Nebraska bishop resumes post following medical leave of absence in Phoenix

Bishop James Conley preaches on Ash Wednesday in this March 6, 2019 photo at the Cathedral of the Risen Christ in Lincoln, Nebraska. (Cathy Bender/Southern Nebraska Register)

LINCOLN, Neb. (CNA) — Bishop James Conley announced that he is resuming full pastoral care of the Diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska, following an 11-month leave of absence to receive mental health treatment.

Bishop Conley said Pope Francis had approved his return, effective November 13.

“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,” Bishop Conley said in a Nov. 12 statement. “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.”

In December 2019, the bishop announced that he was taking a medical leave of absence from his ministry as bishop of Lincoln, after being medically diagnosed with anxiety, depression, chronic insomnia, and debilitating tinnitus — a constant ringing in the ears.

His doctors encouraged him to take a leave of absence in order to rest and receive medical and psychological treatment, which he did at a retreat center in Phoenix, at the invitation of Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted of Phoenix. The two bishops had known each other for a long time, and Bishop Olmsted was a priest of the Diocese of Lincoln before becoming a bishop in 1999.

His period of leave came amid the unfolding sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church surrounding the former Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, as well as local issues regarding the past administration of the Lincoln Diocese.

In announcing his leave of absence, Conley said he was sharing information about his health in the hopes of helping to lift the stigma associated with mental health issues.

He echoed those sentiments in his statement this week, saying he hopes his own sufferings will encourage others who struggle with mental illness.

“Before going on medical leave, I tried to overcome my depression and anxiety on my own,” Bishop Conley said. “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.”

The bishop said that although it was difficult for him to be gone from his diocese, he is grateful for the medical, psychological and spiritual care he received.

“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,” he said. “It is hope that has sustained me.”

The bishop said he is joyful to return and is now eager to continue proclaiming the Christian message of hope, especially as many people struggle to maintain hope amid the uncertainty accompanying the COVID-19 pandemic.

Bishop Conley voiced his gratitude to all those who prayed for him and sent encouraging notes during his time away from the diocese. He thanked Pope Francis for allowing him to take medical leave, as well as Archbishop George Lucas of Omaha, who served as apostolic administrator of the diocese during his absence.

Archbishop Lucas said Thursday that he was glad to see Bishop Conley return.

“I look forward, along with Bishop Joseph Hanefeldt (of Grand Island, Nebraska), to once again be working with Bishop Conley, to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ here in Nebraska,” he said.

Bishop Conley, 65, became Lincoln’s bishop in November 2012. He had previously been an auxiliary bishop in the Archdiocese of Denver since 2008 and had worked in the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops from 1996 until 2006.

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