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Q&A: Bishop Conley reflects on his new appointment
By Roxanne King
On Sept. 13 Denver Auxiliary Bishop James D. Conley spoke to the Denver Catholic Register about his new appointment as bishop of the Lincoln Diocese.
Q: When and how did you find out about your new appointment?
A: I got the call on Friday, Sept. 7 as I was driving to the chancery. I saw on my cell phone that the area code was Washington and knew it was probably from the apostolic nunciature because I don’t know anyone else in Washington, so I pulled over. It was Archbishop (Carlo Maria) Vigano. He told me the Holy Father had named me the new bishop of Lincoln, Neb.
The next day, Sept. 8, was the birthday of the Blessed Mother. So I spent Mary’s birthday marveling at the incredible ways God works in our life. The Lord called Mary to be the Mother of God and she said yes, with trust and faith. He has called me to be the bishop of Lincoln. And he calls each one of us—every single one of us—to a mission for his sake, and to holiness in Jesus Christ.
Q: What was your reaction?
A: I am honored, and I am humbled, by the confidence the Holy Father has expressed in me. There is nothing more important for a bishop than the care of souls. God has called me to be the shepherd of souls in the Diocese of Lincoln. I know I need to rely on his grace for this great responsibility.
A couple of days before Archbishop Vigano called, on Sept. 5 the feast of Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, I had asked her intercession that if I was ever called to a diocese I would have the peace, tranquility and joy to accept wherever it might be. She answered that prayer because as soon as I heard the nuncio speak the words about my appointment, there was a certain peace. Even though I love Denver, was formed as a bishop in Denver and have made such good friends here—it’s been a wonderful time in my life—I knew that this was from God.
I am very joyful for the blessings God has given me. Lincoln has always been a diocese that I’ve looked up to. There are a number of priests in the Lincoln Diocese I went to seminary with and I always admired them and the bishops I knew—Bishop (Glennon) Flavin and Bishop (Fabian) Bruskewitz—they are heroes in my mind. The other feeling I had when I heard the nuncio say “Lincoln” was a real unworthiness knowing I’d be filling the shoes of giants because I’ve looked up to both of those bishops throughout my whole priesthood. They have been stellar models of episcopal leadership.
Q: You grew up in Kansas, served as a priest there several years in two stints, then served at the Vatican 10 years, and the last four years you’ve served as an auxiliary bishop in Denver. How have those experiences changed you and how do you feel about leaving Denver?
A: I’ve been fortunate to be formed as a priest by the people of Wichita, by my experiences in Rome, and by my time in Denver, each in different ways.
Wichita is the diocese where I was ordained. The priests and people there were instrumental in helping me discover my vocation, and in learning what it is to be a faithful servant of Jesus Christ.
In Rome I gained an experience of the universal Church, which helped me to appreciate the richness of the Gospel and of the Church’s tradition.
And in Denver I’ve been formed as a bishop. Archbishop (Charles) Chaput, especially, is a hero and a friend—he helped me to understand the self-gift of a bishop’s ministry. I owe so much to him and to Archbishop (Samuel) Aquila, who has been a dear and trusted friend for over 20 years.
When a priest is ordained and gets his first parish, it’s always his first love. Denver will always hold that place in my heart because it’s where I learned to be a bishop.
Furthermore, the vitality of the Church here has shown me the true fruit of the new evangelization. And of course I’ve made life-long friendships here, in Rome and in Wichita. I have been richly blessed in my friendships.
Q: How do you feel about your upcoming move to Lincoln and when will you actually move there?
A: My installation will be on Tuesday, Nov. 20. I’ll leave for Nebraska shortly before that date. I’ll spend the months of September and October preparing, and saying farewell to my friends here in Denver.
I’m thrilled to go to Lincoln. It is a place of holy priests, holy religious, and holy families. To follow in Bishop Bruskewitz’s footsteps is a tremendous joy. I’m looking forward to getting to know the people, and to working alongside them in the new evangelization. The Year of Faith is a wonderful time to begin ministry in a new diocese—to grow together in the richness of our faith.
Q: Do you have any connections to Nebraska?
A: My life as a priest is already connected to the history of Lincoln. As a priest of the Diocese of Wichita, I served under the leadership of Bishop Michael Jackels and Bishop Thomas Olmsted— both men chosen as bishops from the ranks of the Lincoln presbyterate.
As auxiliary bishop here in Denver, I’ve read about the legacies of Archbishop James Casey and Bishop J. Henry Tihen, men who served first as bishops of Lincoln and then of Denver.
And because of the strong friendship between Bishop David Malony, the bishop who received me into the seminary, and Bishop Flavin, a true giant in the history of the Diocese of Lincoln, many of the priests of Lincoln were seminarians with me at St. Pius X Seminary in Erlinger, Ky., and Mount St. Mary's Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md.
So there’s an interesting triangle of connection between Wichita, Lincoln and Denver—the “trifecta” as I call it.
Q: What does your family think of your new appointment?
