Archbishop Hebda reflects on 30 years as a priest; 10 years a bishop; turning 60

| August 16, 2019 | 0 Comments
Archbishop Hebda warmly greets elementary school students at a school-focused Mass of the Holy Spirit at U.S. Bank Stadium

Archbishop Hebda warmly greets elementary school students at a school-focused Mass of the Holy Spirit at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis Oct. 10, 2018. DAVE HRBACEK / THE CATHOLIC SPIRIT

It’s a big year for Archbishop Bernard Hebda.

He turns 60 Sept. 3. He celebrated 30 years as a priest July 1, and Dec. 1 marks 10 years as a bishop.

As leader of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis the last four years, including one year as apostolic administrator, he guided the archdiocese through Chapter 11 bankruptcy, resolved in December, that stemmed from the clergy sexual abuse crisis.

Opportunities for healing for victims/survivors and others impacted by the crisis are growing under his care and direction. In addition, being part of the lives of people in parishes and schools, ministries and religious orders, as well as the wider community, appears to come naturally to the archbishop.

Now, he is leading the faithful toward a 2021 archdiocesan synod to help discern the call of the Holy Spirit and meet the pastoral needs of the archdiocese.

Recognizing the archbishop’s lineup of milestones this year, The Catholic Spirit asked him to reflect on his call to the priesthood and his years of service. The conversation is edited for length and clarity:

Q. You mark several milestones this year. How do you plan to celebrate?

A. It’s interesting that they all come together in one year. I’ve already celebrated my 30th anniversary in the priesthood. We had a wonderful celebration on the actual day of the anniversary at the Cathedral of St. Paul’s 5:15 Mass with members of the Serra Club. It was a moment to give thanks to God for these three decades in the priesthood. It was great to be there with people who are so supportive of vocations and vocational discernment. I was blessed that my sister came as well to represent our family. Birthdays, I don’t normally celebrate. But this year, obviously, 60, that’s kind of significant. I’m feeling like I’m on the brink of getting old. I think I’m going to have an opportunity to celebrate with my family. And as for the 10th anniversary as a bishop, I haven’t really given that a whole lot of thought yet. I certainly am grateful for those 10 years. I’ll use the anniversary to reflect on the blessings that I’ve received in those 10 years and to be mindful of how the Lord is asking me to serve in the years ahead of me.

Q. Looking back on your priesthood, what were your expectations and your desires as you were ordained? Have those been met? Any surprises?

A. I remember I was so excited to be ordained. I didn’t really know what priesthood would be. But I had already come to trust the Lord had beautiful plans for me, as he does for all of us. And I was trusting in that regard. Having already worked as a lawyer, I was very much looking forward to doing work that would be more pastoral and not administrative. And interestingly enough, in the course of my priesthood the Lord has given me a number of administrative assignments. I worked for 13 years in Rome, for example, in an office in the Vatican. So that would’ve been something I would have never expected. Certainly, it wouldn’t have been something that would have attracted me to the priesthood when I was first ordained. But I really feel blessed in those 30 years with a variety of assignments that I’ve had. You know, I loved working in a parish.

I loved working with college students at the Newman Center (at Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania). And I came to love, as well, even my assignment at the Vatican, and especially the opportunities it presented for pastoral work with seminarians at the North American College and then also with English speaking sisters in Rome.

Q. I have a feeling the pastoral role doesn’t disappear even with all the administrative work. You maybe keep in touch with old classmates, you counsel people in some fashion even now. Is there a way to reflect on that … that being a priest is being a priest, no matter what your office?

A. I’m glad you mentioned that. And in fact, that’s what we have to bring … A priest has to bring a pastoral heart to whatever task is before him. Even if it’s an administrative position, he has to bring to that a pastoral heart. And that was one of the real blessings for me in Rome. When I first arrived there, I bristled at the thought of leaving behind a ministry with college students, which was so life giving.

I came to recognize, though, that it was in the work that I was doing (at the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, responsible for interpreting Church law), even though it was very technical, legal work, that I was being given an opportunity to really participate in Christ’s priesthood. Granted, it was a little bit more in the shepherding area than in the teaching or sanctifying areas, but it was nonetheless priestly work. And certainly, I found in my office interactions with my brother priests and lay colleagues at the Vatican, that there were plenty of opportunities to exercise my ministry.

Q. How have your experiences as a priest shaped you as a person? And how have they shaped your priesthood?

A. I can tell you, it’s very difficult for me to separate being a priest from being a person, because I really have a strong sense that God created me to be a priest. We speak about how he calls us from our mother’s womb and the Lord has a plan for each one of us. And I’m pretty confident that his plan for me when he gave me life was that I would serve as his priest. And so being a person and being a priest isn’t really all that distinct for me. But certainly seeing the way in which the priesthood itself calls forth certain gifts, I see myself doing things now that I would not have imagined 30 years ago, and seeing the way in which the Lord continues to call me to have concern for my brothers and sisters and all those in need. I think that helped me to expand my heart in that way. It’s the priestly ministry that shapes that desire to be with those in need.

Q. Based on your own experience of discerning that call — I guess right from birth apparently in some fashion — do you have general advice for young men and women who might be trying to discern whether they have a call to the religious life?

