A thriving Midwestern diocese’s secrets to success

Bishop James Conley of the Diocese of Lincoln discusses religious freedom, Catholic education, and what has made his diocese a powerhouse for priestly vocations.

Bishop James Conley is the ninth bishop of the Diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska. The Midwestern diocese is home to 96,000 Catholics who attend 134 parishes and missions.

The bishop grew up in Overland Park, Kansas, a suburb of Kansas City. His father was a building-materials salesman and his mother a housewife; he has one adopted sister. The family was nominally Presbyterian and attended church occasionally.

While attending the Integrated Humanities Program at the University of Kansas, Conley studied the “Great Books”—favorites included the Confessions of St. Augustine and the writings of Blessed John Henry Newman—and converted to Catholicism at age 20. He said his father was “not too happy” about his conversion—he told him he’d given up the freedom of thinking for himself.

In 1977, Conley graduated from the University of Kansas. Initially planning to be a farmer, Conley took part in Pope John Paul II’s 1979 pastoral visit to Des Moines, Iowa, and responded to the pontiff’s plea that young men consider the priesthood. He entered the seminary for the Diocese of Wichita, Kansas, and was ordained a priest in 1985.

In 1991, Conley’s father and mother both converted to Catholicism, and Father Conley received them into the Church.

Beginning in 1996, Conley served in the Congregation for Bishops in the Roman Curia, returning to Wichita a decade later. He was named an auxiliary bishop for the Archdiocese of Denver in 2008, and became bishop of Lincoln in 2012, succeeding Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz.

He recently spoke with CWR.

CWR: The Diocese of Lincoln does well for vocations to the priesthood and religious life. What is the secret to your success? 

Bishop James Conley: We have 43 seminarians this year, including 10 new ones. We go back and forth with the Diocese of Wichita as having the highest number of priests-per-lay-Catholics in the country. Seven out of 10 of our priests are graduates of our high schools.

The secret of a successful vocations program, I believe, begins with prayer. Vocations come from God. We have two cloistered communities of religious women in our diocese, our Carmelite Sisters and our Holy Spirit Adoration Sisters, whom we call “pink sisters” because of the color of their habits. [Both communities] pray for vocations constantly.

Also key to vocations is fidelity to Church teaching. That is one hallmark of the Diocese of Lincoln. For the past 40-plus years, Lincoln has had stellar episcopal leadership, and is unapologetic in its embrace of the Faith. Having the security of knowing that the Diocese of Lincoln is 100 percent faithful to Church teaching on faith and morals is very appealing to many young men considering the priesthood.

We also have an active Newman Center at the University of Nebraska. About 100 of our 139 active priests have had some affiliation with the Newman Center, and it helped positively to influence their decision to enter the seminary. In fact, our vocations director is pastor of the University of Nebraska’s Newman Center and we run our vocations office from there.

Also, in 1999, we had a great blessing in our diocese when Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz opened St. Gregory the Great Seminary, a four-year Catholic college seminary, at a time when many such colleges were closing. It’s been a great blessing for us, and allows us to do our own formation of men discerning the priesthood. That is important because we live in a time when more and more men are coming from broken families. We are able to address a lot of “woundedness” early in their formation.

CWR: Is it true that Lincoln does not have a permanent diaconate program?

Bishop Conley: Yes. We recruit men to serve as acolytes or lectors, but we do not have a permanent diaconate program. I’m open to having such a program in the future, but our diocese has not yet seen a need for it.

CWR: Why is that?

Bishop Conley: For the size of our Catholic population we have many priests who are active in every aspect of parish life. There hasn’t been a great need for deacons or an interest in the diaconate.

CWR: What led you to the seminary?

Bishop Conley: When I graduated from college, I had a degree in English literature. But I was not certain what I wanted to do. I traveled to Europe, and ended up at a Benedictine monastery in France, Our Lady of Fontgombault. It is a cloistered monastery, and it drew many Americans in the 1970s. Some entered and became monks.

Some of these monks came to the United States to found Our Lady of Clear Creek Abbey in Oklahoma, which celebrates Mass in the Extraordinary Form. It began with 13 monks in 1999, and today has nearly 50.

