“What is the surfer without the wave?” Remarks of Bishop Richard Henning

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Some twenty years ago on a beautiful summer day, I sat on a beach chair at Ponquogue Beach in Hampton Bays with good friends. As I looked out at the sunny day and an impossibly blue ocean, I saw what looked like a figure walking on the water. You can imagine that this would attract my interest!

It turned out that the miracle was a man on a stand up paddle board – a kind of oversized surf board. And as he came ashore with his board, he carried up and sat down at the next umbrella with his family and I had the chance to question him about the board. I am not usually an impulsive man, but two days later, I drove away from a Riverhead surf shop with my own stand up paddle board. I just could not get that image of standing on the surface of the sea out of my mind.

I use my board in bay waters that are much calmer than the open ocean. And while I enjoy the board very much, my enthusiasm has always exceeded my skill. Let’s just say that I get wet pretty often.

It takes a good sense of balance on a paddle board even in calm bay waters. And this experience has given me an appreciation for the skill of those who surf ocean waves. At Ocean Beach, where I Pastor the summer mission, I watch the surfers and marvel at their skill and agility.

The movies often depict surfers as unintelligent loafers – the stereotype of the “surfer dude.” In fact the opposite is true. Surfers are smart, observant, disciplined, and hard working. They have to be to pursue their sport. The go to the ocean at ungodly hours and in terrible weather. They often go to the beach when the rest of us stay home. They must learn by observation of the ways of the sea – the tides and currents, the winds, and the physics of sea bottom and waves. They look beyond the surface to the depths. And they are patient – they spend long hours waiting for that moment and that wave that will lift them for a good run.

It is so much effort and time for those few moments, that we might even wonder why they invest themselves. And the answer to that question is this: they observe, learn, practice, and endure because of those glorious fleeting moments – an experience of communion with the very power of the sea – they pursue a feat of impressive agility and strength – a true sport – and a thing of beauty – a true art. There is a joy in that moment that sustains the hard work and the long hours. But notice that the surfer cannot make it happen. He or she must partner with the power of the sea – and it is the experience of communion that lifts and exhilarates.

While I am no surfer, I appreciate what I have learned from witnessing their craft. It seems to me that the demands of their world apply well to many areas of life – and maybe to the spiritual life most of all. For we who are disciples also know the powerful gift of communion – with God and with one another – and we know that the experience of communion is not magic but hard work, close observation, looking deeper, patience and discipline.

What is the surfer without the wave? Sadness and empty hope.

On this day I am keenly aware of how small and helpless I am without the grace of Our Lord and Savior. And I express my deepest gratitude to Father Son and Holy Spirit for the call to baptism – to dive into those deep waters – and for the gift of Holy Orders.

I stand in gratitude to my parents, siblings, family, and friends who have shaped and loved me and taught me to love. While I am ever grateful for the titles bestowed on me by the Church, my first and proudest claim is that I am the son of Richard and Maureen Henning.

I am so aware of my debt to the Church who has embraced me like the Mother she is – and her people who have lifted me in faith and hope. I am so grateful to His Holiness Pope Francis and to his representative Archbishop Christophe Pierre for their summons to this new service of the Church – and to the Bishop’s who link us to Christ and to one another around the world – permit me a special mention of Bishop McGann who ordained me, Bishop Murphy who mentored me, Bishop Barres who challenges and inspires me, and Bishop Brennan who has walked with me through many years. I stand in debt to all of the Bishops of RVC, to the Bishop’s of NYS, and all those who have travelled to encourage me at the outset of Episcopal ministry. During these last 6 years of the Borromeo Partnership, I have been blessed to work for, and learn from, Cardinal Dolan, Archbishop of New York, and Bishop DiMarzio of Brooklyn.

I stand in gratitude for the priests who ministered to me and inspired me to respond to God’s call – here I owe a special debt to my parish priests at Holy Name of Mary and to Msgr. Jack Nosser, who guided me through my pastoral internship as a seminarian and through all the years since. I am grateful to the priests with whom I studied in Washington and Rome – particularly to Msgr. Anthony Hernandez of Brooklyn, now Bishop Ed Malesic of Greensburg PA and Father Robert Schreiner of Crookston Minnesota – the man I affectionately call “Tundra priest!” I am grateful to the priests and deacons with whom I have shared ministry and to my DRVC classmates – Fr. Tom Moriarty who is such an effective pastor that the Bishop gave him three parishes – at the same time! – to Steve Pietrowski who has long been friend and a source of strength and wisdom – he is a man who values authenticity and I know that if I ever feel tempted to presumption he will be there to remind me of who I am. I cannot help but think also of Msgr. Jim Kissane who we lost to illness too early. His passing left a terrible void in the lives of his wonderful family and in the family of the Church. I remember his hard work and sense of humor. I can hear him asking me how I ever found a mitre to fit a knucklehead like me. And remembering such a fine priest, permit me to ask that we acknowledge with gratitude all of the priests here today!

I stand in gratitude to all the priests, religious, and lay teachers who taught and inspired me over 27 years of study. As much as my vocation was born in the parish, it was raised by the Marianists.

Thanks be to God for the gift of the people and parishes where I have had the privilege to exercise priestly ministry – at St. Peter’s in Port Washington, St. Mary’s in Roslyn, St. Patrick’s in Bay Shore, and at Our Lady of the Magnificat in Ocean Beach on Fire Island.

I stand in gratitude to the Rectors who guided me in the work of formation: Msgrs. Schneider, McDonald, and Vaccari and to my colleagues in that work – lay faculty, religious, and wonderful priests like Bishop Massa, Fr. Jerome Vereb, Fr. Charles Caccavale, and Msgr. Charlie Fink who directed me in my retreat two weeks ago.

I am grateful to the seminarians and deacon candidates from those years of formation work – their passion for God and commitment to the church challenged and uplifted me even if reading their research papers was sometimes purgatorial. While I am no longer teaching, permit me to acknowledge the presence of our seminarians and thank them for their yes to the call of the Lord!

I am grateful to the administration and staff of the Seminary who worked so hard through tough transitions and new missions. Thank you Fr. Greg Rannazzisi, Fr. Walter Kedjierski, Deacon Dennis, Linda, Karol and all the staff!

I am grateful my colleagues in the work of the Sacred Heart Institute: Frs. Fonti and Costello, and Msgr. Ivers. I owe a special debt of gratitude to the excellent young priests in the program for the recently ordained – we live in an age when God appears to have called fewer priests – I can attest, though, that if this is the case, the Lord has also blessed us with a generation of truly excellent young priests and I have the highest confidence in them.

I am grateful to my fellow Vicars and Auxiliaries, Bishop A, Bishop Coyle, and Fr. Sheridan and to the pastors with whom we work. I stand in awe of our pastors who carry the greatest measure of the burden in the work of this diocese. Thanks be to God that they have such wide and effective shoulders.

I stand in gratitude to all of you here and all those watching – and allow me to thank those who have worked so hard and generously to prepare these events. You gave me the gift of time to pray, to repent, and to prepare spiritually for ordination. I pray that the Lord’s grace will permit time to return that generosity in my new work. You are too many to name in this setting, but permit to express a special word of gratitude to the young people from our Catholic High Schools who are assisting today and to Rose Sullivan and Sr. Maryanne Fitzgerald.

So what is the surfer without the wave? Sadness and empty hope. With the wave, a thing of beauty and transcendence.

Maybe you are realizing that I have not been speaking so much about surfing. I am thinking rather of waves of Divine Love and Grace. I am thinking of our partnership with the Lord and one another and what is possible to us when we have the discipline to see and the courage to stand up and ride those waves. Then indeed is a thing of beauty and transcendence. With some discomfort, I have been the center of attention today, but the truth is that I am no more than a surfer blessed with a particularly perfect set of waves. You have been those waves and I thank you with all my heart. May we all as Christian disciples stand up and ride the waves of Divine grace to the very shores of the Kingdom!

Praised be the Name of Jesus Christ! Now and Forever!