Msgr. J. Gaston Hebert, vicar general for the Diocese of Little Rock under retired Bishop Andrew J. McDonald and Bishop J. Peter Sartain, was chosen as the diocesan administrator until a new bishop is named to replace Bishop Sartain.
The College of Consultors met June 29 at St. John Center in Little Rock and voted by secret ballot for a temporary leader for the diocese. In addition to Msgr. Hebert, six other priests voted. They are Msgr. Bernard Malone of Hot Springs Village, Msgr. Francis I. Malone, Msgr. Scott Friend, Msgr. John O'Donnell and Msgr. Scott Marczuk of Little Rock, and Msgr. Jack Harris of Pine Bluff.
"Among our priests, there is no more suitable priest to lead us through the sede vacante (vacant See) than Msgr. Hebert," Msgr. Francis I. Malone said. "His steady hand, strong faith, love of the Church and solicitude to the care of souls is widely known."
In the absence of a bishop, the Vatican requires an administrator be named to handle most of the diocesan functions that a bishop does. The administrator is chosen among the priests of the diocese who are 35 years old or older.
This is the first time since 1862 that the Diocese of Little Rock has been led by an administrator instead of a bishop.
With the appointment of Bishop Sartain to Joliet, Ill., Msgr. Hebert and Msgr. Francis I. Malone ceased being vicars general. Msgr. Hebert recently finished a six-month appointment as administrator of St. Mary Church in Hot Springs following the death of its pastor, Msgr. Leo Riedmueller.
In an interview with Arkansas Catholic shortly after the consultors voted, Msgr. Hebert said he intends to work part time at St. John Center in Little Rock and ensure diocesan business continues.
"An administrator does everything the bishop does with the exception of that which is exclusive to an ordained bishop," he said. "I have powers to administer the diocese, to manage the diocese. ... There will be no innovations during this period of time."
A bishop will be invited to the diocese to lead the Chrism Mass during Holy Week and ordain any priests. Msgr. Hebert said he intends to delegate the duties of confirmation to each pastor.
He said he plans to meet monthly with the College of Consultors and seek their advice on important matters.
"Of course, the aim that I would have as administrator would be to keep the diocese going in a positive direction," he said. "Our former bishops have done an extraordinary job leading people to Christ and I hope to follow in their example."
While Msgr. Hebert has never worked at St. John Center before, he is familiar with many of the offices and employees because of his work as a pastor, vicar general and chairman of several boards.
"All of those things work together to help me administer the diocese," he said. "That knowledge I had as vicar general gives me an overview of the diocese and gives me a grasp of what is going on."
When Msgr. Hebert, 71, decided to retire, he stepped away from being a pastor and serving as chairman for several diocesan boards. He continued, though, to be an adviser to Bishop Sartain and be available to lead retreats and work on special projects, including the Year of the Eucharist Committee in 2004-2005. In 2005 he was the keynote speaker for the March for Life in Little Rock and led a retreat for diocesan employees during Lent.
The decision to retire was made because he felt overwhelmed from taking on so many jobs, he said.
"I was simply exhausted," he said. "I felt it was time for me to take a rest."
In addition to exhaustion, he wanted to take better care of his health and watch his high blood pressure. In 2002 he was diagnosed with prostate cancer, but he is cancer free today.
"I have the normal problems that come along with being over 70," he said.
Since 2001 Msgr. Hebert has been living in his native Hot Springs. Now he will divide his time between Hot Springs and the bishop's home in Little Rock.
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