The Diocese of Rockville Centre on Tuesday ordained its fourth auxiliary bishop, a village native who speaks fluent Spanish and has worked in local parishes.
Bishop Richard G. Henning, 53, will assist Bishop John Barres in his duties as head of the diocese, including celebrating confirmations and visiting parishes. Last year, Pope Francis elevated Henning's predecessor, Auxiliary Bishop Nelson Perez, to bishop of the Diocese of Cleveland.
Henning joins auxiliary bishops Robert J. Coyle, Robert Brennan and Andrzej Zglejszewski in one of the largest dioceses in the nation with 1.5 million Catholics.
Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the apostolic nuncio — or pope's representative — in the United States, joked to a packed St. Agnes Cathedral in Rockville Centre on Tuesday that when he called Henning with the news of his appointment by Pope Francis in early June, Henning was driving down the Southern State Parkway.
"We are all truly grateful that you did not have an accident," and had the presence of mind to pull off the road around Route 107 in Massapequa, Pierre said, as the crowd laughed.
Pierre then read the official letter of appointment from Pope Francis, which — following church tradition — Henning showed to the applauding congregation as he walked around the altar and down the center aisle. The crowd included priests, nuns, hundreds of the faithful, and bishops from as far away as South Carolina.
In his remarks, Henning, a paddleboarder, referenced his love of Long Island's waters to build a metaphor about Christianity and faith.
"The movies often depict surfers as unintelligent loafers — the stereotype of the 'surfer dude.' In fact, the opposite is true," Henning said. "Surfers are smart, observant, disciplined and hard working. …They look beyond the surface to the depths. And they are patient."
"We know that the experience of communion is not magic but hard work, close observation, looking deeper, patience and discipline," he added.
Barres referred to Henning as "a son of Oak Island, the Atlantic Ocean and the natural beauty of Long Island" and "an adopted son of the Catholic Hispanic community of Long Island."
"The Holy Spirit has providentially brought you and your life narrative to this moment of episcopal ordination as a successor of the apostles," Barres said.
Henning learned to speak Spanish while serving as a parish priest at St. Peter of Alcantara Roman Catholic Church in Port Washington. His fluency in Spanish will help fill a gap left by Perez, a native of Cuba.
At an evening prayer service on Monday at Our Lady of Loretto Church in Hempstead, Henning recalled how he panicked when then-Bishop John McGann assigned him to his first parish in 1992 and told the newly ordained priest, who barely spoke Spanish, he would be ministering to a predominantly Spanish-speaking parish.
"The community, far from being upset that their new priest sounded like a kindergartner, organized tutors," Henning said. "Hard-working women, some with two jobs, made time to tutor me each day for months. They brought me to every meeting, invited me to their homes and prayer gatherings. They corrected and encouraged me. And by God’s grace and their generous hearts, I began to truly speak and understand."
Barres has previously said Henning's appointment underscores a recognition by the pope of the Catholic Church's continued growth in Spanish-speaking communities. Barres noted that Long Island is home to 500,000 Hispanics, many of them Catholics. In 2012, Perez became the Rockville Centre diocese's first Latino bishop since its founding in 1957.
Henning has served on the faculty of the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception in Huntington since 2002. He was named rector of the seminary in 2012 and director of the Sacred Heart Institute, which provides ongoing training of clergy.
The incoming auxiliary bishop was born in Rockville Centre, grew up in Valley Stream and is a 1982 graduate of Chaminade High School, an all-boys Catholic school in Mineola run by the Marianist brothers.
Henning was ordained in 1992, and in 2007 earned his doctorate in sacred theology from the University of St. Thomas Aquinas, the Angelicum, in Rome.
CORRECTION: In a previous version of this story, the location of the evening prayer service was incorrect.