Photo courtesy of Laura Kilgus, Rhode Island Catholic.
Most Rev. Richard G. Henning ’86C, ’88G, who describes himself as “a proud alumnus of St. John’s University,” assumed the role of Coadjutor Bishop of the Diocese of Providence, RI, in January. Bishop Henning takes full responsibility for the diocese upon the retirement of current Bishop, Most Rev. Thomas J. Tobin.
The oldest of five children and the son of a New York City firefighter and a nurse, Bishop Henning recalled that his journey toward priesthood began within his churchgoing family, but truly crystalized after he heard a Vincentian priest discuss vocations when he was a student at Holy Name of Mary Church in Valley Stream, NY. “I don’t recall his name, but after he spoke several of us said we wanted to be priests. Apparently, with me, it stuck.”
After graduating from Chaminade High School, Bishop Henning received a full scholarship to St. John’s. He expressed enduring gratitude to the University for its generosity, which allowed his parents to portion more of their resources to his siblings’ educations.
“I loved St. John’s,” he stressed. A member of the St. John’s College Honors program, Bishop Henning cited the late John J. Coffey, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Philosophy and Director of the program, as a particular influence.
“He was an extraordinary teacher. While certainly a religious man, his influence on me was more on the human side, which is as important as the spiritual side for someone with a religious calling. You want to be a well-rounded human being. He had a great to desire to learn and to know.”
“He fostered a great sense of connection for those of us in that small program,” he continued. “St. John’s is such a large University that being in that group really humanized the scale of the place for me. In the program, I knew everyone by name, and they were my closest friends.”
Bishop Henning was involved in Campus Ministry at St. John’s and came to know several Vincentian priests as well. “St. John’s really helped expand my mind and my human formation.”
The advice Bishop Henning received from a priest in his parish (where he also worked as a sacristan) was to live his life and see if this calling stuck. He majored in History at St. John’s and by the time he graduated the call to priesthood became more intense. “It was a vocation that grew and matured over many years. I don’t have a dramatic conversion story. I just grew up in faith,” he recalled.
While he enjoyed his experience with both the Marianist Order at Chaminade and the Vincentians at St. John’s, Bishop Henning felt strongly he was called to the parish priesthood and was ordained to serve in the Diocese of Rockville Centre, NY, in 1992. While attending the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception in Huntington, NY, Bishop Henning became lifelong friends with Rev. Patrick S. L. Flanagan, C.M., Ph.D., who currently serves as Chair and Associate Professor for the Department of Theology and Religious Studies.
“I have enjoyed Bishop Henning’s friendship for more than 30 years,” Fr. Flanagan recently said. “We met while classmates and even then, seminarians, faculty, and I recognized his cache of gifts and talents. He is profoundly prayerful, an engaging homilist, intellectually gifted, pastorally astute, and a faithful servant of the Lord. Bishop Henning has served the Church well on Long Island, and now, with the confidence of Pope Francis, will do the same in Providence.”
During his early priesthood, Bishop Henning served at St. Peter of Alcantara Church in Port Washington, NY, where he ministered very closely to its Spanish-speaking community. “They were a huge influence on me,” he said, adding that he hopes to minister to that population in a special way in Providence. “This is the first time they will have a bishop who speaks Spanish,” he noted.
Bishop Henning went on to graduate studies and teaching for nearly two decades while living at St. Patrick’s Church in Bay Shore, NY. Ordained an Auxiliary Bishop in 2018, he noted that staying close to ministry can be challenging when faced with so many administrative tasks.
“Whatever administrate role I’ve been in, I’ve tried to make space for pastoral engagement of one kind or another,” he stressed. “Sometimes that means just being pastoral to the people with whom I’m working. That’s what my heart needs, and I try to make sure that’s always in my mix.”
Bishop Henning recalled that it was “pretty shocking” when he received the call from the Papal Nuncio he would eventually succeed Bishop Tobin in Providence. “I knew it was always a possibility, but I was not the least bit prepared for it,” he laughed.
A coadjutor bishop serves side by side with the current diocesan bishop until he reaches the mandatory retirement age of 75, and Bishop Henning is grateful for the space to learn more about his new home in the months ahead before assuming full responsibility for the diocese in April. “It gives me a runway. I don’t have the local knowledge, so it gives me time for that. However, there is so much that is universal about the Church that I already feel at home here,” he said.
In addition to reaching out to the Hispanic community and getting to know his priests, Bishop Henning considers evangelization a top priority for his episcopate. “Catholic schools have always been close to my heart. I’d like to support and sustain them.”
On January 26, a special Mass of Reception was celebrated welcoming Bishop Henning to the Diocese of Providence. “It was a very joyful moment. I was grateful and humbled by the turnout, not only by family and friends, but by the folks in the diocese.”
Bishop Henning likens the role of bishop to that of pastor in a parish church. “It gives you an opportunity to make your own impact on the life of a diocese, which is exciting.”