Bishop Conley of Lincoln: “Success breeds success” when it comes to vocations

The head of a vocational powerhouse explains what his diocese is getting right.

Bishop James D. Conley of Lincoln, Neb., in March 2017. (CNS photo/Dave Hrbacek, The Catholic Spirit)

The Diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska has become well-known in recent years for its high number of priestly vocations relative to its small size; it also has a reputation as a bastion of orthodoxy and liturgical excellence in the Latin Rite. Bishop James Conley, the bishop of Lincoln since 2012, was among the attendants of the Fellowship of Catholic University Students’ (FOCUS) SLS 18 conference in Chicago earlier this month. His Excellency graciously made time to answer a few questions about the reasons his diocese is thriving.

Nicholas LaBanca, for CWR: I’d like to center our conversation today on how young people in the Church have begun to discover the riches of their liturgical patrimony in the Latin Rite. We can’t fail to observe that your diocese has consistently produced many vocations to the priesthood; the Diocese of Lincoln saw 17 men ordained to the priesthood in a two-year period, outpacing much larger archdioceses like Los Angeles, for instance. What would you say has contributed to this relative boom of priestly vocations in your diocese?

Bishop James Conley: Well there’s a lot of reasons for that, I believe. Grace, lots of grace, obviously. But I’d say one of the several things that we can directly attribute this to is the episcopal leadership. We’ve had basically 40-plus years of good bishops. Two of my most immediate predecessors come to mind: Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz, who was bishop of Lincoln for 20 years, and Bishop Glennon Flavin, who was bishop for about 22 years [beginning in] 1967. So in those turbulent post-conciliar years since the end of the Second Vatican Council, we had our diocese led by bishops who really were very clear in their teaching and were very faithful to the Magisterium and what the Church’s patrimony was as far as doctrine goes. And [also] the liturgy. You know the revolution after the Second Vatican Council took many shapes and forms. You had the sexual revolution but you also had the liturgical revolution, you had the doctrinal revolution, everything was up for grabs.

In Lincoln, they steered a steady course and so there was never any liturgical aberrations. The priests were told very clearly that they would follow and would celebrate the Mass the way the Church wants it celebrated, and there were no exceptions to that. As far as teaching goes, the schools and the priests taught very sound doctrine. And the result is two things. One, our vocations stayed steady. So even though I’ve had the privilege of ordaining I think about 25 men in the last five years since I’ve been to Lincoln, we still have the highest number of seminarians per Catholic in the country. We have 96,000 Catholics and we have currently 39 seminarians. We’re a small diocese. But the result of that leadership—and I have inherited that so I don’t attribute that to myself at all, I just don’t want to mess it up. I want to keep it going. But I really have been the beneficiary of the great leadership of those two bishops. The result has been those vocations. Success breeds success. We have 146 active priests in the Diocese of Lincoln and the average age is 41. That’s more than 20 years younger than I am. So I’m the old guy in the diocese.

And when you have all these young priests who are in the parishes, and in the schools, and in the university, then young people see an example of religious life. And we have religious sisters. Bishop Flavin started a community of school sisters who teach in our schools, School Sisters of Christ the King. I just elevated them to the level of a diocesan rite, and they continue to teach. Four of them are principals in our grade schools and they teach in our grade schools. We have 37 religious sisters in full habit teaching in our schools and we have 48 priests that are either administrators or teaching in our schools. So Catholic education has been a very important part of the success of the Diocese of Lincoln. So to summarize: liturgy and worship, where people feel that when they come to Mass, they are in contact with the Transcendent. This is where I think Sacred Liturgy is so important.

You talked about our patrimony. We have this rich liturgical tradition and you go back throughout the history of the Church. What is the Sacred Liturgy supposed to do? Sacred Liturgy is supposed to put us in contact with the transcendent God. We’re supposed to have an experience of the holy. That’s what the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is. That’s why the Lord said, “Do this in remembrance of me.” And the beauty of that experience, the beauty of the music, the beauty of the worship and the reverence and the piety—it takes people out of the everyday, mundane world that we live in. A lot of suffering and hardship. And they have this contact for a while with the holy. And that’s key. People have to be nourished. Our souls desire contact with the holy. If we’re deprived of that, we wither away, and so we need that.

