PROVIDENCE — In a glorious Mass of Reception at the Cathedral of SS. Peter and Paul on Jan. 26, nine weeks after being appointed by Pope Francis to serve as coadjutor Bishop of Providence with the right of succession, Most Rev. Richard G. Henning, D.D., S.T.D., presented the papal bull, signed by the Holy Father, to Bishop Thomas J. Tobin, D.D., authenticating his appointment.
Archbishop Christophe Pierre, D.D., J.C.D., apostolic nuncio to the United States; Cardinal Timothy Dolan, of New York; Cardinal Seán Patrick O'Malley, OFM Cap., of Boston; and Metropolitan Archbishop Leonard Blair of Hartford, were among the 40 bishops in attendance at the Mass, which was celebrated by Bishop Tobin, with Bishop Henning concelebrating.
The apostolic nuncio presented the papal decree to Bishop Henning, who then brought it to Bishop Tobin and displayed it to the College of Consultors in the presence of Chancellor Father Timothy Reilly, before processing up and down the outer aisles of the cathedral holding the document aloft for everyone to view.
Archbishop Pierre said that the new coadjutor had distinguished himself while serving as an auxiliary bishop in the Diocese of Rockville Centre, New York, as a seminary formator, educator and leader, as well as a shepherd with a keen eye toward evangelization.
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“In this beautiful Cathedral of SS. Peter and Paul, I am happy to join you as Bishop Richard Henning is formally received and welcomed as coadjutor bishop of Providence,” Archbishop Pierre said.
“His special concern for those who speak Spanish, and his use of the new media are also praiseworthy. In all these capacities, he relates well to the people of God. As coadjutor, Bishop Henning will collaborate closely with Bishop Tobin in ministry to the diocese until the day arrives when he will become the ninth bishop of Providence.”
The apostolic nuncio also thanked Bishop Tobin for welcoming Bishop Henning and for sharing his ministry with him as he learns more about the life of the local Church.
Bishop Tobin, who will turn 75 on April 1, has served as a bishop for more than 30 years, with 18 of those years as the eighth bishop of Providence. He will submit a letter of his intention to retire to the Holy Father at age 75 as bishops are required to do. He had requested a coadjutor bishop to smooth the transition when his letter will be accepted by the Holy Father.
“Thank you, Bishop Tobin, for welcoming Bishop Henning, for sharing your ministry with him and for helping him learn about the life of this local church. Thank you, as well, for your many years of service in the church. In July, you will celebrate 50 years as a priest. … May God bless you,” he said to great applause from the capacity crowd filling the cathedral.
Archbishop Pierre also took the occasion to congratulate former Auxiliary Bishop Robert C. Evans on his recent retirement, and to honor him for nearly 50 years of ministry as a priest and bishop in the Diocese of Providence.
“Bishop Evans thank you, and may God bless you with good health, enjoy your retirement,” the nuncio said.
Bishop Tobin said the Diocese of Providence welcomes Bishop Henning with “open arms and a grateful heart.”
“We pledge to you friendship and support and prayers as you begin your new ministry here, in the State of Rhode Island in the Diocese of Providence,” he said.
The bishop said the diocese is deeply grateful to Pope Francis for this appointment, which shows his sincere affection and pastoral solicitude for the Church in the Diocese of Providence.
Bishop Henning delivered his homily in his signature style, without notes while standing in front of the altar.
He noted that the day was also special for another reason — Jan. 26 marked the 51st anniversary of the ordination of now-Bishop Emeritus Louis E. Gelineau and the sixth bishop of Providence — and he encouraged a round of applause in his honor.
He began by marveling at the cathedral’s magnificence.
“It’s even more beautiful to see it filled with the people of God, offering praise and worship to our Creator and Savior,” Bishop Henning said.
He recalled the day, Nov. 12, when he first learned that he was to be appointed coadjutor bishop of the Diocese of Providence. The news came in the same way as the apostolic nuncio had delivered it to him four years earlier when his appointment to serve as an auxiliary bishop for the Diocese of Rockville Center was made — by telephone while he was traveling in his car.
Archbishop Pierre informed Bishop Henning of his new appointment as he was making a brief day trip to northern Virginia from the annual U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops gathering in Baltimore. He was on his way to visit a cousin and her family when the call came.
Bishop Henning gave thanks to God for the opportunity but wondered why he was chosen for this assignment.
Boarding a hotel elevator later that evening back in Baltimore, he received a not-so-subtle sign that Providence is where God wanted him to be. On the wall was an advertisement from an Ocean State architectural firm that displayed prominently the recently renovated Cathedral of SS. Peter and Paul, along with the newly installed marble cathedra.
Soon after, he began Googling Rhode Island online to learn as much as he could about the state and its people.
The state flag, with a large anchor owing to its nickname The Ocean State, and its motto “Hope,” reinforced for him that Rhode Island was indeed where God wanted him to be.
To emphasize his point for the many guests attending the Mass from out-of-state, especially a cadre of his fellow Long Islanders who traveled 200 miles from the Diocese of Rockville Centre, Bishop Henning walked over to the lectern, where a folded state flag on a shelf below was soon unfurled and displayed for all to take in.