A: My mom lives in Kansas City, and Lincoln is only about three hours away. So she is glad that I’ll be closer to her. But she loves Denver and her many friends here—especially (archdiocesan events coordinator) Tess Stone! She’s told me she’ll miss visiting us here. Like me, I think my family has always accepted whatever the Lord wants for my ministry—so I know they will be a big support for me in Lincoln.
Q: You’re a runner, like to ski, hike, golf, and enjoy going on pilgrimage. What is something people might be surprised to know about you?
A: I try to be transparent—so I don’t have very many things hidden. I think being authentically ourselves is a key to the Christian life. I love the outdoors, as you mentioned, and just got back from walking a portion of “The Camino” to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. I also love to read—especially Blessed John Henry Newman, my mentor and spiritual patron, and Charles Dickens, my favorite author. But not many people realize that I listen to a lot of alt-rock and folk music, in addition to Latin hymnody!
Q: What do you see are the main differences between the Lincoln Diocese and the Archdiocese of Denver and how will those differences impact your ministry?
A: Lincoln is a smaller diocese—there are around 90,000 Catholics there—and more than 500,000 Catholics in the Archdiocese of Denver. The territory of the diocese is also smaller. But Lincoln has more in common with Denver than it has differences—a mix of rural and urban settings, a holy and fairly young presbyterate, a history of great bishops, and a lot of very serious and committed Catholic families.
Both dioceses are known for their fidelity and their love for Holy Mother Church. The other big similarity is the fact that both the Archdiocese of Denver and the Diocese of Lincoln have experienced a tremendous increase in vocations to the priesthood. In Lincoln we have 44 seminarians studying for the priesthood in a diocese of just over 90,000 Catholics—that’s tremendous. Lincoln always has among the highest number of seminarians per Catholic population in the country and Denver has that same distinction. They are both enjoying a rich harvest of vocations.
I am looking forward to getting to know Lincoln, but my mission as bishop there will remain the same: to help all people to encounter Jesus Christ, and to become holy, as God in heaven is holy.
Q: As a priest and bishop, you’ve had a heart for pro-life and young adult ministry. Will those apostolates continue to be a priority for you?
A: I’ve always been involved in pro-life work and I like that Nebraska is a very actively pro-life state. The people of Nebraska have really been tireless advocates for the unborn, as well as for religious liberty and the defense of marriage between a man and a woman. So I am excited to work with them on these issues.
The Newman Center at the University of Nebraska—in collaboration with FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students)—is another great apostolate. The student years are a time when many really hunger to encounter Christ—so I look forward to working with the Newman Center in their missionary work.
I’ve worked with college students most of my priesthood as a chaplain at three different colleges and as a teacher. And in Denver I formed very strong relationships and friendships with young adults at Theology on Tap lectures and Vigil Praise liturgies. I’m looking forward to tapping into—no pun intended—the young adult community in the Diocese of Lincoln.
Q: What are you most looking forward to as you begin your new ministry?
A: We never know exactly what God has in store for us. So I am eager to begin this new chapter in my ministry, and to find out what Jesus Christ has for me. But my episcopal motto, “cor ad cor loquitor,” (“heart speaks to heart”) suggests an important part of my ministry—building relationships that point the way to faith.
I look forward to building relationships with the people of the various cities and towns that comprise the Diocese of Lincoln, which covers all of southern Nebraska. I want to get to know the different communities and the different ethnic backgrounds and traditions of rural Nebraska as well as Lincoln.
Q: What do you find most daunting about your upcoming ministry as bishop of Lincoln?
A: I think learning all the things a bishop needs to know in a new diocese will be a challenge, but I am blessed because the priests and staff in the Diocese of Lincoln have already been so helpful to me.
Q: This summer you visited your titular “see beneath the sea,” Cissa. What happens to that now that you have a territorial diocese?
A: Providentially, I was able to visit Cissa, my titular see this summer. It’s a beautiful place off the coast of Croatia. My “see beneath the sea” was teeming with fish! I have to say farewell to Cissa. But I know my new see, the Diocese of Lincoln, which is teeming with people who know and love Christ, will be even more beautiful.
Q: If there was one aspect of the episcopacy you’d like to clarify for people, what would it be?
A: Being a bishop means a lot of things. I think many people think most about a lot of administrative work to keep the diocese going. But the salvation of souls is the most important mission that a bishop has. The bishop’s role is to help the people of his diocese know and love Jesus Christ and realize their call to holiness. I’m particularly excited about beginning my tenure in Lincoln during this Year of Faith. If everyone in Lincoln becomes a saint—I’ll be successful. Until then, there’s work to be done—and all for the glory of God!
Q: Is there anything else you would like to add?
A: The people of Denver have been like a family to me. I will miss them terribly. I am incredibly grateful to have been auxiliary bishop here and to have served 10 months as apostolic administrator. But we will be united in mission, in the Eucharist, and in eternity with God. We stay connected in the body of Christ. I’m grateful for the way that so many people in Denver, in Wichita, in Rome, and in Kansas City, where I grew up, have influenced me, and shared life with me. I look forward to our unity in heaven!