Bishop Conley looks back at Denver, forward to Lincoln
By Roxanne King
Photo by Iseman Photography
As he drove to his office Sept. 7, Denver Auxiliary Bishop James D. Conley got a call on his cell phone from Washington, D.C. Guessing it was the apostolic nuncio, his only contact in Washington, he pulled over to answer it.
It was indeed Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, the Vatican’s representative in the United States. He told Bishop Conley the pope had appointed him bishop of the Diocese of Lincoln, Neb.
“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,” Bishop Conley told the Denver Catholic Register.
“She answered that prayer because as soon as I heard the nuncio speak the words about my appointment, there was a certain peace,” he said. “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.”
A week later Bishop Conley was in Lincoln for the formal announcement of his appointment and a tour of his new diocese (read related story on Page 3). He will be installed the ninth bishop of the Lincoln Diocese on Nov. 20 at the Cathedral of the Risen Christ in Lincoln.
Born in Kansas City, Mo., Bishop Conley, 57, grew up in Wichita, Kan., Denver and Overland Park, Kan.
A convert to the Catholic faith, he was ordained a priest of Wichita in 1985. After earning a licentiate in moral theology from the Accademia Alfonsiana, he spent 10 years as an official in the Congregation for Bishops in Rome.
In his 27 years as a priest, Bishop Conley has also served as a pastor, college campus chaplain, director of Respect Life ministries and theology instructor.
The last four years he has served as auxiliary bishop for the Denver Archdiocese, including 10 months as apostolic administrator after former Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput was installed to head the Philadelphia Archdiocese last September, and before Archbishop Samuel Aquila was installed in Denver on July 18.
Of Wea Indian descent, Bishop Conley is only the second convert to be made a U.S. bishop.
Archbishop Aquila greeted the news of his auxiliary’s appointment with praise.
“I join with the clergy, religious, and faithful of the Archdiocese of Denver in offering Bishop Conley our warmest congratulations,” he said in a statement. “Bishop Conley is a man of deep prayer, keen intellect, warm heart, and fervent commitment to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
The archbishop noted that in his four years in Denver, Bishop Conley became known for his commitment to the unborn and his enthusiastic ministry to young people.
“He will serve the people of Lincoln with great enthusiasm, strong leadership, and with a deep love for Jesus Christ and the Church,” Archbishop Aquila said. “The Archdiocese of Denver assures him of our prayers, and our continued hope for his success.”
Archbishop Chaput, in a statement, also shared his high regard for the bishop.
“During our years serving together, Bishop Conley was a wonderful brother and friend, completely devoted to the Church in Denver,” he said. “He’s a man of warmth and intelligence, a great mentor of young adults, and equally at home in college forums and local parishes. He has a keen love for people and ideas, and a vivid zeal for the faith.
“He’ll be very much missed by people in Denver, but he’s the perfect man to shepherd the Church in Lincoln, and the people of Nebraska will love him.”
Lincoln and Denver
Like Denver, Bishop Conley’s new diocese was established in August 1887. The Lincoln Diocese, however, is smaller than the Denver Archdiocese in territory and population. Located in southern Nebraska, it covers 23,844 square miles and has a total population of just over a half-million people, of which 96,625 are Catholic. In contrast, the Denver Archdiocese covers 40,000 square miles in northern Colorado that is home to more than 3 million people, of which just over a half-million are Catholic.
“But Lincoln has more in common with Denver than it has differences,” Bishop Conley said, noting that both have “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 the Church, he said.
“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,” he added. “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.”
Bishop Conley marveled at the triangle of connections his life as a priest has had with Wichita, Lincoln and Denver, calling it “the trifecta.”
“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,” he said. “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 (Glennon) 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.”
Each chapter of his priestly life has left its mark on him in different ways, Bishop Conley said.
“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 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 Aquila, who has been a dear and trusted friend for over 20 years.”
A priest’s “first love” is usually his first parish, Bishop Conley said.
“Denver will always hold that place in my heart because it’s where I learned to be a bishop.”
So what is Bishop Conley most looking forward to in his new ministry?
“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 loquitur,’ (‘heart speaks to heart’) suggests an important part of my ministry—building relationships that point the way to faith.
“I’m thrilled to go to Lincoln,” he added. “It is a place of holy priests, holy religious, and holy families. To follow in Bishop (Fabian) 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.”
What might his new flock be surprised to know about him?
“I try to be transparent—so I don’t have very many things hidden,” he said. “I think being authentically ourselves is a key to the Christian life.
“I love the outdoors,” he offered, referring to his well-known enjoyment of running, skiing, hiking, golfing and going on pilgrimage. “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!”
Bishop Conley said he plans to remain in Denver until shortly before his installation preparing for his move and saying goodbye to his friends here. Organizers are planning a farewell Mass for everyone to attend that will be celebrated by Bishop Conley. Information will be forthcoming.
“The people of Denver have been like a family to me. I will miss them terribly,” Bishop Conley said. “But we will be united in mission, in the Eucharist, and in eternity with God. We stay connected in the body of Christ.”
A new see
His new appointment also means he says goodbye to his titular see, Cissa, which he visited for the first time this summer.
“It’s a beautiful place off the coast of Croatia,” he explained. “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.”