Pope Francis on Friday appointed Msgr. Richard G. Henning to be an auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of Rockville Centre, elevating a native Long Islander who learned to speak Spanish during his time as a parish priest in Port Washington.
The appointment was announced in Washington, D.C. by Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the apostolic nuncio — or pope’s representative — to the United States.
Henning, 53, becomes the fourth auxiliary bishop for one of the largest dioceses in the nation, with 1.5 million Catholics. His fluency in Spanish will help fill a gap left by Bishop Nelson Perez, a native of Cuba and former auxiliary bishop here who was named bishop of the Diocese of Cleveland in July.
In 2012 Perez became the first Latino bishop in the history of the Diocese of Rockville Centre since its founding in 1957.
Henning, who also speaks fluent Italian, will be installed July 24 by Bishop John Barres, head of the Diocese of Rockville Centre.
“Bishop-elect Henning’s pastoral charity and intelligence, his commitment to a demanding life of daily prayer, his love for the Hispanic community and evangelization, his biblical scholarship and experience in seminary formation, his national contributions to the ongoing formation of priests and assistance to international priests who serve in this country give him a wide range of pastoral experience and skills to help advance the New Evangelization and dramatic missionary growth on Long Island,” Barres said in a statement.
Auxiliary bishops assist the bishop in his duties, such as celebrating confirmations.
In a statement, Henning thanked the pope, Barres and Bishop Emeritus William Murphy, and said, “This is a moment of deep reflection and the humble acknowledgement of my dependence upon the grace of God and my joy in His service.”
Henning also put out his statement in Spanish on the diocesan website.
In an interview on the diocesan cable TV station Telecare, Henning said he received the news of his appointment while driving on the Southern State Parkway near Massapequa after he had left a mass in Ocean Beach and was on his way to meet with a couple preparing for their wedding.
He said the pope’s representative told Henning he could not hear him on speakerphone, so Henning pulled over to talk directly into the phone.
“I’m happy, but it is certainly a little overwhelming,” Henning said.
He will join Auxiliary Bishops Robert J. Coyle, Robert Brennan and Andrzej Zglejszewski in assisting Barres in the diocese.
Barres said Henning’s appointment underscores the pope’s concern for Latinos, noting Long Island is home to some 500,000 Hispanics, many of them Catholics.
Henning “really is in a certain sense an expression of the Holy Father’s love for all of Long Island but in a particular way for the beautiful Hispanic community,” Barres said.
He said he sees Latinos as a key to what he calls dramatic missionary growth in the diocese — that is, getting more people to mass and active in the church.
Henning said he learned most of his Spanish during his first assignment as a priest, at St. Peter of Alcantara Roman Catholic Church in Port Washington.
“I went there with basically high school Spanish, you know, and the people took me under their wing, and they trained me,” Henning told Telecare. “A bunch of parishioners set up a schedule, they tutored me about four days a week for almost a year.
“I went to every meeting, sat in the back, and by the end of the year I could function,” he said.
He added: “I guess I am as fluent as a gringo could be.”
Henning said that “I have to admit, sometimes I like Spanish mass best of all because it’s often the music is so lively, and people so responsive.”
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 is located in the seminary building and provides ongoing formation, or training, of clergy for the Archdiocese of New York, the Diocese of Brooklyn and the Diocese of Rockville Centre.
The seminary in 2012 stopped training men for the priesthood, with the Diocese of Rockville Centre, the Archdiocese of New York and the Diocese of Brooklyn merged their seminary operations at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers.
Henning assists on weekends at Saint Patrick’s Church in Bay Shore and administers the summer mission church, Our Lady of the Magnificat, in Ocean Beach on Fire Island.
He said he is a “fourth-generation Oak Islander,” a tiny island on the Great South Bay where his family has summered since about 1900. He still retreats there and paddles around in a kayak near the peaceful swamps to pray and “recharge,” he said.
“Water is my happy place,” he said. “I love boating. I love kayaking. I love sailing.”
Henning was born in Rockville Centre, grew up in Valley Stream and is a 1982 graduate of Chaminade High School, an all-boy Catholic school in Mineola run by the Marianist brothers.
He was ordained in 1992, and in 2007 earned his Doctorate in Sacred Theology (STD) from The University of St. Thomas Aquinas, The Angelicum, in Rome.
Recently, he has directed the Parresia Project, a program seeking “to improve reception processes for international priests serving in the U.S.,” the diocese said.
Besides his fluency in three languages, Henning is also able to read French, Greek and Hebrew, the diocese said.