A. Just a little clarification. It’s not like I always knew that the Lord was calling me to be a priest. In hindsight I think he created me to be a priest and gave me that gift of life. But it wasn’t something I was sure about and I took a little bit of a circuitous path, you know. It wasn’t until after I had already graduated from college and law school and worked for a bit as a lawyer that I entered the seminary. But in terms of giving advice to young people who might be hearing the Lord calling them to priesthood or consecrated life, it’s really to be trusting of the Lord’s great love for us. To be trusting of the ways in which he speaks in our heart. It’s important, I think, for all of us to pursue those instincts and insights that we have and really to do that with others, too.

So to be able to share something with a good spiritual guide, whether it be a parish priest or a friend or someone that we just trust. That we know that they’re a good person of prayer, I think, to be able to speak about our inklings. That maybe the Lord is calling us to a particular vocation, to a particular way of serving him and serving the Church. I think to be able to articulate that and discuss that with others is something that helps us to get greater clarity.

Q. What do you see as the most important thing the Lord wants from any of us, whatever our vocation?

A. I think he wants us to put him first in our lives. We love God and we love our neighbor. It’s a way in which we’re also going to have our hearts expanded so that we can serve others, too. I really am so grateful for the way in which the Lord has helped me in loving him and loving his Church. Also to have some wonderful relationships, not just with my family — I come from a great family — but also I’ve been blessed with wonderful friends at each stage of my life. I feel that the Lord has really, really blessed me in that way, and that he calls me then to go forward and to share that love, that experience with others.

Q. What particular lessons or things have you learned in your four years here?

A. I am really grateful for these four years. I think they’ve been an opportunity for me to go out of my comfort zone. I didn’t really know people here when I arrived, but I really learned how important it is to listen to the experiences of others and to trust that the Holy Spirit is indeed working in his Church. And that means that while I am called to lead, I’m also called to listen very carefully to what the Spirit might be saying through others. I think in these four years I really have come to appreciate the resilient nature of our faithful, who have undergone trials and who nonetheless persevere in being joyful Catholics.

Q. When you were ordained and installed in 2009 as bishop in Michigan, do you recall any expectations or desires as you took on that leadership role? Were those met? Any surprises?

A. I can tell you, I was pretty much in shock 10 years ago. I had always lived in cities, and pretty good size cities. When the Holy Father assigned me to Gaylord (Michigan) I thought, “this is really unusual. I wonder if he knew what he was doing?” The town has only 3,600 people. And it’s a very rural area right around Gaylord. There are a lot of potato farms in the diocese. There were a lot of cherry orchards and vineyards. It was a very different pace of life than what I was accustomed to in Rome, which is so chaotic. And so as I began my ministry as the chief pastor there I didn’t really know what to expect. But one of the things that was a blessing was recognizing that being a pastor of a diocese is a little bit like being a pastor of a parish. It’s the same desires that you have for being able to make Christ known, being able to serve people, being able to bring the presence of Christ not only through the sacraments but also through God’s word. I’m hoping that the synod process that we’re just beginning will help me to go deeper into understanding this local Church and coming to know the people, who are such a blessing.

Q. Beginning Sept. 24, there will be 20 prayer and listening events across the archdiocese to prepare for the synod, and other, similar events for particular focus groups including priests, deacons, Catholic school principals and others. How do you see yourself interacting with those sessions and what do you hope from them?

A. I mentioned being somewhat at sea or out of my element when I went to the diocese of Gaylord, and one of the great realizations was that I couldn’t really handle the responsibilities that were given to me alone. That I needed to find collaborators. And I was really blessed at that time that our diocese got a grant from Catholic Extension and from the Catholic Leadership Institute to engage in a program called Good Leaders, Good Shepherds and to do some pastoral planning with their assistance. Part of that process was doing some listening events around the diocese as we tried to really assess the pastoral needs. And so that was my first experience on a larger scale of trying to really listen well enough to discern the movements of the Holy Spirit. And as I mentioned to you, Gaylord was a smaller diocese, so it was easier to scale to do that. But I found it to be very productive to be listening in that way. And so I drew from that experience the desire to do that here. This is about more than gathering information. It’s also about building relationships and about really entering into a longer term dialogue.

Q. Do imagine yourself attending each prayer and listening event?

A. That’s the goal. You never know what might happen, but at least we’ve tried to schedule in the hope that I would be physically present at each session. I know that (Auxiliary) Bishop (Andrew) Cozzens is always available, too. He has a great set of ears.

Q. What are your hopes for the archdiocese as these events begin in September?

A. My hope is that we might, together, be able to detect the presence of the Holy Spirit. That we would find reassurance in that. We would be reinvigorated by that realization, as well. You know we’ve gone through some difficult times over the past years. I think knowing what the Lord has planned for us, knowing that his Spirit is indeed working among us, that should give us some hope as we move forward. That’s fundamentally what I’m hoping for. But I also am trusting that the process will help us to identify priorities for moving forward in a way that’s reflective not only of my own thinking but also the thinking of the faithful of the archdiocese, whether it be our priests, whether it be our lay faithful, whether it be men and women in consecrated life, it will all have a chance to shape the next steps we take as an archdiocese.

Q. Is there anything you would like to add?

A. I’m really grateful for this opportunity. A number of people have asked, “is there some way that we can mark these anniversaries?” Certainly I am always grateful for prayers and for whatever folks can do to continue to support their parishes and the archdiocese.

I know that the archdiocese is still looking for funding for our newly established Outreach Coordinator for Restorative Justice and Abuse Prevention and that is certainly near and dear to my heart.

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