ORLANDO, Florida – There’s a sense in which Catholic bishops, like mid-level managers of any institution, are basically bureaucrats. They have to manage projects and personnel, they have to oversee budgets, and, in effect, a core part of their job is to make sure the Church’s trains keep running on time.
That doesn’t mean, however, bishops are under the illusion that most creative energy in the Church, or even very much of it, bubbles up through its bureaucratic structures. When pressed for an example of evangelical creativity in Nebraska, for instance, Bishop James Conley of Lincoln offers one clearly outside the official box.
“I have one guy who’s a lawyer from Hastings,” Conley said, referring to a town a little over 100 miles to the west of Lincoln.
“He goes to all the [University of Nebraska] Husker football games, puts a table out in front of the stadium, and hands out rosaries and answers questions about the Church,” he said. “That guy’s really doing something.”
For the record, Conley said the rosary is red, the Huskers’ color, and the lone requirement to get one is the ability to say, “Go Big Red!”
Conley spoke to Crux during the July 1-4 “Convocation of Catholic Leaders” in Orlando, Florida, a gathering of almost 3,500 bishops, clergy, religious and laity. Conley, a 10-year veteran of the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops, likened the experience to World Youth Day, a massive global summit launched under St. John Paul II.
“It’s sort of like a World Youth Day for adults … without the pope,” Conley said.
“You’ve got all these Catholics together in one place, you’ve got these great speakers, beautiful liturgies, and time for prayer where everybody is together. It’s a very diverse crowd here, a cross-section of the Church in the United States, and we’re all here because of our Catholic faith,” Conley said.
“I think for a lot of our lay faithful, unless they’ve gone to a World Youth Day, they’ve never been in one place before where there’s so many bishops gathered under one roof, and so many Catholic leaders, people who are really doing things in the Church,” he said.
“Our people have never been around this before,” he said. “You see the church in its many-faceted aspects – languages, cultures, backgrounds, even different theological perspectives – everything is here.”
Conley said the key take-away from the event was a sense that “we’re all called to be missionary disciples,” in the sense Pope Francis lays out in his 2013 document Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel.”)
The following are excerpts from Crux’s conversation with Conley, which took place July 3.
Crux: What kind of vibe are you picking up at this convocation?
Conley: Well, people have been asking me that, and I’d put it this way: It’s sort of like a World Youth Day for adults … without the pope.
You’ve been there, you’ve been at World Youth Days. You’ve got all these Catholics together in one place, you’ve got these great speakers, beautiful liturgies, and time for prayer where everybody is together. It’s a very diverse crowd here, a cross-section of the Church in the United States, and we’re all here because of our Catholic faith. I think for a lot of our lay faithful, unless they’ve gone to a World Youth Day, they’ve never been in one place before where there’s so many bishops gathered under one roof, and so many Catholic leaders, people who are really doing things in the Church.
It’s historic and unprecedented, and the vibe I’ve been getting from our faithful – we’ve got 20 from the Diocese of Lincoln – is, their eyes are wide-open, and they’re saying, ‘This is great, I’ve never been to something like this.’
Do you have two or three things you’re hoping your folks will take back to Lincoln?
I think that’s the key. Yes, we’ve spent a few days together and we’ve had a great experience …
But, at some point, we have to come down from the mountain?
We’ve got to come down from the mountain, and take what we’ve learned and experienced here into action back home. Of course, the key is evangelization, and it’s got that missionary spirit like Pope Francis talks about, that we’re all called to be missionary disciples.
I think for us, at least in the Diocese of Lincoln, we’re experiencing [at the convocation] a broader church, something we haven’t always seen before. We’ve got people from very different backgrounds, bringing the Catholic faith from areas we’re not used to. I think that’s going to be something people will take back with them.
Another thing is that it’s been very centered on Christ. We’ve heard great talks, and the focus has been Jesus Christ, who’s calling all of us to be missionary disciples. My hope is that there’ll be new enthusiasm, new ardor, new excitement about the faith, and that we can put some of these things into action. We’re learning things … about how to do catechesis better, how to bring the Gospel to those on the peripheries. I carefully chose leaders who are already doing something, and I hope they’re getting new ideas.
I chose people who aren’t the usual suspects. Many are people who are doing things quietly and outside official channels, though I do have a few of the chancery types here. Mostly I have people who are doing things on their own. For example, I have one guy here who’s a lawyer from Hastings. He goes to all the Husker football games, puts a table out in front of the stadium and hands out rosaries and answers questions about the Church. That guy’s really doing something …
Do you get a brat with the rosary?
Well, you’ve just got to be able to say, ‘Go Big Red!’ By the way, they’re red rosaries.
You said you’ve been picking up some new ideas for how to take the Gospel to the peripheries. Can you share one?
I just came from a breakout session on health care issues. We have a very vibrant Catholic physicians’ guild, but we’re not really reaching out to places where health care is not available. I’m hoping we’ll be able to strengthen that area of the apostolate, to reach out to people who are either uninsured or not able to get access to health care.
The other idea comes from my experience of talking to a bunch of people from FOCUS [Fellowship of Catholic University Students]. We’re talking about developing a greater outreach to college students, on campuses, sharing the great intellectual tradition of the Church.
You’ve got a couple of those in Lincoln …
We do. We’re building this Newman Institute for Catholic Thought and Culture, which is kind of a great books program like we had at the University of Kansas, and we’re getting ideas about how to expand that and reach out to our college students.
You put in about a 10-year stretch in Rome as an official of the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops and a chaplain to Catholic colleges there. Did you find that a mind-expanding experience about the complexities of the universal Church?
It was, I did find that. It’s amazing how many people you run into in Rome you know from back home, but the more universal aspect of the larger church is that it expanded my whole horizon. That was the great gift of living and working in Rome for ten years, to see the Church at a global level. I’ll always be grateful for that, and, in a certain sense, you get a little taste of that.
Our people have never been around this before. You see the church in its many-faceted aspects – languages, cultures, backgrounds, even different theological perspectives – everything is here, just like it is in Rome.
You’re saying that your people are going home with their batteries charged?
Absolutely, that’s a good way to put it. The proof will be in seeing how this bears fruit. We’re going to have a meeting with all the delegations from Nebraska, Omaha, Grand Island and Lincoln, and we’re going to talk about this. One of the things I’m going to say is, ‘This is great, we’re all having a great experience, but what are we going to do when we get back home?’ I want to ask everybody to think of three concrete things they can do when they get back. That’s really where the proof of the pudding will be.
Finally, you’re a graduate of the University of Kansas, but you’re now the bishop of Lincoln, Nebraska. How do you reconcile those competing loyalties?
I can tell you very simply: For basketball, I’m a Jayhawk, tried and true. For football, I’m a Husker.
So, you’ve got the best of both worlds?