Eleven months to the day after beginning a leave of absence to address medical and mental health ailments, the bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Lincoln will resume his duties Friday.
The word that Pope Francis has authorized the Most Rev. James Conley to return to work was announced Thursday in a news release from the diocesan chancery, as well as in letters to the people of the diocese from Conley and from Archbishop George Lucas of Omaha, who has been standing in for Conley as apostolic administrator of the Lincoln diocese.
Conley said it would be “with great joy” that he resumes his work in the diocese, which encompasses all of Nebraska south of the Platte River and involves more than 90,000 Catholics in more than 130 parishes — including all parishes in the Nebraska portion of Tribland.
“Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, we live in uncertain and unprecedented times, times when many have lost hope,” Conley said. “While it pained me to be away this long from my flock — the good people of the Diocese of Lincoln — I am eager to preach the message of Christian hope during these difficult times.”
Pope Francis granted Conley a medical leave of absence beginning Dec. 13, 2019, after Conley was medically diagnosed with depression and anxiety, along with chronic insomnia and debilitating tinnitus, a constant ringing of the ears.
Conley traveled to the Diocese of Phoenix in Arizona, where he lived and received treatment in the intervening months, all the while requesting privacy. In the spring, he wrote a letter to the people of the Lincoln diocese that was published in the diocesan newspaper, The Southern Nebraska Register, updating them on his progress and offering words of encouragement amid the novel coronavirus disease, COVID-19, pandemic.
“My doctors encouraged me to take the time to receive more concentrated medical and psychological treatment, and to get some much-needed rest,” Conley said in his Thursday letter to the diocese announcing his return.
“Before going on medical leave, I tried to overcome my depression and anxiety on my own. I’ve learned that this is simply not possible. Mental health problems are real health problems. And as with any illness, you cannot fix it yourself; you need the care of others.
“During the past 11 months, I have received wonderful care from my spiritual director, mental health professionals and medical doctors, along with the loving support and prayers of my family, my brother bishops, priests, religious and lay faithful. Through their help, I have been able to arrive at a positive path forward with more balance in my life, which, I pray, will allow me to serve the Diocese of Lincoln in a greater way.
“I cannot imagine trying to get through this dark time in my life without faith in our Lord Jesus Christ and the hope of sharing in his resurrection. It is hope that has sustained me.”
Conley, 65, was born in Kansas City, Missouri. He grew up in Colorado and in Kansas, where he graduated from high school in Shawnee Mission, a Kansas City suburb.
He then attended the University of Kansas, receiving a degree in English literature in 1977. He grew up in a Presbyterian family but converted to Catholicism in 1975, during his university days.
After stints doing construction work and farm work and traveling through Europe, Conley entered the seminary in 1980. He was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Wichita in 1985. His early years as a priest included advanced studies in Rome, pastoral work in parishes and on college campuses in Wichita and Rome, teaching college courses, and a 10-year stint as an official in the Congregation for Bishops at the Vatican.
Conley was named an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Denver in 2008. In 2012, Pope Benedict XVI appointed him Bishop of Lincoln to fill a vacancy created by the retirement of the Most Rev. Fabian Bruskewitz.
Conley will resume his work one week shy of the eighth anniversary of his installation as bishop in Lincoln. He returns to a diocese that has been vexed, especially over the last two to three years, by clergy personnel issues. Several priests of the diocese at this time remain on administrative leave related to cases of various sorts of misconduct or alleged misconduct or due to personal issues.
Lucas has led the Archdiocese of Omaha since 2009. In that role, he is also the “metropolitan archbishop” for the ecclesiastical Province of Nebraska, which includes the Omaha archdiocese and the suffragan dioceses of Lincoln and Grand Island. The three jurisdictions are autonomous of one another, but their leaders work together in many ways.
In his Thursday letter to the people of the Lincoln diocese, Lucas thanked them for their kindness over the 11 months of his temporary leadership, saying their prayers and support had meant a great deal to him. He encouraged prayers for Conley as he resumes active ministry.
“I am glad to have Bishop Conley back home,” Lucas wrote. “I look forward, along with Bishop Joseph Hanefeldt of Grand Island, to once again working with Bishop Conley on matters that affect the common good here in Nebraska.”