Friday, September 14, 2012

For Conley, The Camino Leads to Lincoln: Denver Aux. to Chair of Fabian

In the first Stateside appointment of the new "Vatican year," at Roman Noon today the Pope named Bishop James Conley – since 2008, the lone auxiliary of Denver – as bishop of Lincoln.

In the southern Nebraska diocese of 100,000, the 57 year-old prelate – a longtime staffer at the Congregation for Bishops with a notable global cult following – succeeds the oldest active American prelate, Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz, whose retirement comes a week after his 77th birthday, two years past the canonical age. (The duo are shown above this morning at the local announcement.)

The "godfather" of a cadre of outspoken bishops who've firmly shifted the US hierarchy's center of gravity rightward over the last two decades, the Milwaukee native led the Lincoln church since 1992.

Aided by the departing ordinary's flair for the combative, under Bruskewitz the church in Cornhusker Country has become widely known in the Catholic world as a lodestar of an unabashed theological conservatism whose results have sometimes flown in the face of wider trends. Not only did a sudden bumper crop of priestly vocations prod the diocese to open its own minor seminary early in his tenure, but since 1998, Lincoln has likewise been home to the nation's lone formation house for the traditionalist Fraternity of St Peter (FSSP), whose apostolates make exclusive use of the 1962 ritual books. (According to its website, the diocese currently has 44 seminarians, a figure on a par with several of the nation's largest Catholic outposts.)

Conversely, however, what arguably remains Bruskewitz's emblematic act in the spotlight – a 1996 decree excommunicating those of his faithful who, with "contumacious persistence," belonged to any of 12 groups whose purposes he deemed as running afoul of church teaching, including Planned Parenthood, the Masons, Call to Action and Catholics for a Free Choice – likewise saw the same sanctions levied against local adherents of the Society of St Pius X and another traditionalist chapel.

Years later, the Holy See upheld the controversial move. The Lincoln prelate has likewise taken significant heat for his refusal to fully implement the US bishops' Dallas Norms on clergy sex-abuse cases, which Rome has confirmed as particular law for the American church.

Like his successor, Bruskewitz had served in the Roman Curia, in his case a decade at the Congregation for Catholic Education.

While Conley comes from something of a similar mold as his predecessor in espousing a vigorous, high-profile public approach – and, until today, to an unusual degree for an auxiliary – the ninth head of the Lincoln church can be seen as more of an "evangelical" figure than a magisterial one. Born in Kansas City and raised in Wichita in a Presbyterian family, the incoming prelate became a Catholic as a junior at the University of Kansas (one of his professors serving as his sponsor), then entering seminary four years after graduation. He was ordained a priest of Wichita in 1985 following theological studies at Mount St Mary's in Emmitsburg. As a young cleric, the future bishop – a committed disciple of Blessed John Henry Newman – served as a college chaplain both in the States and during his time as a Vatican official.

After a decade at the dicastery that oversees affairs pertaining to most the Catholic world's 5,000 prelates, in 2006 Conley returned home to Wichita, serving two years in his first pastorate. As it was noted, though, he had "a lot of experience making bishops, but no experience being one." That would change two years later, with his appointment as auxiliary to the then-archbishop of Denver, Charles Chaput – a surprising assignment, yet one that, beyond serving as an indication of Rome's regard for Conley, provided a training-ground which would optimally prepare him to meet its high expectations. (With the move, Conley became the second adult convert named a bishop on these shores by Benedict XVI, after Paul Swain – a born Methodist, Vietnam vet and onetime general counsel to the governor of Wisconsin, who was tapped to head South Dakota's Sioux Falls diocese in 2006.)

By all accounts, the new arrival took easily to the mix of the vibrant, sprawling Mile High church and its 550,000 members. Yet in an arrangement that emphasized his ministry's primary mission as pastoral as opposed to administrative, Conley was not given a full-time chancery post, in contrast to his predecessor (now-Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles), who served as vicar-general and moderator of the Denver curia prior to his 2004 transfer to the archbishopric of San Antonio. At the same time, following Chaput's appointment to Philadelphia last year, the auxiliary would take center stage as Rome tapped him to lead the Denver church as apostolic administrator until the arrival of its next permanent shepherd.

By the time of Archbishop Samuel Aquila's installation last July, the assignment would span some ten months, during which the media-friendly cleric further burnished his voice in the public square on issues ranging from the contraceptive mandate of the Federal health-care reform and a Colorado civil unions bill to Blessed Teresa of Calcutta's love for chocolate. In the process, after Conley spoke at a Theology on Tap earlier this year on his perception of a domestic shift toward what he's termed "atheocracy" – describing it as "a society that is actively hostile to religious faith and religious believers" – the program's venue had to be changed after the management of the host bar reportedly complained that the talk's content was "too controversial." As for the reaction of the pews, however, when the auxiliary passed the reins to Aquila at an installation eve Vespers service before a suburban church filled to overflowing, the loud, sustained standing ovation given Conley managed to eclipse the applause for the new archbishop, himself a Denver native.

While credible indications of his move to Lincoln have swirled for nearly six months – the appointment ostensibly delayed until his stint as administrator had concluded – today's announcement comes days after the bishop's return from an unusual episcopal getaway: a week-long, 100-mile trek with friends along part of the Camino de Santiago, the celebrated pilgrimage route to the Spanish shrine of St James. Among the five clerics who made the journey (above, en route) were Conley's boyhood best friend and seminary classmate, now Archbishop Paul Coakley of Oklahoma City, and Bishop James Wall of Gallup. Likewise along the path to this morning, the nominee has apparently set up his own Twitter feed, but not posted anything in it to date.

In comments at today's press conference (video), the new appointee said that, having long held the Lincoln church "in high esteem" for being "rich with vocation, Catholic education and family life, I am not going to mess around with that."

Conley's installation will take place on 20 November in Lincoln's Cathedral of the Risen Christ, dedicated in 1965 by then-Bishop James Casey, who would become Denver's second archbishop two years later. In another historical link, the Rockies' third ordinary, J. Henry Tihen – a priest of Wichita – led the Lincoln church from 1911 until his transfer to Denver in 1918.

Both the Denver and Lincoln dioceses mark their 125th anniversaries this year.

While Bruskewitz enters retirement, a trio of his proteges called upward from the Lincoln clergy are set to ensure his legacy's continued resonance on the active bench for years to come: Bishops Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix, 65, Robert Vasa of Santa Rosa, 61, and Michael Jackels of Wichita, 58, whose years as a staffer at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith overlapped with Conley's time in the Curia. Jackels – who succeeded Olmsted in the Kansas diocese – was a co-consecrator at Conley's episcopal ordination.

With today's move, seven Stateside Latin-church dioceses remain vacant, with another seven led by bishops serving past the retirement age of 75.

The eldest of the latter group – Bishop Ricardo Ramirez CSB of Las Cruces – turned 76 earlier this week.

PHOTOS: Ted Kirk/Lincoln Journal-Star(1); Javier Manzano/Rocky Mountain News(2)