Leading ‘the Church that Christ wants us to be’

| May 20, 2016 | 0 Comments
Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

A month before his installation as Archbishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis, Archbishop Bernard Hebda sat down with The Catholic Spirit for a broad interview. He spoke about his mentors, his life before the seminary, and his hopes and prayers for the archdiocese. The interview was edited for length and clarity.

Interview by Jessica Trygstad and Maria Wiering

Q. You’ve had a few weeks to process this appointment. What are your hopes and expectations now?

A. I certainly hope I’m going to be able to live up to expectations. I’ve really been overwhelmed by the amount of support that I’ve received, certainly the excitement about starting something new. It’s awfully hard to be leaving Newark and the people there who were so welcoming to me, but I’m truly excited about being here. And I have been trying to get my head around some of the immediate challenges that we have before us and trying to get everything ready for May 13.

Q. How do you see your role in the archdiocese beyond the Catholic community?

A. Interesting that you would ask that because I know that’s one of the things I haven’t really been able to address very much as the administrator, because I didn’t have the time. But I’m really anxious to get to know the people who are beyond our Catholic community and to see how it is we might together play a role in continuing the really great community that I’ve already experienced here. But I desire to know more.

Dianne Towalski/For The Catholic Spirit

Dianne Towalski/For The Catholic Spirit

Q. Who was your most significant mentor?

A. I had some really wonderful teachers, both in grade school and in high school. And I would say that they were the people who really encouraged me to try to excel academically and also just to get involved in all kinds of different activities. And it’s interesting, too, because you don’t always appreciate things when you’re experiencing them. One of the toughest teachers I had in grade school ended up being a real inspiration to me later in life. She was a Sister of Charity, very selfless in her ministry [with a] real attentiveness to the poor, focusing especially on the plight of migrant workers. I feel blessed to have re-connected with her at the end of high school and then was blessed to work with her years later in parish ministry.

Q. How does having work and life experience outside of the seminary and priesthood shape your priesthood?

A. In some ways, it was great because it gave me an appreciation for how hard everybody has to work at whatever it is they’re doing. It also gave me some interesting experiences in terms of what the Church might be experiencing in the world. For example, whether it be in studying political science, where you come to know our governmental system and the history of that, or whether it be specifically in the study of law, there are all kinds of areas where the Church is implicated and where the life of the Church can be sustained. For me, that was helpful. But especially, it was meeting a broad cross-section of God’s children — people of all different beliefs, all different perspectives, and recognizing they were out there.

As a child and teenager, I very much had a life that was focused on my parish and on my Catholic schools, and so to be in a situation where not everybody was Catholic, not everybody was from Pittsburgh, not everybody loved the Steelers, was wonderful in the sense of broadening my understanding of the world. And that really engaged me more when I was discerning priesthood as well, recognizing how important it was going to be that there would be people who would be able to explain the faith and who would be willing to continue the Church’s great service in a way that really reflected the great tradition that was the Catholic Church.

Q. Describe your early pastoral experiences and what you learned.

A. Right after I was ordained a priest, I was assigned to a small Italian parish in a community called Ellwood City, which was a little bit like Brigadoon — nobody had ever heard of it in my family. It was about an hour and 15 minutes outside of Pittsburgh. It was the first time in my life I hadn’t lived in an urban area; just to once again have that experience of a different kind of life. I worked with a great pastor who was very patient with me as I was bringing all of the ideas I had learned in Rome into parish life. I thought that I knew everything, and Father Joe [Dascenzo]managed to convince me that wasn’t true in a way that was gentle enough that enabled me to engage with the great parishioners there, who were also wonderful teachers and got me excited about being a priest. So that would have been my first pastoral experience as a priest. One of the things that I had really appreciated from that pastor and that experience was seeing how important it was that the priest really know the people in the parish. I think in the context of a small community, that’s a lot easier and even more expected. That really shaped my understanding of how a parish priest functions.

My second pastoral assignment was in the same community where I had lived when I was a small child, the same community where my parents had grown up. At that point, the diocese was merging seven parishes into one. My mother had belonged to one of them, my father had belonged to another, and I’d been baptized in a third. So, when I was explaining that to the bishop — I wasn’t really looking to be assigned there — I could see the wheels turning in his head and he basically was thinking, “Even though it’s going to be a difficult assignment, a little bit on the contentious side, nonetheless they’ll be kind to him because he has connections in three out of the seven parishes.” All in all, it was a really good experience in being with people at a time of pain. Merging parishes is very difficult, especially in communities where the Church was so important to them, because the parishioners really drew their identity from their parish. And so when you first begin to talk about closing something so near and dear to them, that’s really hard. Nonetheless, trying to get them to see the bigger picture and where Christ is in the midst of all of those things, and to recognize the commonality in all of those parishes, that was a great experience, too. Being with people at a difficult time in their lives has been something that’s helped me in life as well.