CWR: One of the things that has led to a decline in the number of Catholic children attending Catholic schools is the cost. In Lincoln, a parent can send his child to a Catholic school for a modest fee. How can you make this possible? 

Bishop Conley: It’s not easy, but it is simply a reflection of the faith of the people. Our parishes have a tremendous investment in their parish schools, subsidizing them through stewardship. It allows us to charge a small annual tuition: an average of $640 for K-8 and $1,400 for high school. The cost per pupil is $5,200 annually, so the rest has to be made up through a parish investment. The parish school belongs to the whole parish.

Both of my predecessors, Bishops Flavin [1967-92] and Bruskewitz [1992-2012], were convinced that our tuition had to remain affordable. They didn’t want our Catholic schools to become elitist, serving only the wealthy.

I also give great credit to our priests, who are really invested in Catholic education. All of our religious classes are taught by priests and religious sisters; if you’re ordained five years or fewer you can expect to teach full-time. And, all of our schools are administrated by priests.

CWR: Your brother bishop, Charles Chaput, recently penned a column stating he was unhappy with both candidates for the presidency. What qualities do you think are important in a candidate for public office?

Bishop Conley: Our USCCB document on faithful citizenship outlines some of the qualities to look for in a candidate. For me, personally, I first consider the life issues. I was the director of the Respect Life Office in Wichita for eight years. Human life is as fundamental as you can get.

This includes the beginning of life, which brings up the abortion issue, and the end of life, which brings up euthanasia/assisted suicide. And everything that occurs in between. I want to support candidates who uphold the sanctity of life, despite its stage, and without consideration of disabilities, dependency, or lack of financial resources.

If we don’t get the life issue right, what else is there? If you’re not alive, no other rights pertain. It is fundamental, and we have an obligation to respect those rights.

CWR: What other issues are important?

Bishop Conley: Close in importance to the life issue is the family. Life comes out of the family, and a candidate’s understanding of marriage and human sexuality is crucial.

And, something I give higher and higher priority to is religious freedom. This freedom is part of our Bill of Rights; our freedom to live our faith with respect to our conscience and all that follows from that. This just doesn’t mean a right to worship in our churches, but to live our faith publicly without government intrusion. It is what our country was built on. People came here looking for a free land where they could worship God and follow their consciences, without king or government interfering.

CWR: You have prayed in front of abortion clinics, and have even gone to jail with Operation Rescue. How do you think it is going on the life issue?

Bishop Conley: I graduated high school in 1973, the year the Roe v. Wade decision was announced. I recall seeing a newspaper headline that said, “Supreme Court Puts an End to the Abortion Debate.” What a naïve headline that was! Here we are, more than 40 years later, and it is still a hotly debated issue.

Because of modern science, the pro-life movement and American society in general understand in a clearer way the developing life in the womb. The ultrasound gives us a window into the womb that we never had before, and we can understand in a better way when life begins. Many don’t accept this, but the science is on our side.

If we can see the sacredness of life in the womb, I hope more people will say: what are we doing? How did we get to a point where we destroy more than a million unborn lives a year?

CWR: For some, abortion is the next step when artificial contraception fails. You’ve argued that artificial contraception is harmful to both marriage and society.

Bishop Conley: I wrote a pastoral letter on contraception when I first arrived in Lincoln, in honor of Bishop Flavin, who wrote one in 1991. It’s integral to the life issue. Contraception is an intrinsic evil, and it comes between God and the conceiving of human life. If we don’t get that issue right, we won’t get abortion right. Abortion is the backup for failed contraception.

The marital act is a mutual act of self-giving. We can’t tamper with it; it is sacred ground. That’s a fundamental truth.

CWR: A century ago, non-Catholic Christians agreed that contraception was evil.

Bishop Conley: Yes, until the 1930 Lambeth conference, everyone was with us.

What we’re experiencing today, Pope Paul VI predicted in his prophetic encyclical Humanae Vitae. He said if contraception was widely accepted, it would lead to widespread divorce, abuse of women, pornography, and state-controlled population growth. It predicts demographic winters, and the aging of cultures. He wrote these things in 1968; they’re all happening now.

CWR: The joke goes…in 1961, President John F. Kennedy pledged to put a man on the moon. In 2016, President Barack Obama pledged to put a man in the girl’s bathroom. You’ve written on this topic; what is so wrong-headed in the so-called “gender identity” debate occurring today?

