Thursday, March 24, 2016

Feeling the "Bern," For Good – Pope Names Hebda as Twin Cities Archbishop

Amid an epic storm of clerical misconduct and mishandling of allegations that's engulfed the Twin Cities church in criminal charges, Chapter 11 bankruptcy, some 400 lawsuits and a lack of morale that's birthed ecclesial "paralysis," this Holy Thursday brings the 850,000-member fold a richly-deserved Easter gift: the new archbishop, and one who can hit the ground running immediately... because he's already there.

In an exceedingly rare nod on the Triduum's opening day, at Roman Noon the Pope named Archbishop Bernard Hebda, 56 – the long-stalled coadjutor of Newark initially parachuted in to tackle the situation as apostolic administrator – as the ninth archbishop of St Paul and Minneapolis, giving the most significant and, by far, most-challenging assignment on the current US docket to a figure who's already scored high marks among its people for taking on a pastoral, administrative, financial and legal disaster with an approach rooted in savvy, humility, outreach and compassion.

A Harvard and Columbia-trained canon and civil lawyer universally known as "Bernie," the archbishop-elect now permanently succeeds Archbishop John Nienstedt, whose early resignation at 68 was accepted last June in the wake of local prosecutors' six-count indictment against the archdiocesan corporation, citing its lax response to reports of abusive priests. While no charges were levied against Chancery administrators as individuals, the institutional charges led Rome to pull the plug on both the Detroit-born prelate and his 57 year-old auxiliary, Bishop Lee Piché, as Nienstedt's two-year attempt to press forward was further complicated both by the penchant for controversy which the polarizing archbishop embraced over his eight-year tenure, as well as by a law firm's investigation commissioned by the archdiocese into allegations of sexual misconduct by Nienstedt himself with adult males over several decades.

As neither the report nor its conclusions have ever emerged, Nienstedt's defenders have resolutely insisted upon his innocence in both the personal misconduct claims and any assertions of wrongdoing in overseeing abuse cases. Accordingly, having briefly taken up at a parish in Michigan early this year – before a public outcry forced his departure within days – the retired archbishop reportedly sought to portray his ouster from office as being driven by "critics" who, he said, "would like to punish me" for "the strong stance that I was forced to take in defense of Catholic teachings, particularly the defense of marriage." Having initially agreed to Nienstedt's stepping in to aid the parish's ill pastor, Bishop Paul Bradley of Kalamazoo subsequently apologized to the entire diocese, saying he hadn't "foreseen the full impact and strong emotional reaction to his presence" there.

A move that underscored the alarm with which the Vatican and the nation's key players viewed the Minnesota eruption – and their determination to accomplish an effective cleanup as quickly as possible – Hebda's appointment from halfway across the country as administrator with full powers was intended to start rescuing the local church from the brink in all its fraught facets. Among the first steps he took toward that end was a highly unusual series of listening sessions around the archdiocese to receive parishioners' input on the optimal qualities the next archbishop would have, effectively giving him a remarkably deep "playbook" with which he can now proceed from the outset.

A onetime secretary to the future Cardinal Donald Wuerl and protege of Pittsburgh's famous Lou Vallone who spent a decade in Rome as the third-in-command at the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, even as the appointee's mix of legal and pastoral skill made the Steeler Nation export a uniquely well-suited choice for a sudden Midwestern encore as "acting archbishop," it was widely presumed – and, among Newark's priests and people, ferociously desired – that Hebda would pass the Twin Cities to another permanent choice and return to New Jersey to finally inherit the helm of its 1.3 million-member archdiocese (at the time, Francis' first major Stateside appointment) once Archbishop John Myers reached the retirement age of 75 in late July. However, his being entrusted with the Twin Cities post – a possibility that first started being raised in authoritative circles early this year given impressions of Hebda's success in the temporary role – now short-circuits the Jersey succession that's been three years in the making, creating a very significant opening for the next Nuncio to the US to fill once, as has been reported, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò retires over the coming weeks, with the Vatican's current legate to Mexico, Archbishop Christoph Pierre, widely expected to be given the Washington posting.

