From one heart to another: Bishop leaves a legacy of Christian love
By Nissa LaPoint
Photo by James Baca/DCR
Just as the heart of God speaks to his children the truth of his love, Bishop James Conley has spent his ministry in the Denver Archdiocese speaking to his flock about Christ heart to heart, touching the lives of many.
From the moment he appeared before the faithful at the chancery in Denver on April 10, 2008, for the announcement of his appointment as their new auxiliary bishop, the Missouri-born convert impacted them in countless ways.
“He walked into the room, went up to the podium and talked about his conversion—
and he spoke with his hand on his heart,” recalled Michelle Walter, executive assistant for the Office of Risk Management.
At the time, she was considering a conversion to Catholicism.
“The spirit clearly sits with the bishop,” she said. “I felt it."
At that moment, Walter said she decided to convert. Bishop Conley learned of her decision and encouraged her.
“His pastoral support through my process was appreciated more than I think he’ll ever know,” Walter said.
On the eve of Bishop Conley’s departure from Denver to the Lincoln Diocese where he will serve as bishop, Catholics in the archdiocese reflected on the profound moments when he shepherded his flock and the friendship he shared with them the last four years.
He chose as his episcopal motto “cor ad cor loquitur,” which means “heart speaks to heart” from the motto of 19th-century English convert Blessed Cardinal John Henry Newman.
At the beginning of his ministry, Bishop Conley began ordaining priests and deacons—the first was Oblates of the Virgin Mary Father Michael Warren of Holy Ghost Parish in Denver—and celebrated the first solemn high pontifical Mass at the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in 40 years.
He quickly developed relationships with clergy and consecrated women, like Missionaries of Charity Sister M. Rosalie Kiro of Gift of Mary Shelter for Homeless Women in Denver, who called him the sisters’ “loving father.”
Twice a month he gave a spiritual talk to the sisters, heard confessions and knelt for 30 minutes with them in their chapel for the rosary and a holy hour.
“This means so much to us,” Sister Kiro said. “We’ll miss him.”
He also made a place in the hearts of the young adult Catholic community, who affectionately call him “Bish.”
“He is a kind and holy and magnanimous shepherd, friend and father who has profound insights into the moments of your young adulthood,” said Brigid DeMoor, youth coordinator of Endow, a Catholic organization that promotes the new feminism of Pope John Paul II.
Denver young adults trekked the ancient Camino de Santiago (Way of St. James) pilgrimage route in Spain with the bishop before attending World Youth Day 2011. They chatted over drinks at Lala’s Wine Bar and Pizzeria in Denver and at Theology on Tap lectures, took annual camping trips and shared happy hours on the chancery’s terrace.
“He would talk about the truth of the Catholic Church and about goodness and beauty,” DeMoor said. “It was invigorating and inspiring.”
Many describe the bishop as a widely relatable man who possesses a magnetic joy and deep love for God.
Msgr. Bernard Schmitz, vicar of clergy, said the bishop became like a brother to him as they got to know each other in residence at Mother of God Parish, where they shared a love for sports teams, bike rides and cooking a good meal.
The bishop was often seen around the archdiocese praying and witnessing to the faith. He’s led rosaries and Masses outside Planned Parenthood’s headquarters in Denver for an end to abortion and is often seen wearing a lapel pin of baby feet. He also helped launch the Lighthouse Women’s Center across the street from the abortion clinic.
The “Light is On For You” confession campaign debuted in Denver by the initiative of the bishop and the result was successful. He also made it an annual tradition to join the Faith Rally Day at St. Vincent de Paul School in Denver and celebrate the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe at the Denver parish named after her.
Photo by James Baca/DCR
Quick to respond
Bishop Conley also made his mark in the archdiocese by his quick response to the federal Health and Human Services contraception mandate, which threatens religious freedom, and his call for faithful to protect this God-given right through prayer and days of fasting during the national Fortnight for Freedom campaign.
After the deadly Aurora theater shootings in July, he led an invocation at a prayer vigil to ask the community to respond to violence with peace and to love as God loves. Many found the bishop a true shepherd when he led them through the implementation of the new Roman Missal through homilies and his regular Denver Catholic Register columns.
Amidst his ministry, he hit the 25th anniversary of his priestly ordination and later served as apostolic administrator of the archdiocese for 10 months.
When the faithful speak about the ways Bishop Conley touched the people and places of the archdiocese, they say his motto couldn’t better summarize his leadership.
“When he speaks heart to heart, he is speaking from his heart,” Walter said.