Archbishop Bernard Hebda greets Steve Hunegs, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas, during a Dec. 2, 2015, event in Minneapolis commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Vatican II document “Nostra Aetate.” Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Archbishop Bernard Hebda greets Steve Hunegs, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas, during a Dec. 2, 2015, event in Minneapolis commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Vatican II document “Nostra Aetate.” Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Q. What do you like most about being a priest?

A. I love every part of being a priest. I really love the fact that people are so willing to share their lives with their priests. Even when you come into a new parish for the first time, people tell you things that are really at the core of their being. You’re with them when they’re losing their loved ones, you’re with them in those joyous moments when they’re baptizing their children, you’re with them as they’re making all kinds of decisions in life. For me, that’s exhilarating. I also really love the Church’s liturgy and loved getting to be the one who presides. I was a little bit anxious about preaching when I was first ordained; I’ve grown to a greater comfort with that over the years. But I love being the celebrant or the presider at liturgies, for sure. And just having that inside knowledge of how much the people in our parish were people of prayer, how much they were praying, has been an inspiration in each of my assignments.

Q. What are your plans for growing vocations in the archdiocese?

A. There are two immediate things that I think are so important. First is to sustain family life, because I think our young men and young women who are discerning vocations need to really come from strong families where they appreciate the fatherly love of God, for example. To the extent that we’re able to help our families or to help our married couples to see the life that they’re living is being a life of vocation, to the extent that we’re able to get them to be praying that their children might be able to respond however God might be calling them to serve, I think that’s going to continue to have a positive impact on vocations.

The second is making sure that we’re really finding those opportunities for our young people to spend great time with their priests. Our priests are the very best advertisements for the priesthood. So as people come to experience the joy that so many of their priests experience in priesthood, I think it at least opens their eyes and helps them appreciate that whatever it is the Lord is calling us to do is going to be a source of joy. So, promoting family life and then looking for those opportunities — whether it be in our youth programs, our Catholic grade schools, our Catholic high schools, our religious education programs — to make sure that our young people really know the ministry of the priest and the joy that comes with that.

Q. You’ve jokingly said that people say you “quote Pope Francis too much.” What kind of influence has our Holy Father had on your priesthood?

A. I’ve been really blessed because there have been three popes in the period that I have been a priest and I’ve loved all three of them. I’ve looked to all three of them for leadership in forming my own ministry, really seeing in each of them somebody who is totally committed to following Christ. I figure that if I can follow their lead, I’m going to be acting in conformity with Christ and aligned with Christ. Certainly that was the case with St. John Paul II, whom I had really grown to love as a seminarian living in Rome. And with Pope Benedict [XVI], I had worked with him a little bit when he was Cardinal [Joseph] Ratzinger, so I already had a deep appreciation for his great gift and his intellect and was just delighted when he was elected Holy Father. I was in St. Peter’s Square that evening, and I was just so excited. I was just as excited when Pope Francis was elected, just knowing how much God loves his Church and knowing how active is the Holy Spirit and that somehow through that whole process we always get just the leader we need. So I get really excited about Pope Francis. I listen to him preach; it somehow goes right to my heart. I know the reaction and response that he’s receiving from so many of our lay faithful and those who aren’t even part of our Church or those who have drifted from the Church. I recognize that he’s really a man who’s very perceptive — he’s brilliant as well — but he really has a sense of human nature and is so attentive to the movements of the Holy Spirit in his own life. So, I’m trusting that he’s leading us in a way that’s going to bring growth to the Church, bring joy to the Church and be just where the Lord wants us.

Q. You were a spiritual director while in Rome for the Missionaries of Charity. Describe that experience and what you learned. Do you hope to have a relationship with the Missionaries of Charity who are here in the archdiocese?

A. The sisters really inspire me. I’ve had the opportunity to go once for Mass here in Minneapolis, and they have the same spirit that I had encountered when I was working in Rome. In Rome, my involvement was more educational work . . . but I was also privileged to serve as a confessor for a lot of the sisters. Mother Teresa had the wonderful insight that it would be good for all of her sisters to share a common language, so even though they came from all over the world, she insisted that they speak to one another in English, and that they have Mass in English, and that they would go to confession in English. As a result, her communities are always looking for English-speaking priests. Once they found one, they kind of got their claws into him and used him a lot. I remember that they loved Bishop [Andrew] Cozzens, who was so generous with them [while he was a priest studying in Rome]. I was really inspired by the sisters’ joy, their commitment to doing the humble work in the Church, their perseverance — and I hope that I take a little bit of that with me. I really was delighted to learn that the sisters are here in the archdiocese.