Among other recent developments in the Twin Cities, last month the archdiocese announced the move of its offices to a new site in St Paul following the needed sale of the longtime Chancery buildings due to the bankruptcy. Additionally, on the personnel front, within the last two weeks two diocesan priests were reinstated into ministry following abuse investigations that deemed the allegations against them unsubstantiated, while two Third Order Regular Franciscans leading local parishes were placed on leave in connection to their alleged involvement in the case probed by the Pennsylvania grand jury which, earlier this month filed the nation's first charges against superiors of a religious order in a cited cover-up.

All that said, with the archdiocese in ongoing negotiations with Ramsey County prosecutors over the resolution of the criminal charges, the outcome of those talks and the three-year Minnesota "window" suspending the civil statute of limitations on abuse claims has left the most pressing hurdle still to come: resolving the 400-plus lawsuits against the Twin Cities' church, and the mammoth settlement it'll require.

While Hebda doesn't formally become archbishop until his installation – which, per the norms of the canons, must take place within two months – as apostolic administrator, the nominee already enjoys the complete authority of the office in which he's now been fully placed. Yet since an administrator normally avoids most long-frame decisions to keep from unduly burdening the future ordinary, any reticence on that front is now a matter of the past.

Given the church's focus on the Triduum and the moment's immersion in prayer and worship, the announcement of any kind of appointment on Holy Thursday is practically unheard of, and it is impossible to recall a US move being made on this liturgical date. That it's happened in this case serves to send two deeply potent messages: first, that the ongoing turmoil of the Twin Cities fiasco made the choice of a permanent leader simply too important to wait any longer... and, indeed, to provide a lift and the hope of turning a corner after a long, difficult haul, at the very moment when the Christian calendar calls for it.

SVILUPPO: Minutes after the announcement was made in Rome, the Twin Cities church released the following letter from the archbishop-elect:
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

When I arrived in Minnesota for the first time last June, I was but a visitor -- assigned as Apostolic Administrator to help with the operations of the Archdiocese until Pope Francis named a new Archbishop. In the nine months since then, I have been blessed to witness your deep faith and your commitment to Christ’s Church, His people, and the Eucharist. I consider many of you friends.

That is why it is with joy that I tell you of Pope Francis’ decision to appoint me as the next Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis. The Pope and the Holy Spirit evidently had different plans for me than I had anticipated, and I am humbled and honored to be named your shepherd.

I know from my nine months in the Archdiocese that there is much work yet to be done to overcome the significant challenges we continue to face, but I am firm in my conviction that the Lord is truly present here, even in our struggles. The exceptional staff and leadership team at the Archdiocese, along with our strong priests, committed religious, and dynamic lay leaders are all reasons for great hope. You all seem to work tirelessly to serve Christ and His people no matter where they are found and for that I am most grateful.

It has already been an honor serving you and I very much look forward to continuing to serve you and this vibrant community for as long as the Lord sees fit.

Now more than ever, I will be counting on your prayers and support. Be assured of my prayers for you, your families, and this local Church.

Sincerely in Christ,

Most Reverend Bernard A. Hebda
Apostolic Administrator and Archbishop-Designate
Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis
In an extended interview with the archdiocese's Catholic Spirit, Hebda termed the choice of himself – which he only learned about on Tuesday – as "a shock."

As for the unusual timing of the announcement, the appointee said that the Nuncio felt "it would be a beautiful opportunity for the announcement to be made on Holy Thursday, when we focus on the Eucharist, when we focus on the priesthood and when we focus on service. He said those three themes are so important in the life of any diocesan bishop."

His installation has been announced for Friday, May 13th. Notably, meanwhile, as the Vatican has yet to announce whether the world's new archbishops will be called to Rome for late June's feast of Saints Peter and Paul, how and when Hebda – and, for that matter, any other metropolitan named since last summer – will receive the pallium attached to his new office is unknown.

SVILUPPO 2: Held at 9am local time in the shadow of the Chair the ninth archbishop now inherits, here's fullvid of the brief, understated presser: