by Mary Iapalucci
Although it will no longer be home to men studying for the priesthood, the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception, Huntington, will still be a house of formation and an institution of Christian learning, according to Msgr. Richard Henning, who will serve as the director of the new Sacred Heart Institute for Ongoing Formation of Clergy, which will be headquartered there.
“We are not closing in any way,” Msgr. Henning assured. “That was the biggest misconception” about the St. Charles Borromeo Inter-diocesan Partnership, formed in November, 2011, by the bishops of Brooklyn, Rockville Centre and New York to work cooperatively in the formation of priests.
While there will no longer be seminarians on the sprawling Lloyd Harbor campus, “master‘s classes will keep going full steam, deacon classes will keep going full steam,” the Pastoral Formation Institute and other programs will continue to use the facility and new initiatives of the Sacred Heart Institute will be introduced, Msgr. Henning said. There will be changes, he said, but many will be positive ones for Catholics on Long Island.
Originally, the plan was to keep both St. Joseph’s Seminary in Dunwoodie in the Archdiocese and Immaculate Conception Seminary as separate degree-granting institutions, but ultimately it presented as a better use of resources to maintain St. Joseph as the degree-granting institution with an extension site at the Huntington campus.
“For the sake of the student from Long Island, only the brand name changes,” explained Msgr. Henning. Being a branch campus “will broaden what’s available locally,” he said, noting that students would be able to take courses at both places and there will be a focus on using elements of distance technology to reduce or eliminate travel. Immediate plans include linking one or two classrooms at each institution so a class might be made up of “six students in Huntington and six other students and a professor in Dunwoodie, or vice versa. They would be able to interact using the highest technology,” Msgr. Henning said.
The loss of seminarians at Huntington will also mean an increase in availability for groups in the diocese to use the building and grounds for retreats and conferences.
“There is nothing else like it anywhere,” he said of the campus that provides acres of serene outdoor space and has a beautiful, historic chapel at its center and up to 200 rooms with private baths.
The Spanish Romanesque style building, which formally opened in September 1930, will now host the Sacred Heart Institute, which will provide formation for those already ordained for all three dioceses.
“This is not a new idea in the Church,” Msgr. Henning explained. “Vatican II summoned bishops to provide ongoing formation for their clergy. The Sacred Heart Institute develops this further than has been done before. This shows the commitment to the clergy,” of Bishops Murphy and DiMarzio and Cardinal Dolan.
Msgr. Henning feels the Institute is being formed at a crucial time for the Church in an increasingly secular society. “Both Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI have spoken of the need for the new evangelization … about re-evangelizing communities that are Christian by name, but have fallen away from the practice and knowledge of their faith.”
“This is an issue of critical importance in Western Culture,” he said, and in order to be successful, “we first need to evangelize the clergy.”
Like in all other vocations, including marriage, “all of us need renewal, to get excited and passionate again,” Msgr. Henning said. To accomplish this, the Sacred Heart Institute will need to provide a wide-range of programs, from theological updates to fraternal opportunities to providing practical pastoral skills. Programs of shorter durations, like workshops, will be offered throughout all three dioceses, with multi-night events housed at Huntington.
Some opportunities will be focused on spiritual life but the Sacred Heart Institute will strive to provide clergy with tools they need in areas from health issues to social media. An immediate focus will be on training mentors for newly ordained priests and new pastors. In a time where many priests are living alone, the Sacred Heart Institute can help to bring clergy together and focus on “belonging to a priesthood,” which is vital, according to Msgr. Henning.
“Another major component, which is very specific to Rockville Centre, Brooklyn and New York, is the high percentage of priests from outside the dioceses serving here,” said Msgr. Henning, who hopes to continue and expand on the work he did the past two years as director of the Parresia Project, which seeks ways to improve reception processes for international priests.
His biggest challenge at the Sacred Heart Institute will be getting priests and deacons to participate, he said. It will be crucial “to figure out what is needed and to make the programs user friendly.”
As he takes on his new role, Msgr. Henning calls to mind wisdom he learned from Immaculate Heart of Mary Sister Agnes Shaw, the principal at his first priestly assignment, St. Peter of Alcantara in Port Washington. When they were working on a school mission statement, she came up with the succinct phrase: “We teach Christ.”
“Everything is central to that,” he said. “Our mission, what are we called to do here, is all about formation and education and growing closer to Christ.”