LINCOLN — He's got folk rockers Mumford & Sons and the Avett Brothers on his iPod.
He's on Twitter and Facebook.
And he's passionate about poetry, art and classical English literature.
But when it comes to Roman Catholic doctrine, Lincoln's incoming bishop says he's ready to carry the torch of his predecessors who have made the Lincoln Diocese one of the most traditional in the country.
“The Diocese of Lincoln has never suffered an identity crisis,” said Auxiliary Bishop James Conley of the Denver Archdiocese. “In other words, the church in Lincoln has always known who she is. People want to be a part of this because people want to know where the church stands.”
The 57-year-old native of Overland Park, Kan., will be installed Nov. 20 as the ninth bishop of Lincoln, a diocese that includes 96,000 Catholics in 135 parishes across southern Nebraska.
He will replace retired Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz, 77, who led the diocese for two decades.
The diocese is known for traditional church practices, such as boy-only altar servers and distributing Communion in the form of consecrated bread, not, as a general rule, from the cup. And unlike in many other Catholic churches, women in the Lincoln Diocese are not permitted to give the Eucharist to their fellow worshippers.
Conley said he has no plans to change those practices.
Bruskewitz, who has said he strove to preserve the “undistorted” Catholic faith, also made decisions and took actions that generated controversy.
For example, in 1996, he excommunicated Catholics who belonged to a list of 10 organizations he said opposed fundamental church teachings, such as opposition to abortion, gay marriage and assisted suicide. Among the listed groups were Planned Parenthood and Call to Action, an organization seeking church reforms such as ordination of women.
The excommunications will remain in force, Conley said.
“It can have a medicinal purpose,” Conley said. “The purpose is to not cut them off, but to persuade them to come back.”
Jim McShane of Lincoln, a board member of Call to Action Nebraska, said he was hopeful that Conley might reconsider after he has spent more time as bishop.
“I can't imagine he's going to rush in and say he's going to tear down the edifice,” he said. “But if there is to be no change, we would regard that as unfortunate.”
Lincoln also is one of the only dioceses in the nation that have refused to participate in a voluntary annual audit of policies for the prevention of child sexual abuse by clergy. The audit was authorized by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Conley said protecting children is a top priority, and he will require swift action on any kind of allegation. In past statements, Conley's predecessor has said the Diocese of Lincoln complies with all church and civil laws regarding the protection of children, which includes background checks on all clergy, employees and volunteers.
“I am definitely going to review the policies here to make sure young people are protected and safeguarded in our institutions,” Conley said.
The incoming bishop said he also wants to keep and strengthen the impressive track record Lincoln has in promoting vocations to the priesthood and the religious life. With 44 men currently studying for the priesthood, the diocese has the highest ratio of seminarians to Catholics in the nation, he said.
And finally, he wants to preserve what he called a vibrant parochial school system, which has kept tuition rates affordable compared to some others around the country.
Mary Quintero said her admiration of Bruskewitz and the general reputation of the diocese attracted her family to Lincoln from California nearly 12 years ago.
While she will miss having Bruskewitz as bishop, she also said she is excited about Conley's appointment. She first learned about him a couple of years ago when her college-age son attended a conference in Colorado where Conley preached.
“I am thrilled with his shared interest in all things pro-life,” Quintero said. “And he's a convert, and converts are a blast.”
Conley converted when he was in college at the University of Kansas. He said he read his way to the Catholic faith while studying the writings of St. Augustine and John Henry Newman.
During his 23 years as a priest, he spent significant time teaching theology and ministering to college students. He also has spent time serving the Vatican in Rome.
Conley said that following his installation ceremony, he will focus on meeting the people of the Diocese of Lincoln. He will spend his first month celebrating Masses in seven cities from Nebraska City to McCook, and he has set an ambitious goal of visiting every parish within his first six months on the job.
He recognizes that he is about to become an even more high-profile leader in a church viewed by some as a threat because of its stances on the major issues of the time.
But he said he is excited to be called to serve at this moment in history. Then he related a story about a tragedy he responded to this past summer — the mass shootings at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo. Conley gave the invocation at a public memorial service three days after 12 people died and 58 were wounded.
He will never forget the acts of love and caring that followed the tragedy. It confirmed to him that people are at their best when confronted with their greatest challenges.
“This is a great time to bring the gospel to the world,” he said. “I believe the message of Christ and his church can be a great hope and a great source of joy to the world.”
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