People, when they discover it, need more of it. So one of the initiatives I’m trying to promote is Eucharistic Adoration, in as many of our parishes as we can. Because when we come before our Lord and His Eucharistic face—the Sacrament of Divine Friendship as it’s sometimes called—our Lord’s heart speaks to our hearts. And we need those moments. There are very few places left today where we can be relatively certain that we’re not going be interrupted. And a Eucharistic Adoration chapel—as long as you turn your phone off—is one of the last places, one of the last oases of silence. People need that. Here at SLS 18…and also youth retreats and Engaged Encounter and all the different apostolates of the Church—and in applications for seminaries—people say that where they really heard the Lord speak to their hearts was in the quiet moments of Eucharistic Adoration. People in parishes whose marriages are falling apart—they go before the Lord, and they’re just in shambles—they let the Lord speak to them and heal them. This is where it all happens. That’s why Eucharistic Adoration is so important.

CWR: I’m happy that you had brought up the subject transcendence in the liturgy. You’ve been celebrating the Ordinary Form of the Mass ad orientem each Advent for several years now, and several other priests have done the same in your diocese, and around the country as well. This past summer, I was able to sit down with a Byzantine Rite priest, Father Thomas Loya of the Ruthenian Catholic Eparchy in Parma. We had talked about ad orientem worship and the life of the Church. In the course of our conversation, he had noted that turning the altars back around is of the upmost importance, and that doing so was “holding the key to everything in the Latin Rite Church.”  Do you believe that in worshiping ad orientem, laypeople and priests alike are more apt to feel that they are being lifted up to partake in the Heavenly Liturgy?

Bishop Conley: I do agree with that, and I’ve experienced that in my own priesthood. Way back in the 1990s I was chaplain at Wichita State University. And I, during Advent one year, began celebrating ad orientem, facing east, with the Advent theme of looking to the east and the star and everything. I just continued to do it…I did catechesis and I explained to everyone why this tradition has been so prevalent in the Church, just up until recent times, and how we are all worshiping together. We’re all facing the Lord together and the priest is leading us to the New Jerusalem, to Heaven. We stand in solidarity with one another, offering worship to God. It’s not the priest facing the people and speaking to them, it’s all of us facing God. So I’ve always been a big fan of ad orientem. When I came to Lincoln, I introduced it at the cathedral for Advent and I encouraged priests. I said, “If you believe that this would help you and your people, by all means do this as long as you give the catechesis and explain it to the people.” So like you said, we have a number of pastors who have done that. I do it now every time I celebrate Mass at the cathedral, at the Newman Center, at our seminary, and at our retreat house. And I don’t force it. And there are some times you can’t do it because architecturally it’s hard. But it’s catching on more and more. And I think the people really do respond to that. I think as a priest, we think it’s going to be really shocking to people, and it’s not. People are just like, “Fine, Father.” The funny thing is, you end up facing the people during a normal Mass longer than you don’t face them. Because you begin the Mass, and you do the Introductory Rite, and the readings, and the homily, and then you go to the altar. I timed it once. It’s basically three-fifths of the time you’re facing the people, two-fifths of the time you’re facing the altar.

CWR: Pretty much just for the Liturgy of the Eucharist.

Bishop Conley: That’s it. And when you’re giving Communion, you’re facing the people. But I would agree that it’s very helpful for the priest because it’s less distracting for the priest. He’s focused on really the most important thing that he’s doing—the most important thing that he ever does—and that is offering the Holy Sacrifice. And when you’re focused on the action of the Mass and that’s all you see—over the Host and the Precious Blood—then you’re more tuned in, than I think when you’re facing the whole congregation of people. Not that you can’t be focused in that way. You can. But it’s harder. You have to concentrate more.

CWR: Now you mentioned that for priests, and for laypeople, returning to certain traditions has been both helpful and warmly received. But let’s talk specifically about young people—do you believe that they are more open to the liturgical patrimony of the Latin Rite than older generations? Have you seen an uptick in the amount of young people embracing these Latin traditions in the past five or 10 years?

Bishop Conley: Well, one example, just a couple weeks ago during Advent, one of our priests celebrated a Rorate caeli Mass. A Saturday morning Mass at 6:00 am, in the dark, just candlelit, in the Extraordinary Form. It was a Solemn High Mass and they had the choir. Four hundred and fifty college students showed up for that.

It was amazing. I thought, fine, go ahead, you’re not going to get college students up at six o’clock in the morning. But the word went out on Facebook and Twitter, and they all showed up. They said it was amazing because they had this beautiful choir singing sacred polyphony and chant. They loved it. They had a great experience of the transcendent and the holy.

