Bernard A. Hebda, bishop of the rural Diocese of Gaylord, Mich., since 2009, on Tuesday became coadjutor archbishop of the metropolitan Archdiocese of Newark, N.J., making him the latest former Pittsburgher to rise to a level of national prominence in the Catholic Church.
The appointment by Pope Francis means that Archbishop Hebda, 54, leaves a diocese of 65,000 Catholics to assist in administering New Jersey's largest diocese of 1.5 million Catholics in four counties. As coadjutor, he will automatically become archbishop upon the retirement, transfer or death of the current archbishop, John J. Myers, who at 72 is about three years from mandatory retirement.
At a news conference Tuesday in Newark, Archbishop Myers said "some time ago" he had requested a coadjutor (Latin for co-assister) to help with some strategic plans because he and two auxiliary bishops are in their 70s.
Archbishop Hebda said he was "humbled" by the pope's confidence and grateful for "providing me with the 'coadjutor's cushion,' an opportunity to experience the vitality of this local church and its challenges before ever being placed at the helm. I hope to take advantage of this blessing to the fullest extent possible," by getting to know the priests, laity, parish, schools and institutions that make up the archdiocese.
Some observers said Archbishop Hebda was chosen by the pope because he has all the qualities to restore confidence and stability in the archdiocese at a time that Archbishop Myers has come under intense fire by critics who have clamored for his resignation, claiming he has not done enough to stem sexual abuse of children by priests.
Last month, the Diocese of Peoria, Ill., settled a case of childhood abuse by a priest in the mid-1990s for $1.35 million. Archbishop Myers was the bishop there from 1990 to 2001, when he was assigned to the Newark archdiocese.
Additionally, the National Catholic Reporter said, Archbishop Myers was criticized for his lack of oversight when media outlets in the spring reported that one priest from the Newark archdiocese was arrested after violating a court-ordered ban on ministry to children.
Archbishop Myers ramped up the controversy in a letter to archdiocesan priests that was distributed to parishioners in which he lambasted the media and his critics for targeting him with "deceitful and misleading" information, adding that "God will surely address them in due time."
Those who know Archbishop Hebda, whom they regularly called "Bernie," say he has exactly the right qualities of intelligence, empathy and humility to face the challenges and possibilities in Newark. While he is an Ivy League-educated lawyer with a quicksilver mind, he has not lost the touch of the common man, they say.
In a statement, Bishop David A. Zubik, who served with him when both were aides to then-Bishop Donald Wuerl, said "Archbishop Bernie is an outstanding servant of God's people. Brilliant, yet humble; focused, yet humorous; popular, yet pious are but a few of the adjectives anyone who knows our Bernard would describe him."
Nicholas Cafardi -- a canon lawyer, law professor and dean emeritus at Duquesne University School of Law -- said the Newark archdiocese was "lucky" to receive the talents of his long-time friend. Mr. Cafardi described Archbishop Hebda as exactly the kind of bishop that Pope Francis is seeking -- "a shepherd who smells of his sheep. I think that describes him very well.
"He is a very grounded person. He is not a careerist. He will devote all of his talents to the priests and people of the Newark archdiocese. This is a wonderful appointment by the holy father."
The Rev. Lou Vallone, pastor of St. John of God in McKees Rocks and St. Catherine of Siena in Crescent, said Archbishop Hebda will "foster unity and healing" because he is "a pastoral man and one of the best minds of the American church."
"He is very, very lovable, with a sense of humor and is self-effacing. He goes out of his way in terms of generosity and is a very amenable person. And behind that is a razor-sharp mind and a first-class education. In a way, he is not unlike Pope Francis himself.
"This is what's needed in Newark, and is needed in the whole church itself. Today, Newark is blessed with that."
Archbishop Hebda attended Resurrection Elementary in Brookline and South Hills Catholic High School, a predecessor of Seton-LaSalle in Mt. Lebanon. He earned a political science degree from Harvard University and a law degree from Columbia University before joining the prestigious Reed Smith law firm in 1983. But he soon entered seminary, earned a canon law degree in Rome and was ordained in 1989 by Bishop Wuerl, now a cardinal in Washington, D.C.
He served as an aide to Bishop Wuerl from 1990 to 1992, then joined the pastoral team at Prince of Peace, South Side, which had just been created from a painful merger of seven parishes.
He spent one year as a chaplain at Slippery Rock University and in 1996 he was drafted by the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts, the rough equivalent of a Vatican attorney general's office. It reviews decrees by Vatican offices and bishops worldwide, to make sure they conform to canon law. In 2003 he was promoted to under-secretary of the council, an important post.
Father Vallone said Archbishop Hebda's appointment by the pope is the latest example of what a unique position Pittsburgh area priests hold in Catholic culture.
"We're neither hard East Coast, which is the establishment church, nor like the Midwest or West, which is the newer church. We're right in the middle," he said. "Priests in Pittsburgh have a unique perspective on the universal church, and the Vatican knows that."
In addition to Archbishop Hebda, Cardinal Wuerl and Bishop Zubik, other Pittsburgh-area priests who are in the Catholic hierarchy nationally include Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, Texas; Cardinal Sean O'Malley of Boston; Bishop Paul Bradley of Kalamazoo, Mich.; Bishop Edward Burns of Juneau, Alaska; and Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence, R.I. Retired are Cardinal Adam Maida of Detroit and Bishop William Winter of Pittsburgh.
Michael A. Fuoco: firstname.lastname@example.org.