Alumni Q&A with Bishop James D. Conley, Catholic priest

Bishop James D. Conley oversees the Catholic Diocese of Lincoln, which serves 97,000 Catholics in 134 parishes across 25,000 square miles of Nebraska. It’s a position he was appointed to in 2012 by Pope Benedict XVI. And it’s a calling that he first discovered as a KU student.

“I wanted to do something unusual and out of the ordinary.”

Conley was an English major and part of the Integrated Humanities Program at KU. He says his conversion to Catholicism at age 20 was influenced by a pursuit of “truth, goodness and beauty,” which he discovered through reading classic works of literature. In the years following graduation, he spent some time traveling Europe and farming in Kansas before he embarked on what would become a career of more than 30 years as a priest.

Conley’s career has primarily been spent in the Midwest, serving several years off and on in the Wichita area. We asked Bishop Conley a few questions about what lessons he’s learned during his journey.

Hometown: Overland Park, Kansas

KU degree: Bachelor’s in English (1977)

Current title: Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Lincoln (Nebraska)

Bishop Conley was appointed to his post overseeing the Catholic Diocese of Lincoln by Pope Benedict XVI in 2012.
Bishop Conley was appointed to his post overseeing the Catholic Diocese of Lincoln by Pope Benedict XVI in 2012.

What’s your best KU memory? My experience as a student in the (Pearson) Integrated Humanities Program under the direction of Professors Dennis Quinn, John Senior and Franklyn Nelick. This was a two-year classical liberal arts and great books program for freshmen and sophomores that flourished at KU in the 1970s. I made lifelong friends in that program and it was during these years that I converted to the Catholic Church through the experience of poetry, literature, art, music and philosophy. Through the IHP I was introduced to truth, goodness and beauty and have been pursuing those three transcendentals ever since.

My guilty pleasure: Listening to my old Grateful Dead albums!

My best advice for college students: Read good and great literature. Read the classics, the best that has been written and said over the centuries. And, never stop reading.

Tell us a little about your favorite episcopal motto, “heart speaks to heart”: This line is taken from the great 19th century Oxford scholar, Blessed John Henry Newman. He, too, was a convert from Anglicanism to Catholicism and was one of the leaders of the “Oxford Movement” in England. Newman had and still does have a huge influence on my life. I discovered him in a survey course on “Major British Authors after 1800” that I took at KU during my sophomore year. The idea is that true and authentic friendship (heart speaking to heart) is what we all seek. We experience this kind of friendship here on earth, but we also can experience this kind of authentic friendship/love with God.  We all desire true and authentic friendship/love because every human being was created to love and to be loved.

Tell us a bit about service work you’re most proud of: It is hard to single out one aspect of my pastoral ministry over my nearly 31 years of as a priest and bishop. I would have to say that working with college students and my pro-life work have been the most rewarding part of my pastoral ministry.