Bishop Conley bids farewell to the archdiocese
By Jean Torkelson
Photo by Robert Linn/DCR
Auxiliary Bishop James D. Conley offered his official farewell to the Denver Archdiocese Oct. 21 at a Mass vibrant with Native American pageantry, brimming pews, newly canonized saints, and, to cap it all, a standing ovation in his honor.
“From the bottom of my heart, it’s been an honor to serve you as bishop and I will miss all of you,” Bishop Conley told more than 650 worshipers and well wishers who joined him for the 6:30 p.m. Mass at the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception. “You have taught me how to be a bishop, how to shepherd souls, and for this I will be eternally grateful.”
No ordinary Sunday night Mass, Denver’s former auxiliary bishop and apostolic administrator was saying goodbye as he prepares to become the ninth bishop of the Diocese of Lincoln, Neb., on Nov. 20. He will continue to have some scheduled events in Denver until the end of this month.
It was a Mass that recalled the past but also celebrated the new, because it was also the canonization day of St. Kateri Tekakwitha and St. Marianne Cope, both of whom lived and died on North American soil. They, and five other saints, were elevated by Pope Benedict XVI in Rome earlier Sunday.
A tribal, family event
The canonization of St. Kateri, who is the Church’s first Native American saint and is known as “the Lily of the Mohawks,” is especially significant to Bishop Conley and to the 15-year-old Kateri Catholic Community. The Lakewood-based community sent representatives in colorful ceremonial headdress and traditional garb to bring up the eucharistic gifts.
For Bishop Conley, St. Kateri’s canonization was also a family event. Born in Kansas City, Mo., the bishop is a member of the Wea tribe—the family cemetery is in Wea, Kan.—and, as he explained to the congregation, his great-great-great grandmother was a “full blooded Indian princess.” She spoke the Algonquin language, the same language that St. Kateri spoke in the New York region of 400 years ago.
“It’s a link and I feel like I know her,” Bishop Conley said, referring to the new saint. He said his father, Carl, who died in 2006, spent the last 15 years of his life researching the Conley family’s Native American ancestry and writing a book about it.
“He was so proud of his Native American background,” Bishop Conley said. “And he made us proud of it, too.”
As an official tribe member, Bishop Conley was permitted Sunday to perform a special tribal “smudging” ritual, by wafting smoking sage and cedar incense aloft with a foot-long eagle feather. He was handed the smudging pot by Jon Chavarria, a member of the Navajo tribe and the Kateri community.
Chavarria said later that he felt honored to work with two bishops of Native American ancestry. Besides Bishop Conley, former Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput also has Native American ancestry as a descendant of the Potawatomi tribe.
Chavarria said he was impressed that Bishop Conley could document so much about his Native American background that he carries a tribal card, which is extremely difficult to qualify for.
“I was surprised he had a tribal card,” Chavarria said after the Mass. “He shows me his card and I said, ‘Oh my gosh, some of us can’t get a tribal card because we can’t get enough information on our loved ones!”
Photo by Robert Linn/DCR
The diversity of saints
In his homily, Bishop Conley addressed Catholics of every background and ethnicity, urging them to recognize that everyone is called to be a missionary and a saint.
“Saints come from everywhere and from all places,” he said, “from all social conditions, time periods, languages. … By living our faith quietly, making sacrifices each day, known only to God, that example, that witness, carries on the faith from one generation to the next.”
In an apparent reference to the much coveted tribal card, he added, “The way of holiness is the way of the cross—this is the identification card of the Christian.”
The bishop said he has been visiting his new home, and had already met with a thriving organization of young Catholics at the University of Nebraska.
“Please keep me in your prayers, and I promise you my prayers,” he said. “I know I will take my experience (in Denver) of a lively, faithful, dynamic young Church on the cutting edge of evangelization, to Lincoln.”
Jean Torkelson: 303-715-3122; www.twitter.com/DCRegister