Bishop Conley: It starts with the fundamental understanding of the way we were created. There is a small percentage of people who experience gender dysphoria. I pray for these people. But it is a disorder, and needs to be cared for in a conscientious way. But we cannot accept or condone the behavior of those who feel they are not the gender they should be. It is irresponsible; we need to care for them and accompany them. Studies have shown that 80 percent of people who experience gender dysphoria, if left untreated, will return to the gender of their birth. 

To encourage gender reassignment surgery, which sterilizes a person, does not help him. It has become a political issue, when it is really psychological.

CWR: How do you think this and related social issues will affect the Church?

Bishop Conley: I think absolutely the government will try to force institutions like the Catholic Church to accept new definitions of marriage and gender. Whether it will lead to active persecution, I don’t know.

But I have no doubt the government will pressure us to change, even though we never will. We can’t. We can’t change our understanding of marriage and gender; we can’t change Church teaching. We will have to stand strong, and they’ll come after us.

Tolerance is considered a great virtue in our culture, unless you hold a politically incorrect position. Then you will experience absolute intolerance. The opposition will not tolerate a lack of compliance. We have to be prepared to suffer. But, it’s not the first time the Church has suffered persecution. Look at the martyrs in the early Church in Rome or in 16th- and 17th-century England under Queen Elizabeth. Jesus warned us about this.

I expect it will affect our social service agencies first. The less we can be dependent on government, the better. In our Catholic social services in Lincoln, we have a $6 million budget, 15 percent of which used to come from government sources. It’s down to 7 percent now, and our goal is to completely eliminate any government funding. While there’s been a great history of partnership with the American government in charities, if it means compromising our fundamental beliefs, we can’t take the money.

CWR: What is a basic program of spirituality you recommend to your people?

Bishop Conley: We have a rich tapestry of Catholic spirituality that is beautifully diverse. Whether you prefer Ignatian spirituality or Carmelite spirituality or Benedictine spirituality, there’s something for everyone.

But I would say important components are the sacraments, particularly the Holy Eucharist. I’m a big proponent of Eucharist adoration, and it should be at the heart of everyone’s spirituality. Devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary is important, as is Sacred Scripture. 

CWR: Who are some Catholics you particularly admire?

Bishop Conley: I certainly admire my two predecessors, Bishops Flavin and Bruskewitz. Archbishop Charles Chaput has always been a hero of mine. When I first heard about him, I began reading his writings. He encapsulates a true missionary disciple of Jesus. He has the heart of the Good Shepherd, and is fearless, compassionate, and absolutely faithful to Christ and His Church. He’s also a great guy.

I’ve always been impressed with Blessed John Henry Newman. In fact, I took his motto as my own: Cor Ad Cor Loquitur—Heart speaks to heart.

I admire Pope John Paul II, and can trace my vocation to the priesthood to him.

We’re having the canonization of Mother Teresa; she’s always been one of my favorite Catholics. I remember meeting her for the first time when my parents were becoming Catholic. I told her that and she immediately sat down and wrote a letter to them. She welcomed them to the Catholic Church, and thanked them for the gift of their son for the priesthood. She said to pray that he become a holy priest. My parents framed that letter.

When I was in Rome, it was my privilege to celebrate mass for the Missionaries of Charities [the order Mother Teresa founded] on Fridays, and I also had the chance to travel with them. Mother Teresa has been a huge influence on me.

CWR: Do you have any big news in Lincoln?

Bishop Conley: We’ve inaugurated the Newman Institute for Catholic Thought and Culture at the University of Nebraska’s Newman Center. It’s a program that studies the Great Books and the humanities and also has a lecture series. We had our pilot course earlier this year with more courses planned for the fall.

We also built a new church in the middle of the campus; it’s a neo-Gothic, traditional church that has the largest stained glass window installed in a Catholic Church in the past 100 years. It is a beautiful monument of faith, and is right in the middle of the campus.

Ninety percent of Catholics attend college at secular universities, which tells me I need to focus my resources there.

About Jim Graves 134 Articles

Jim Graves is a Catholic writer living in Newport Beach, California.