Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Bishop Bernie Goes to Gaylord... and Steel City Becomes "Sevenburgh"

Almost four months since a Stateside diocese last received a new leader, the docket's traditional "summer slowdown" is now in the books... and with quite the pleasant surprise, to boot.

This morning, Pope Benedict named Msgr Bernard Hebda (right) as bishop of Gaylord, the 70,000-member diocese comprising Michigan's northern mainland tip. A son of Pittsburgh, product of Harvard and Columbia Law and, until now, the #3 official of the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts, Hebda succeeds Bishop Patrick Cooney, who reached the canonical age-limit of 75 in March.

Beloved in the 'Burgh, Rome and beyond and known to the universe as "Bernie," the bishop-elect turned 50 last month. Ordained in 1989, Hebda served as, among other things, private secretary to the Steel City's 12th bishop, now Archbishop Donald Wuerl of Washington, and a Newman chaplain before heading to the Vatican's legal office in 1996; he became undersecretary at Legislative Texts in 2003.

While ten other US prelates superannuated before Cooney but still await discharge orders from Rome -- most notably Bishop John D'Arcy of Fort Wayne-South Bend, now 77 -- the Gaylord prelate's succession was apparently sped up on account of his health; Cooney suffered a heart attack last year minutes before he was to celebrate a priest's ordination, undergoing quadruple bypass surgery as a result.

A former auxiliary of Detroit, the departing bishop became the Northstate's chief pastor in 1989; now comprising 81 parishes, the Gaylord church was founded in 1970, carved from pieces of the Grand Rapids and Saginaw dioceses.

As the continued economic turmoil takes an unparalleled toll on the state's auto-heavy economy, today's appointment is the last in a rapid series of moves that've seen five of Michigan's seven dioceses change hands since April 2008, most prominently the 1.4 million-member Detroit church, where native son Allen Vigneron returned as archbishop in January. Two of the slots have gone to Pittsburghers; the Steel City's lone active auxiliary, Bishop Paul Bradley, was transferred to Kalamazoo in April.

That said, the Gaylord nod is a tad surprising as Hebda -- reportedly itching to leave the Roman post for quite some time -- was widely expected to return home as Burgh Bishop David Zubik's next auxiliary... clearly, though, even higher plans won out. With his promotion, a record seven Pittsburghers now lead US dioceses, including Galveston-Houston's Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, Wuerl, Zubik and Bishops Thomas Tobin of Providence and Ed Burns of Juneau, who arrived in Alaska's capital earlier this year after a decade as head of the US bishop's vocations efforts.

Already slated to be Stateside this week for a vacation with his parents in Florida, the bishop-elect will be formally introduced to the diocese at an 11am press conference in Gaylord. In accord with the norms of the law he knows so well, Bernie must be ordained and installed in his new charge within four months.

SVILUPPO: Via the diocesan page, statement snips....

While in Rome Bishop-elect Hebda also served as an adjunct spiritual director at North American College and as a confessor for the postulants of the Missionaries of Charity (founded by Mother Teresa) and for the Sisters of that community working at a home for unwed mothers.

"I am both humbled and honored by our Holy Father’s decision to appoint me as Bishop Cooney’s successor," said Bishop-elect Hebda. "Never in my wildest dreams have I ever imagined that I would one day be the Bishop of Gaylord. I can remember being fascinated by a display of Bishop Baraga’s deerskin chasuble and having the greatest admiration for him when I read about his ministry at Harbor Springs and Cheboygan and on Beaver Island – but never did I have an inkling that the Lord would one day call me to serve His flock in the northern portion of the lower peninsula of Michigan.

"I am so grateful to Bishop Cooney not only for his kindness to me, but most especially for the way that he has been Christ’s gentle and guiding presence in this local Church over the past twenty years," Bishop-elect Hebda added. "I am honored to be given the opportunity to continue his good work.

"I look forward to getting to know the people of this Diocese – their needs, their strengths, their history, so that we can together strive to continue to make Christ’s presence felt in this portion of His vineyard," Bishop-elect Hebda concluded.

According to the diocese, an ordination date remains as yet undetermined.

On a side-note, the last time a Vatican official departed his post for an American diocese was in 2006, when then-Msgr Frank DeWane returned from the #3 job at the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace as coadjutor of Florida's Venice diocese.

A native of Wisconsin, the former journalist succeeded to the top spot within a year.

SVILUPPO: Late in the day, word surfaced that Hebda's ordination and installation has been scheduled for 1 December in Gaylord.

PHOTO: Diocese of Gaylord