LINCOLN (SNR) - May 20 marked exactly six months since Bishop James D. Conley was installed in the Diocese of Lincoln.
"It’s gone by so quickly," he said.
He packed a lot of activity into his first half-year: confirmations and high school graduations, parish anniversaries, visiting somewhere between one-third to one half of the 134 parishes, and more.
"I’ve just enjoyed it so much, and I’ve been able to travel and see so much of the diocese and meet so many great people," he said.
Still, he’s not quite settled in yet.
"I still feel very new, and I’m still learning," Bishop Conley said.
He noted that the "Catholic sense of the people" had been the easiest thing to adapt to since he moved to the Diocese of Lincoln.
"I had always heard about the Catholic identity here in the Lincoln Diocese, but it’s just been something that I really fell right into," he said. "Even though Catholicism is not a majority religion here, still there’s a strong sense of Catholic identity and Catholic culture."
He added, "The faith of the people has been a joy to experience."
His biggest challenge has been the lack of a transition period.
"One day, the former bishop is totally in charge, and the next day, the new bishop is totally in charge," Bishop Conley explained. "Not that it’s been difficult, but it’s been a challenge to realize that I basically have to sign off on everything."
Bishop Conley feels very fortunate that he has an excellent senior staff to depend on for advice.
"We meet every week," he said. "I really rely upon them."
Often, Bishop Conley will receive suggestions from priests or laypersons that he takes to his senior advisors. Because he’s open to new ways of doing things and wants what’s best for the diocese, he strives to listen carefully and give each idea due consideration. His trusted advisors can help refine ideas and offer insight about what’s worked – or not worked – in the past.
Plus, he said, "Pope Francis and I have something very much in common in that our predecessors live in our backyards."
Indeed, Bishop Emeritus Fabian W. Bruskewitz has graciously made himself available to Bishop Conley whenever he’s needed, by way of a quick phone call, a short walk from the Chancery to his new office in the Blessed John XXII Center, or even an impromptu conversation over the fence that separates their two homes in the center of Lincoln.
"It’s been wonderful," Bishop Conley said. "He’s been there for me when I have questions, and I have to ask him something, but he’s very conscious of not getting in the way. I feel so honored by that."
Bishop Conley had been well-informed about the condition of the diocese before he was installed Nov. 20. Still, there were some little surprises.
One was the general reaction of priests to their new assignments.
"I had told the priests that I didn’t want to make many changes this first year, but with the appointment of Bishop-elect Folda to Fargo, I had to kind of eat my words!" Bishop Conley admitted.
He said, "I had heard that Lincoln priests were very obedient and very faithful to the bishop and the needs of the diocese, but actually going through the whole process for the first time, I was surprised at how willing they are to go to a new place. I know how hard that can be."
After a moment, he added happily, "Really there hasn’t been any unpleasant surprises."
As he continues to visit parishes, he’s starting to get a feel of where the Lord wants him to lead the diocese.
"We have a very strong core Catholic population, but I would like to use every means available by way of communication and advancing the Gospel to people who, perhaps, may have never heard it or who haven’t heard it in a while," he said.
To this end, a newly restructured website is already in the works. The bishop is exploring other ways to better use digital media to further the Gospel. He is also in the process of hiring a full time director of communications.
"We’re looking toward trying to reach out beyond what we’ve already been doing," he clarified.
Vocations are also important to Bishop Conley, who garnered more prayers for and awareness of vocations when he ran the Lincoln Marathon earlier this month. He believes he’s already seeing some fruit in the form of three new high school graduates applying for seminary and one female graduate who is discerning a call to religious life.
"The support they receive from their classmates is wonderful to see," Bishop Conley stated.
He attributes that to the excellent formation that the diocesan Catholic school system provides, with religious sisters and priests interacting quite naturally with students on a daily basis.
"I really want to tell that story," he stressed. "I think it’s one of the greatest stories that I’ve learned about since I got here."
As Bishop Conley looks forward to the next six months of his first year as Ordinary of Lincoln, he is grateful to the prayers that support him. He urged the people of the diocese to pursue holiness in whatever vocation God has called them to.
"Just be yourselves," he entreated. "The thing that gives bishops and priests the most encouragement and joy is seeing people live out their own vocation to holiness, loving the Lord and following the teachings of the Church, and being good Catholic Christians."
He concluded, "I have every reason to believe that the next six months and beyond are just going to get better and better."