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Twin Cities Catholics weigh in on new archbishop

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Archbishop Bernard Hebda
Archbishop Bernard Hebda, interim leader of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, spoke during an interview in St. Paul, Friday, July 10, 2015.
Jean Pieri | The St. Paul Pioneer Press via AP

About 150 Catholics gathered in St. Paul Monday to tell Archbishop Bernard Hebda what they'd like to see in a new archbishop of the Twin Cities archdiocese.

Explore the full investigation Clergy abuse, cover-up and crisis in the Twin Cities Catholic church

The most common qualities included an archbishop who listens, is humble, can heal divisions in the church, or, as one parishioner put it, someone who is "Pope Francis-esque." 

Hebda told the group that Pope Francis would be pleased with the list. "I think it will resonate with him, what you're saying." 

The gathering at St. Catherine University was the first of several listening sessions scheduled this fall by the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis to seek input on a new leader. 

Few people proposed specific ways to deal with the clergy sex abuse scandal. One person said the new archbishop should be willing to hire a forensic accountant. A woman noted that many of the people who were harmed have not received an apology or compensation from the archdiocese.

Nearly every person who spoke mentioned healing, though there was little mention of how the church could help people who have been sexually abused. 

Hebda, who was appointed in June to serve as a temporary administrator of the Twin Cities archdiocese, said he would send the group's comments to the pope's ambassador to the United States, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano. 

Hebda said he didn't know how long the process of selecting a new archbishop would take, but said he does not expect Pope Francis will select him to become the permanent replacement for Archbishop John Nienstedt. 

Hebda said he still expects to become the archbishop of Newark, N.J., once the current Newark archbishop resigns. "I already committed to the Archdiocese of Newark," he told reporters after the meeting. 

At the session, Hebda was clear about the church's rules. In the Catholic Church, only the pope can appoint a bishop. And when the pope's ambassador asks local Catholic leaders for input, he often requires absolute secrecy and sends letters in two sealed envelopes for added privacy. "You have the sense it's a little out of 'Mission Impossible,' " Hebda joked to the group.

Monday's meeting was meant to be more transparent. Attendees completed a questionnaire, in which they were asked to list three of the archdiocese's greatest strengths, three of its biggest challenges, and the three most important qualities the next archbishop should have.

For the next hour and a half, the attendees discussed the results with other people at their table, and appointed a spokesperson to share the group's thoughts with Hebda and the rest of the participants.  Many of the small groups expressed similar views on the strengths of the Twin Cities archdiocese. They cited the quality of the area's Catholic schools, the church's history of social justice work, and parishioners' ethnic diversity and wide range of political beliefs. 

The Cathedral of St. Paul
Visitors ascended the stairway at the Cathedral of St. Paul Monday, June 15, 2015 in St. Paul, Minn. Nearly two years into a clergy sex abuse scandal, Archbishop John Nienstedt resigned as head of the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis.
Jeffrey Thompson | MPR News

As for the three biggest challenges, many groups cited the clergy sex abuse scandal, the role of women in the church and concerns about financial transparency. 

One man criticized the church for its "failure" to accept gays and lesbians, and said its teachings on same-sex attraction contradict modern science. Several people applauded, and Hebda interjected. "We don't write our own catechism here," Hebda said, referring to the doctrine of the Catholic Church.

Across the room, University of Minnesota professor B. R. Simon Rosser stood up and shouted across the room. "We can lead the Catholic Church," he said. "It's beyond the point of waiting for Rome." 

Hebda responded by saying, "We don't change the teaching" of the Catholic Church, and that the meeting wasn't held to debate church doctrine.

One woman disagreed with the more liberal Catholics, saying, "I thought this was about picking a bishop, not changing the Catholic Church."

After listening to the criticism, Hebda said, "Allow me to note there were no lightning bolts. Nobody got struck dead."

Many of the complaints seemed to illustrate how divided the archdiocese had become under the leadership of Nienstedt, the previous archbishop, who resigned in June nearly two years after news reports revealed his role in a cover-up of clergy sex abuse. 

After the meeting, Hebda spoke to reporters for about five minutes. He said he spoke "very, very briefly" with Pope Francis during the pope's recent visit to the United States and "just had that opportunity really to ask him to pray for us, and he promised that he would do that."

He added, "It was pretty clear to me that he understands the urgency of the situation here."

However, Hebda said he did not mention the abuse scandal to Pope Francis. "I was assuming that he knows that," he said. "I'm sure that he does." 

When asked if he has a close, direct relationship with Pope Francis, Hebda said, "Absolutely not, but I also have great confidence in Archbishop Vigano, and that's his job is to give the pope the broadest resources, so the pope is able to make a good decision. So I wouldn't worry about it from that perspective. I think that the nuncio would want to give the pope those tools to be able to find the right person for here. He'd want it to work."