015]. I think that’s going to be an exciting time not only here in the archdiocese, but also throughout the world as we really try to make ourselves more aware of God’s mercy in our own lives and find ways to bring others to that same kind of experience. It’s for us to focus on where forgiveness comes from in the life of a Christian, and I think that’s going to be huge here in the archdiocese.

Q. What else do you think will help heal Catholics in our archdiocese, especially in the face of unknowns?

A. It’s a little bit early for me to give a prognosis, but I can tell you my sense is that the archdiocese is already on that path. I don’t have to turn the ship around. It is already moving in the right direction. I just have to make sure that I guide it until the next captain of the ship is able to continue that movement. Having said that, I think for any church, and I think it would be true in the archdiocese as well, working on unity within the presbyterate, working on a spirit of prayer and discernment in our parishes and organizations — those things are going to have benefits to really move us forward. It’s so easy for us to get bogged down in the details of our struggles that we forget the good news of what Christ has done for us, and the joy that should be in our hearts all becomes dimmed. It is especially important to be able to support our priests, who have felt a lot of pressure at this time from their parishioners, [as well as] to encourage that great relationship between the laity and our priests.

 

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