‘Ask the Archbishop’ showcases students’ letters to Archbishop Hebda — and his responses

| December 11, 2018 | 0 Comments

A letter from a student to Archbishop Bernard Hebda and his response in “Ask the Archbishop,” published earlier this year by the Edina-based Catholic Schools Center of Excellence. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

“Dear Archbishop Hebda, My name is Luke. I am in first grade at Nativity School. I like to write poems. My favorite thing at Nativity is learning. My question is, does God really loves us when we make mistakes?”

So reads the first letter in the newly published book “Ask the Archbishop,” a compilation of 58 letters from Catholic school students in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. Modeled on the book “Dear Pope Francis” that Loyola Press published in 2016, “Ask the Archbishop” includes the image of a letter from a student on one page, and Archbishop Hebda’s response on the facing page.

Steve Wright, a fifth-grade teacher at Visitation School in Mendota Heights, conceived of the idea in spring 2016 while his class was working on a letter writing project. He saw a copy of “Dear Pope Francis” and envisioned a similar project on a local level. He enlisted the help of his Visitation colleagues Jeanne Doyle, a school counselor; and Michelle Schlehuber, a middle school English and social studies teacher. They contacted Archbishop Hebda. He agreed to the project and suggested they connect with the Catholic Schools Center of Excellence, which supports marketing endeavors and other initiatives in the 79 Catholic elementary schools in the archdiocese.

The cover of “Ask the Archbishop.” Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Edina-based CSCOE was an invaluable partner, Wright said. Without it, the project wouldn’t have moved forward like it did, he said. It helped that Gail Dorn, CSCOE’s president, championed the project, he said.

With CSCOE’s help, they solicited letters from students in kindergarten to grade five in all 79 schools, and they received letters from 51 of the schools before the deadline. Those letters amounted to more than 800, all of which they passed along to Archbishop Hebda. However, the three Visitation teachers, along with CSCOE representatives, selected the 58 letters that were included in the book. Student artwork also features prominently throughout the book. 

The questions range from the sweet — “Do you like to dance?”  and “What is your favorite ice cream?” — to the profound — “How or in what way can we love our enemies?” and “I have always had a hard time putting God above all things. Do you have any advice for me?”

Schlehuber said that even a year after initially reading the letters, she still gets choked up talking about them.

“The thoughtfulness of the students was astounding,” she said.

Archbishop Hebda answered most of the questions over the course of a single week, which gave him a chance to immerse himself in the project. He noted that Catholic schools are very important to him, and he found the letters “beautiful.” As the project unfolded, he said, he would run into the student-writers at their parishes, or even at the store, and they would ask, “Archbishop, did you get my letter?”

“They were so engaged in the whole process,” he said of the students. In June 2017, CSCOE and the Visitation faculty organized an event for students whose letters were included in the book to meet the archbishop. The student-writers received a certificate and a St. Philip Neri medal, and, the archbishop said, he still encounters those students wearing the medal.

Archbishop Hebda had in mind his six nieces and nephews as he penned the responses, he said. They are written simply, but they also synthesize complex truths of the Catholic faith.

A student’s letter to Archbishop Hebda published in “Ask the Archbishop.” Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

To Luke, the writer from Nativity of Our Lord Catholic School in St. Paul who asked about God’s love for people when they make mistakes, he responded: “The more that we learn about the life of Jesus, the easier it is to believe that we have a God who loves us always, even when we make mistakes. In fact, it seems that Jesus had a special love for those who made mistakes. St. Peter, for example, made lots of mistakes and yet the Lord made him the head of the Church. As a group, the Apostles often seemed like real bumblers, and yet the Lord loved them deeply.”

He continued: “The Cross is where we see God’s love for us most clearly. Imagine that Jesus would be willing to give his last breath for those of us who sin and make lots of mistakes. One of the last things that Jesus said was, ‘Father forgive them, they know not what they do.’ That gives me, a sinner who makes mistakes, great hope.”

Archbishop Hebda said the book forged a connection between himself and all the students who participated, not only those whose letters were featured.

The book shows “the closeness between the ‘sheep’ and the ‘shepherd,’” he said, adding that it demonstrates his care for children, “who are important members in our Church.”

Archbishop Hebda noted that he’s not sure how helpful the book would be for kids — except for those to whose letters he responded — but that he’s been getting positive feedback from adults. He said he’s heard from people who are new to the faith, or who are facing health difficulties and have found levity in “small doses” in the book.

CSCOE self-published the book earlier this year, printing 15,000 copies. It retails for $24.99 and is available for purchase at each Catholic elementary school in the archdiocese and at several bookstores: Leaflet Missal, St. Patrick’s Guild and the Red Balloon in St. Paul; and Wild Rumpus in Minneapolis. The proceeds from books sold at a school benefit that particular school, and proceeds from bookstore sales benefit a CSCOE initiative to enhance schools’ work with “exceptional learners” — students whose learning needs fall on both ends of the learning spectrum, said Melissa Hamilton, CSCOE’s communications manager.

The book aimed to show beauty and community found in the local Catholic schools, she said, as well as unify the elementary schools in a single project.

Archbishop Hebda thinks it hit the mark, noting that it  “highlights the great work that’s being done in our Catholic schools, [and] how beautiful it is that we have kids who are asking these questions, and how wonderful it is that they have a forum for talking about those things day-in and day-out.”

Wright said he hopes the book’s readers see that “children are our hope and future, and this is the good work of our Catholic schools.”

Doyle added: “There’s hope for the future of the Church. [Students] are still curious and want answers to the big questions and the small questions. [And they have] so much love in their hearts.”

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