Bishop James Conley of Lincoln, Nebraska opened up in a March 19 letter about how in the midst of a nearly year-long sabbatical he took for mental health reasons, learning about and consecrating himself to St. Joseph helped immensely with his recovery. 

Conley has been open in recent years about his personal struggles with anxiety and depression, and took a medical leave of absence from his diocese from December 2019 to November 2020. 

He says reading a book on St. Joseph and consecrating, or entrusting, himself to the saint in May 2020 helped him gain a new understanding of Jesus’ foster father and his importance. 

“Although it would take many more months of healing before I would feel strong enough to return to Lincoln and my episcopal duties, St. Joseph played no small part in helping me regain my strength and my hope,” Conley wrote. 

Conley also announced that he would consecrate the Lincoln diocese to St. Joseph on March 19. 

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“St. Joseph watched over and protected Jesus and the Blessed Virgin Mary during his time on earth. In consecrating the diocese to St. Joseph we ask him to intercede for us and protect us on our journey into everlasting life,” he said. 

March 19 is the feast day of St. Joseph. Conley noted that despite his conversion to the Catholic faith at age 20, and the fact that his birthday falls on St. Joseph’s feast day, he never had a strong devotion to St. Joseph before last year. 

Over his 11-month sabbatical, Conley stayed at a retreat house in Arizona in a residence for retired priests. 

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“Just outside my window was a beautiful statue of St. Joseph in front of the residence next door. Every time I would walk out my door, I would pass by this statue of St. Joseph. I would always stop for a moment and just look at the statue,” Conley wrote. 

Conley’s sabbatical began only a few months before Arizona - like the rest of the United States and the world - went on lockdown amid the coronavirus pandemic. 

“Feelings of isolation and loneliness that I was already experiencing only got worse. It seemed like God was absent in my life. This was probably the darkest period of my life,” Conley said. 

Conley said despite holding tight to the practices of the Mass, the Rosary, and Liturgy of the Hours during this time, it was the first time in his life as a Catholic that he found it difficult to pray. 

“There were many days when I could not see, hear, feel or sense the presence of God. But somehow and some way, I knew that he was there, and that he had not completely abandoned me.”

On March 19, 2020, Conley met with his spiritual director, a diocesan hermit who lives in the mountainous high desert north of Phoenix, who introduced Conley to a consecration to St. Joseph based on the book “Consecration to St. Joseph: The Wonders of Our Spiritual Father.” 

Conley said learning about St. Joseph and making the consecration helped him gain a new appreciation for the saint. 

“St. Joseph truly is our spiritual father. His strong masculine virtues as protector and guide, model for us men as to what it means to be man of God. His deep faith and trust in divine providence, particularly when the path ahead seems difficult, unclear and arduous, provided hope for me.”

“I reflected many times on his journey to Egypt with Mary and the baby Jesus, and how much faith, trust and dependence upon God’s providence that must have taken. The virtue of perseverance was also a hallmark of St. Joseph, which was manifested during the arduous trip to Bethlehem and the strenuous flight to Egypt.”

St. Joseph is also the patron saint of a good death. Conley said his mother’s health began to decline in 2020, and he prayed to St. Joseph “for her happy death, and he came through.” 

He said he was able to anoint her and give her the apostolic pardon several times before she died in December 2020. 

Conley concluded by noting Pope Francis’ proclamation of the year of St. Joseph, and reminded the faithful that there are several ways to receive a plenary indulgence during the special year. 

In March 2019, Conley was diagnosed with major depression disorder at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, and soon began counseling and medication. However, he said, trying to pursue help on top of his episcopal duties only further deteriorated his mental state.

He also was diagnosed with depression, chronic insomnia, and debilitating tinnitus - a constant ringing in the ears. After meeting with several fellow bishops, Conley says he was convinced he needed a break from episcopal duties. 

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.

During his sabbatical, Conley attended sessions with a Catholic psychotherapist, his spiritual director, a Catholic psychologist, and a medical doctor. Additionally, he said, he regularly engaged in exercise, such as golf and hikes, and social interactions with very close friends.

Since Conley returned to his office Nov. 13, 2020, the bishop has continued to pursue self-care practices and make changes in his life to maintain his mental health.