“To see on a state flag that ancient Christian symbol, the anchor, the symbol of hope, and not just the symbol, the word is written right there on that flag. In my prayer I thought, ‘I’m going to live in the state of hope.’ It will be okay. It was a great comfort to me at a time with a lot of emotions. Hope, St. Paul teaches us, is central to the faith. Christ Jesus our hope. And I hope I am a man of hope. I hope we all are Christians who live hope,” Bishop Henning said.
He said he is not naïve in believing in hope, acknowledging there will be difficulties and challenges ahead.
“But we have to admit there has not been a single age of the Church that has not had its challenges,” he said. “These are days it seems across our society, and even across the world, there is a kind of rising tide of isolation and despair — the opposite of hope.”
Later in the Mass, Bishop Henning expressed his gratitude to Bishop Tobin for the remarkable experience it has been to come to the Diocese of Providence. He spoke of Bishop Tobin’s gifts of governance and leadership, and how he has shepherded the diocese over his 18 years as bishop. He also expressed his gratitude at having received such a warm welcome.
“So, I am grateful to have this opportunity to shadow him and to learn from him and hopefully to imitate him in every way possible,” Bishop Henning said in publicly thanking Bishop Tobin.
The Gregorian Concert Choir and Festival Orchestra, led by Cathedral Rector Msgr. Anthony Mancini, who composed a Psalm for the Mass, along with organist Phil Faraone, produced stirring music with crescendos that reverberated throughout the cathedral.
About 1,000 were in attendance on the liturgical memorial of Saints Timothy and Titus, including representatives of the Knights of Columbus, the Knights and Ladies of Malta, and the Knights, Dames and Ladies of the Holy Sepulchre. Nineteen school groups from across the diocese were present to witness history.
Bishop Henning is the third coadjutor bishop ever to be appointed in the Diocese of Providence. The other two were Bishop William Hickey and Bishop Robert E. Mulvee. [See story on the history of coadjutors in the diocese on page 18.]
Before the Mass, a luncheon was held at the Omni Hotel in downtown Providence for the visiting bishops and priests, along with members of Bishop Henning’s family.
New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan said that while the New York Archdiocese is sorry to lose Bishop Henning, they are happy for Providence.
“We were lucky to have him,” Cardinal Dolan told Rhode Island Catholic in an interview before the luncheon. “You can find scholars among priests and bishops, and you can find a people-person among priests and bishops. It’s rare you’ll find them both combined in one guy, and you do with him.”
The cardinal described Bishop Henning as a biblical scholar with impeccable credentials, but one who is very pastoral and savvy. He said the bishop has worked extraordinarily well with the Latino community — his Spanish is impeccable.
“As a strategist he really helped us. We had a very daring move a number of years back where the three dioceses — the Archdiocese of New York, the Diocese of Brooklyn and the Diocese of Rockville Center decided to consolidate their seminary system,” Cardinal Dolan said.
“He helped us bring our seminary system together, he knows all the details and the expectations of the Church and he’s extraordinarily good at it. You guys got a winner.”
Father Robert Schreiner, a priest of the Diocese of Crookston, Minnesota, has known Bishop Henning since 1998 when both were studying in Washington, D.C. They met while Father Schreiner was doing his doctoral studies at the John Paul II Institute, and Bishop Henning was there doing his licentiate at Catholic University in Scripture. Both were living at what was then the Divine Word College, where priest students could live.
“He did a beautiful analysis of the theology of marriage from scripture, and I looked down and said, ‘I like this New Yorker!’ From that moment on we became very, very good friends and have stayed in touch throughout the years. He’s the real deal. What you meet and what you see is him. And he’s a very loving, caring, faithful, intelligent man. He has a big heart and a deep love for the Church.”
Bishop Henning was born in Rockville Centre, New York, in 1964 to Richard and Maureen Henning, the first of five siblings. He grew up in Valley Stream, a parishioner of Holy Name of Mary Parish, where he also attended its grammar school.
He attended Chaminade High School in Mineola, New York, and credits the Marianists as a major influence in his faith life and commitment to learning. He received a B.A. and M.A. in history from St. John’s University, Queens New York, and received his training for the priesthood at the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception in Huntington, New York.
He was ordained in 1992 and served for five years as an associate pastor at the Church of St. Peter of Alcantara, Port Washington, where he did extensive pastoral work in the large parish school and ministered to the Spanish-speaking, mainly Salvadoran Catholics.
In addition to fluency in English and Spanish, Bishop Henning speaks Italian and is able to read French, Greek and Hebrew. He earned a Licentiate in Biblical Theology at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., and a Doctorate in the same from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome, Italy.
After his studies, Bishop Henning joined the faculty of the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception in Huntington, where he taught scripture for more than ten years. In 2012, as part of the partnership for seminary formation among the Dioceses of Rockville Centre, Brooklyn, and the Archdiocese of New York, then Rev. Msgr. Henning was appointed to lead the seminary through its transition to the largest retreat house in the Northeast. Bishop Barres appointed Bishop Henning the Episcopal Vicar for the Central Vicariate of the Diocese of Rockville Centre in September of 2017. He was appointed an auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of Rockville Center in June 2018. Since June 2021, Bishop Henning also served as the Vicar for Clergy and Vicar for Pastoral Planning until his appointment as coadjutor bishop of Providence.
Watch the video of the Holy Mass of Reception on the diocesan YouTube channel - youtube.com/DioceseofProvidenceRI
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