Archbishop Bernard Hebda confirms a youth April 17 at the Cathedral of St. Paul in St. Paul. Dianne Towalski/For The Catholic Spirit

Archbishop Bernard Hebda confirms a youth April 17 at the Cathedral of St. Paul in St. Paul. Dianne Towalski/For The Catholic Spirit

Q. What did you learn in Gaylord and Newark about being a bishop, and how will you apply that to your work here?

A. Those poor people in Gaylord were so patient with me. I didn’t know anything about being a bishop. I had just come from working in an office in the Vatican, and I had never been a vicar general of a diocese. I had never really been involved in diocesan administration, so everything was brand new. Nonetheless, the faithful of Gaylord were very patient teachers. . . . We only had about 80 parishes, so I was able to know the leadership in those parishes, and they knew me; they wouldn’t think twice about calling on me as they would on their pastor. So, it was a different level of relationship than would ordinarily be experienced in a large archdiocese. Just seeing how it is that the Lord manages to do great things in challenging circumstances was marvelous. I really appreciated that opportunity, and I began to grow into the liturgical role of being a bishop there, learning about confirmations and ordinations and those sort of things. I’m so grateful for their patience.

Newark was a much different reality. Much more urban, much more an experience of an immigrant Church, much more an experience of a Church where people have pressing material needs. In parts of the archdiocese, there were great difficulties in the schools and all of the challenges that come with poverty. I was grateful that the experience helped me to realize how important it would be for the Church to be present to people in their moments of need. I think it was also very helpful — indeed, opening my eyes a little bit — to recognize how important it is that we really walk with people in those challenging times. Even when we’re not able to speak a language in common with somebody, we can still be present to each other. A pastoral love can sustain a relationship even when the cultures are different.

Q. We have a very diverse archdiocese. How might you work to create unity while embracing those differences?

A. Part of the challenge is just getting to know what those differences are and getting to know people. I’m hoping to spend a lot of my time in these first few months getting to know our parishes, getting to know the different flavors of the different parts of the archdiocese. I think working on unity has to be a priority, and I’m thinking that is going to come through working on building greater unity among our priests. To the extent that we’re going to be able to achieve greater unity among our priests, I think that we will have a greater opportunity of building unity in our parishes as well. As we focus on the things that are most important to all of us — certainly it’s our relationship with Christ, prayer, sacraments, a tradition of service — I think those things will unify us as well. I’m thinking that I might begin by refocusing an emphasis on the basics. I’m reluctant to quote Pope Francis, but in “The Joy of the Gospel,” he encourages us to preach the “kerygma,” sharing the core of the Gospel message: that God loves us, that Christ died and rose for us, and that he’ll be with us to the end of time. I am hoping that when we focus on that core, it’s going to be a lot easier to achieve unity because we would be beginning with something we all agree on.

Q. Some local Catholics have criticized some of your decisions as apostolic administrator and continue to be generally distrusting of archdiocesan leadership. How will you work to maintain dialogue and trust?

A. I’m not surprised that there would be disagreement, or that there would still be distrust. I realize that trust has to be earned, and I’m hoping that I’ll be able to do that even as I make some mistakes. But I’m hoping that as people see I’m trying to do my very best and trying always to work for the good of the Church, they’ll be more tolerant of those mistakes and more patient and willing to help me see other perspectives, so I can make even better decisions. I’m hoping that if people see me as a pastor who’s really committed to his flock, a pastor who really desires the best for them, that there would be an opportunity to rebuild trust. It’s going to take some time. I’m hoping that it will just flow from our life together as part of the same community.

Q. What’s your prayer for this archdiocese?

A. My prayer is that we might be the Church that Christ wants us to be, that we might be able to respond to people in need as Christ desires, that we might reflect the universality of the Church, that we might in a solid way reflect the history of the Church, that we might be instruments of hope. In this Year of Mercy, we have been speaking so much about mercy, God’s tender mercy. That’s certainly so important. I think if we’re committed to recognizing our own weaknesses, recognizing what God has done for us and being willing to reach out to others with that same kind of love, I think that we’re going to have joy in our own hearts, and that’s going to be contagious as well. So, that’s my prayer.

Q. What do you need from Catholics here?

A. I need prayers. Certainly, that’s one of the things that I’ve been overwhelmed by — I can’t believe how many people say, “Bishop, we’re praying for you. We’ve been praying even before we began the process of choosing a new bishop, we were praying that the Lord would send us the right shepherd, whoever that would be, and we’re certainly praying for you now, that you might have the strength you need, and the wisdom.” All of those things are really encouraging to me. I’ve already come to experience the people of the archdiocese being great prayers, and just knowing that I’m part of that is a real consolation. One of the interesting things, you know, is that the Church has the people pray for the bishop every time Mass is celebrated. That’s also the case for an apostolic administrator. So the first time that I offered Mass here in the archdiocese, I realized that all these people are praying for me every time they come for Mass. I realized that despite my own weaknesses, despite the lacuna in my education, in my experience, somehow with all of these people praying for me, I’m not going to be making such huge mistakes, and somehow or another, the Lord’s will is going to be done, simply because of their great faith. So, that’s what I’m hoping for.

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Category: Welcome Archbishop Hebda