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Coadjutor Bishop Richard G. Henning displays an inspiring message for the faithful by showing the Rhode Island state flag and its motto, "Hope," at the Cathedral of SS. Peter and Paul in Providence Jan. 26, 2023, during the Mass of Reception welcoming him to the Providence Diocese. (OSV News photo/Laura Kilgus, Rhode Island Catholic)

Bishop Richard G. Henning took over the Diocese of Providence, R.I., on May 1, the apostolic nuncio Archbishop Christophe Pierre announced.

A native of Rockville Centre, N.Y., where he served as an auxiliary bishop from 2018 until last year, Bishop Henning was appointed the co-adjutor of the Diocese of Providence by Pope Francis last November. His appointment as bishop became automatic when the pope accepted the resignation of Bishop Thomas Tobin on Monday. Bishop Tobin submitted his resignation last month when he turned 75, as is customary for bishops.

A biblical scholar with a doctorate from the University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome, who taught for a decade at the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception in Huntington, N.Y., Bishop Henning, 59, is fluent in English, Spanish and Italian. As a young priest, he ministered in predominantly Hispanic parishes, and later, he helped launch a center in New York in 2012 that provides ongoing formation for priests called the Sacred Heart Institute.

When Bishop Henning was ordained a bishop in 2018, he spoke of his love for sailing, boating and kayaking and praised surfers, who, he said, “look beyond the surface to the depths” in order to describe his vision for ministry.

Bishop Richard G. Henning took over the Diocese of Providence, R.I., on May 1, the apostolic nuncio Archbishop Christophe Pierre announced.

“We know that the experience of communion is not magic,” he said, “but hard work, close observation, looking deeper, patience and discipline.”

As recently as 2017, Rhode Island had been described as the most Catholic state in the nation—though some researchers express doubt about that appellation. But a report published by the Diocese of Providence in 2019 showed a dramatic 40 percent drop in the number of parishioners, falling from 525,000 in 2000 to 321,000 in 2018, mirroring trends throughout much of the Northeast and Midwest.

While the Diocese of Providence flies relatively under the radar, it gained national attention in recent years in part because of the outspokenness of Bishop Tobin, whose social conservatism and on-again, off-again relationship with Twitter often generated controversy.

Appointed bishop in 2005, Bishop Tobin was described by The Associated Press in 2008 as a member of a “new generation of strictly orthodox Catholic prelates” and noted back then how he used his newspaper column to condemn political leaders of various ideologies over their support for abortion, same-sex marriage or harsh immigration policies.

While the Diocese of Providence flies relatively under the radar, it gained national attention in recent years in part because of the outspokenness of Bishop Tobin.

“When we teach, we don’t take a public opinion poll first,” Bishop Tobin said at the time. “Jesus didn’t do surveys.”

Bishop Tobin announced in 2013 that he had registered as a Republican, ditching his former registration as a Democrat, saying in an interview that Democrats had become “more aggressive” in their support for “activities and commitments that are foreign to me.”

Bishop Tobin joined Twitter in 2018 and quickly drew heat for a tweet that some interpreted as downplaying the seriousness of the clergy sex abuse scandal. A few months later, he announced he was leaving the platform, describing it as a “distraction,” an “obstacle” to his spiritual life and an “occasion of sin for me and others.”

But he was back on Twitter by 2019, when he caused a stir by tweeting that Catholics should not attend L.G.B.T. pride events because they “promote a culture and encourage activities that are contrary to Catholic faith and morals.” In other posts, he criticized President Joe Biden over his support for abortion and expressed disagreement with Pope Francis.

In a 2020 interview Bishop Tobin said he did not mind the controversy his remarks caused. “I will say I enjoy being involved in the public conversation. I was not ordained to be irrelevant,” he said. 

In a 2020 interview Bishop Tobin said he did not mind the controversy his remarks caused.

“I will say I enjoy being involved in the public conversation. I was not ordained to be irrelevant,” he told the Providence Journal.

In a statement released Monday, Bishop Tobin said he felt “profound gratitude and personal peace” when he learned that his resignation had been accepted by the pope. And he seemed to acknowledge the controversies surrounding his statements and tweets over the years, writing, “for those times when some individuals were offended by my words and deeds, I am truly sorry for that too.

“It can be very difficult to preach the Gospel of Christ, and to carry on the mission of the church in the world today, but that’s what we are called to do,” he continued. “There are many pitfalls, and it is a daily challenge to strike a perfect balance of courage and prudence.”

On Monday, after the news of his retirement had been made public, Bishop Tobin logged off again—at least for now.

“With my retirement from office, I will be leaving Twitter now,” he wrote, just before deleting his account.

Bishop Henning, for his part, appears not to have a public profile on Twitter.

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