PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Pope Francis named a New York prelate as the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence’s new bishop on Wednesday, in a surprise move that comes months before Bishop Thomas Tobin reaches the church’s mandatory retirement age.
The Vatican has appointed the Most Rev. Richard Henning as coadjutor bishop of Providence, meaning he will initially serve alongside Tobin before succeeding him, and also accepted the resignation of the Most Rev. Robert Evans, 75, as the diocese’s auxiliary bishop.
Tobin said Henning will officially become coadjutor on January 26 at a special mass at the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul in Providence. Tobin estimates his resignation will be accepted in the spring, allowing Henning to then take over as bishop.
Watch: Interview with Bishop Henning (Story continues below.)
Henning, 58, had been serving as auxiliary bishop of Rockville Centre, New York.
Tobin was appointed bishop by Pope John Paul II just days before the since-canonized pontiff’s death in 2005, and will turn 75 in April, at which point he is required to send his resignation to the Vatican. However, it is at the pope’s discretion whether to accept such a resignation or to keep a bishop in place past age 75.
Asked Wednesday about his future plans, Tobin told 12 News he will no longer be a public face the diocese and will dedicate his time to a more quiet life of prayer, reading, and reflection.
“I will offer my assistance to the new bishop in any way he wishes,” Tobin said. “I will certainly continue to do ceremonies and visit parishes and help out in any way I can. But I will not be involved then in the leadership and the governance of the diocese.”
Tobin, a native of the Pittsburgh region, has been preparing for this moment for some time. Last summer he tweeted a photo of a book with this message: “A little summer reading for me – the Vatican document on ‘The Bishop Emeritus,’ that outlines the rights and duties, the opportunities and limitations of retired diocesan bishops. Quite interesting.”
Tobin said he plans to continue living in Rhode Island, calling it his “home” for the past 18 years.
“So I hope the church will continue to be very strong and faithful,” Tobin said. “We have a wonderful diocese so many great people and priests and religious. I’m very proud of the Diocese of Providence — I’ve really grown to know and love it. I’m very proud to be their bishop.”
Francis has long been viewed as likely to find a successor to Tobin when he reached 75, due to the latter’s outspoken social conservative views and occasional critiques of the current papacy on social media.
Watch: Providence Diocese announces new bishop (Story continues below.)
Tobin himself joked about that perception on WPRI 12’s Newsmakers last December while discussing what would happen when he reached age 75. “The other thing to keep in mind, though, is that when a bishop sends in his letter of retirement, it’s not accepted right away, usually,” he said, before adding with a laugh, “In my case, it might be!”
Tobin said Wednesday he had requested that his successor be named coadjutor bishop.
Henning was born in 1964, educated in New York and ordained a priest in 1992, according to his online biography. Pope Francis first named him auxiliary bishop in Rockville Centre in 2018.
Henning said Wednesday he considers himself to be pro-life and believes in the Catholic teaching that marriage is between one man and one woman. Henning also said he is open to meeting with Rhode Island state officials, but believes in the separation of church and state.
“I would not imagine I’m going to be somehow influencing public officials,” Henning said. “They have their very important and necessary role to do. I certainly pray for them every day. I know these are difficult times.”
Ted Nesi (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Target 12 investigative reporter and 12 News politics/business editor. He co-hosts Newsmakers and writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook
Adriana Rozas Rivera contributed to this report.