St. Paul archdiocese interim head ‘warm, welcoming’
By all accounts, the man appointed by the Vatican to help run the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis is a well-liked, capable bishop.
Archbishop Bernard Hebda, 55, named Monday as apostolic administrator for the archdiocese, is known for his smile, his humility and intelligence.
Parishioners in the Twin Cities can expect Hebda, a Pittsburgh native, to approach the current challenges with compassion, said the Rev. Lou Vallone, a Pittsburgh priest who has known “Bernie” for about 30 years.
“People who have been frustrated by not being heard, he will pay attention to them. People who are kind of put off by standoffish attitudes or embattled attitudes will not find that in him. They’ll find him warm and welcoming,” Vallone said.
Hebda’s appointment was announced at the same time the Vatican accepted the resignations of Archbishop John Nienstedt, who had been at the helm of the archdiocese since 2007, and Bishop Lee Piche, who was named auxiliary bishop in 2009.
Their resignations came 10 days after the Ramsey County attorney’s office filed criminal charges and a civil petition against the archdiocese for allegedly protecting a priest who abused children.
The archdiocese is also in the midst of Chapter 11 bankruptcy, which will likely result in a settlement to victims of clergy sexual abuse.
Hebda has served since 2013 as coadjutor bishop in the Archdiocese of Newark, N.J., and is slated to succeed current Archbishop John Myers upon Myers’ July 2016 retirement.
A canon and civil lawyer, Hebda has an impressive resume — an undergraduate degree from Harvard University and a law degree from Columbia Law School — and was appointed to his Newark post at a time when that diocese was also facing criticism for Myers’ handling of abusive priests.
“He has a great reputation,” said Jennifer Haselberger, the Twin Cities archdiocese’s former chancellor for canonical affairs who became the primary whistleblower of its alleged misconduct. “I also think he has a reputation for having a lot of skills regarding financing, so I think everything he brings to the situation is exactly what we need as the archdiocese attempts to deal not only with the civil petition and pending criminal charges, but also the ongoing bankruptcy.”
Hebda has worked as a priest in Pittsburgh and served as bishop in the Gaylord diocese in Michigan. He also served for 13 years on the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts, which interprets canon law.
Hebda caught a bit of fire in New Jersey last year when he came to the defense of Myers, who is building a lavish retirement home on the archdiocese’s dime — $500,000 for a 3,000-square-foot addition to a 4,500-square foot-home valued at $776,000.
Hebda, who lives in a two-bedroom dormitory on the campus of Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J., urged people to look at the positive work Myers has done over the years.
“He has a tremendous natural talent to always see the good in a person and to comment upon it,” Vallone said of Hebda. “If you say something critical about somebody, Bernie is always quick with a ‘Yes, but…’ and he’ll zero in on what’s good about the person. What makes it work is that it’s him, it’s authentic, there’s no artifice. He just sees the good.”
His role here will be to take Nienstedt’s place, working closely with Auxiliary Bishop Andrew Cozzens, but Hebda will be more limited in what he can do because he’s not the permanent archbishop, said Dr. Robert Kennedy, chair of the Department of Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas.
“Hebda is unlikely to start any new initiatives” Kennedy said. “His job is to keep the diocese functioning until a new bishop is appointed.”
No one is quite sure how he’ll wear both hats, with duties here and in New Jersey, or how long he’ll do so. The appointment process could take many months, unless Nienstedt’s resignation had been in the works for a while and Rome has a successor in mind, Kennedy said.
“Pope Benedict and Pope Francis have been speedier about appointing bishops than we have seen in a long, long time, but at the same time, someone who is appointed or invited can say no,” Kennedy said. “I’ve heard that a lot of men have been saying no … It’s not a terribly attractive job right now.”
In an interview this week with the Catholic Spirit, the official newspaper of the Twin Cities archdiocese, Hebda reportedly said he planned to spend much of his time in Minnesota.
“The archdiocese has been suffering something difficult and shocking, and it would make sense to give (it) the bulk of time and energy at this point,” he told the Catholic Spirit. “There are still a few things I would need to clear in Newark, but I’m hoping to be really present in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis to be able to work with the leaders.”
As he has in Newark, Hebda is likely to reach out to local parishes, clergy and members, Vallone said.
“Whatever you have to unravel there will not be easily done,” Vallone said. “People have to be put back into spiritual and emotional shape; they need their energy and grace back.
“Bernie is a very energetic and graceful person, and he will build the flock back up,” Vallone said. “He will bring the diocese back to the basics, when celebrating the Eucharist becomes a satisfying and peaceful experience again.”