CWR: What advice would you give to young people who are really trying to uncover and share their legitimate traditions and patrimony, in indifferent or possibly even hostile environments?

Bishop Conley: I would say to be patient, and to pray, and to not give up. I think that sometimes it’s hard, especially for priests, to be open to some of the great liturgical traditions that, maybe in their minds, the Church has put aside. But I can tell you this [about] the younger generation of priests, those priests that have been ordained in the last 10 years, let’s say: it’s my generation that is not open; the younger generation is open. And that means that younger bishops are open. Because so go priests, so go bishops. There’s going to be a whole new generation of bishops that are going to be serving the Church as shepherds in the next 10 years who are also much more open to this great liturgical patrimony, and who have not sort of been through the liturgical wars like those in my generation have. So, I think, just be patient, be kind, be charitable, but be persistent.

About Nicholas LaBanca 5 Articles
Nicholas LaBanca is a millennial cradle Catholic and serves as a catechist at his local parish. He currently writes for multiple Catholic outlets, including the Diocese of Joliet’s monthly magazine Christ Is Our Hope.

9 Comments

  1. Beautifully said. I also think their diocese must have an awesome policy that forbids the guitars, pianos, altar girls and communion in the hand to have ended up so blessed with vocations.

  2. I live in Lincoln. The thing that Bishop forgot to mention, and which is equally important alongside his other points, is the healthy spiritual lives of Catholic families here. Not only are children encouraged to think about becoming priests/religious by their parents but the laity here also often pray for vocations as part of their own spirituality. The “domestic church” in this diocese is very healthy and benefits the Church.

  3. Bishop Conley is missed in Denver where he served as Apostolic Administrator following Archbishop Chaput’s transfer to Philadelphia. Many of the faithful were greatly disappointed when he was not elevated to Archbishop and Aquila was selected by Pope Benedict XVI instead. Lincoln is blessed to have him as their shepherd.

  4. Dear Bishop, given all that has happened to the church over several decades of priestly misdeeds how is the church to properly screen our new candidates? Chile presents a real horror story for Pope Francis when he visits South America soon.

    Soon after his coronation the Holy Father said he had no tolerance for child pedophilia and would “clean house” of the criminals in the hierarchy. I don’t see that happening.

  5. The article title on “Spirit Daily” read; “Good bishops equal vocations” I guess this pretty much explains the priest shortage in most places. I would like to say “sacredness” in church (especially concerning the Holy Mass) inspires vocations, need to do the red and read the black and leave out all the secular stuff. “Alter boys” rather than “female servers” inspire vocations, a masculine clergy rather than an effeminate one inspires vocations. Keeping families (truly) Catholic inspires vocations, and teaching piety rather than a social agenda inspires vocations. This all seemed to work prior to the 1960’s, Are so many of our bishops too blind to see it. If it works in Lincoln it will work elsewhere. This article is spot on and Lincoln is the good example for the rest of the bishops. Apparently most diocese have denounced “Roman Catholicism” and formed the “American Catholic Church” where they ignore the requests of the Roman Church and do according to American societal trends.

  6. And the families who were and are taught to follow the teachings of the Church! SO many large families! Vocations flourish in a community of trust and generosity.

  7. For many years (1970-1998), the Diocese of Lincoln owed its great success in having large numbers of vocations to the strong personality of its Vocation Director. This priest, now deceased, was an addicted gambler, chain smoker, and extremely heavy drinker who modeled and encouraged addictive behavior among the seminarians, who of course became the priests of the diocese. He also constantly put himself in “inappropriate” situations with the young men under his supervision, seeking out their personal and private companionship. The conservative and orthodox surface of Lincoln masks a deep dysfunction in its clergy and the relationship between its bishops and priests. Conley’s two predecessors were impeccably orthodox and enjoyed high prestige and reputation, but in the experience of many of the priests they lacked love. They also protected the position and authority of the dysfunctional Vocation Director. The present power structure in the diocese remains closely tied to those who were protected and promoted by the former Vocation Director. There is a saying in 12-step Recovery literature, “the better it looks the worse it really is.” This statement is in many ways applicable to at least some aspects of the dysfunctional “family” of the Diocese of Lincoln, which has used its outward image of “success” to ignore the deep pain and alienation which continues to be experienced by many of its priests. Please pray for the priests of the Diocese of Lincoln for healing in their relationships with each other and with ecclesiastical authority.

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