Pope Reassigns Newark Bishop’s Apparent Successor
By Stefanie Dazio
March 24, 2016
|Assistant Newark Archbishop Bernard Hebda will be the next archbishop of Minneapolis and St. Paul.|
The future of the Newark Archdiocese was thrown into uncertainty Thursday with an announcement by Pope Francis that Bernard Hebda, who as top assistant for two years was on track to become archbishop, would take the helm of Minnesota’s deeply troubled archdiocese instead.
It’s unclear now who will take over in July when Newark Archbishop John J. Myers reaches the mandatory retirement age of 75.
And while wishing Hebda well in his new role, churchgoers couldn’t help but express disappointment and regret at losing the assistant archbishop, who quickly became popular for his pastoral approach to the ministry and for emulating the humility of Pope Francis.
“Pray for him and for the Archdiocese of Newark,” Augie Ricciardi wrote on Facebook. “A true loss as we pass a very gifted pastor and shepherd on to the Archdiocese of St. Paul Minneapolis.”
“Don’t leave us!” wrote another churchgoer, Marie Coschigano of Little Ferry.
The pope had made Hebda a coadjutor, or assistant, to Myers in 2013, when the archbishop was under a torrent of criticism over his handling of sexually abusive priests. Last June, Francis gave Hebda a second task of managing the day-to-day affairs of Minnesota’s archdiocese as it faced criminal charges and its leader resigned in scandal.
Hebda has divided his time between the two archdioceses since then. As coadjutor in Newark, he helped run the archdiocese and he stood to succeed Myers. But for many months, his future has been uncertain until the pope’s announcement on Holy Thursday.
In a letter to the faithful posted on the Minnesota Archdiocese’s website, Hebda said the appointment was unexpected, but it gave him joy.
“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,” he wrote.
In a separate statement, Myers also said he too was surprised by the appointment, as he and Hebda both had assumed his role as the apostolic administrator in Minnesota was a “temporary assignment.”
“Our Holy Father Pope Francis has often said that our God is a God of surprises,” Myers said. “Today is surely a perfect example of that.”
Some church analysts had expected the pope to accept Myers’ retirement soon after he turns 75 on July 26, immediately making Hebda the next Newark archbishop with no transition period necessary.
Now, it’s not clear what will happen come July. Myers could in the coming weeks request another coadjutor, though his spokesman said Thursday that wouldn’t be as important as it had been a few years ago when new schools and fundraising initiatives were under way.
More likely, when Myers submits his retirement, the pope will either keep him in place until a successor is named or accept the retirement immediately and appoint an administrator of the diocese to oversee operations while conducting a search, said Charles Reid, professor of canon law at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis.
“Either of those events could happen, it’s hard to tell which,” Reid said. “My guess is on a balance of probability, it’s slightly more likely the pope will accept his resignation. … Newark has some deep problems.”
Hebda came to Newark in September 2013 amid mounting calls from parishioners, advocates of clergy sex abuse victims and some Democratic politicians for Myers to resign.
The archbishop had been accused of failing to supervise Michael Fugee, a former Wyckoff priest who had been convicted of groping a 13-year-old boy. Myers returned Fugee to the ministry after his conviction was overturned on a judicial error. Despite signing a legal ban prohibiting him from working with children, Fugee was found to have attended youth group retreats throughout New Jersey, sparking outrage.
Shortly after Hebda’s arrival, another controversy engulfed the archdiocese: Myers’ decision to spend more than $500,000 to expand a weekend home in Hunterdon County that he’s expected to use for retirement. Hebda initially defended Myers but later suggested for everyone – bishops included – to prioritize “not always what we want, but what it is that we need.”
Robert Hoatson, a former Newark priest and founder of an advocacy group for clergy sexual abuse victims, said that despite the problems Newark faces, Minneapolis needed Hebda more. Minnesota’s archdiocese hasn’t had a leader for nine months, since Archbishop John C. Nienstedt resigned. Meanwhile, the church faces criminal charges for having “turned a blind eye” to repeated reports of inappropriate behavior by a priest who was later convicted of molesting two boys. It’s also in the midst of bankruptcy proceedings.
“I think that archdiocese needed a real healer and maybe the pope thought that Hebda would be the one,” Hoatson said.
Reid said Hebda has been effective in his role in Minnesota as administrator – in part by resolving civil litigation that subjects the archdiocese to three years of monitoring by civil authorities to ensure children are safe.
“We have an archdiocese that was deeply divided by Nienstedt, who made parts of the archdiocese feel unwelcome,” Reid said. “Hebda is fixing this. He’s quiet, he’s a conciliator and he shows every promise of being a good archbishop. It’s a profound loss for Newark.”
Praise from Myers
In a press conference in Minneapolis, Hebda said the pope’s top diplomat to the U.S. called him with news of his appointment on Tuesday. Papal nuncio Carlo Vigano, he said, insisted that the announcement be made on Holy Thursday, in part to coincide with a ritual of washing of the feet.
“It really is the opportunity to emphasize that the bishop is called to be one who serves,” Hebda said. “All of us are called to imitate Christ, but the bishop has to be doing that as well.”
An installation Mass for Hebda has been scheduled for 2 p.m. on May 13 at the Feast of Our Lady of Fatima, at the Cathedral of St. Paul.
In his statement, Myers praised Hebda as a “happy spiritual leader” dedicated to both archdioceses in New Jersey and Minnesota.
“While it may have been difficult for him at times to manage the travel and commitments of serving in two large archdioceses these past months, he embraced this call from the Holy See willingly and prayerfully,” he said. “His tireless, positive approach to dealing with the challenges presented him will be one of the graces that he will share with the people of the Twin Cities.”
Hebda said much work remained to overcome the Minnesota archdiocese’s “significant challenges.”
“But,” he said, “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.”