Bishop James Conley of the Diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska, on Friday encouraged Pope Francis to “familiarize himself” with the American episcopate before a prospective return to the United States, which Conley said “could be an opportunity for the Holy Father to see the Catholic Church here in a different light.”

In a column first published May 15 and posted to the diocesan website May 24, Conley described his brother bishops as “unquestionably loyal to Pope Francis, which makes his ambiguities and seeming criticisms difficult to understand.”

“In my case, life as a bishop has been a blessing, because my brother U.S. bishops have been overwhelmingly good, committed men. They have very different skills and personalities. All have strengths and weaknesses. None of them is close to perfect. But they’re faithful to the Church and devoted to their people,” Conley wrote.

Pope Francis has in the past said that the Church in the United States is marked by “a climate of closure” and “a very strong reactionary attitude,” which “is organized and shapes the way people belong, even emotionally.”

More recently, when asked about “conservative bishops in the United States,” the pope said a conservative is someone who “clings to something and does not want to see beyond that.”

“It is a suicidal attitude,” the pope said, as reported by “60 Minutes.” “Because one thing is to take tradition into account, to consider situations from the past, but quite another is to be closed up inside a dogmatic box.”

Noting that Pope Francis remains very popular among American Catholics, Conley said Pope Francis’ statements about the Church in the U.S. have “caused resentment among some faithful Catholics” and that his criticisms of the bishops specifically have “perplexed American bishops who, as a body, have a long record of loyalty and generosity to the Holy See.”

It was reported in April by a French newspaper that Pope Francis is reportedly considering returning to the United States in September — which would be his first visit to the U.S. since 2015 — to speak before the United Nations General Assembly. The Vatican has not confirmed the visit. 

Conley wrote: “Before the Holy Father makes his next visit to the United States, I’d ask him to spend a little time familiarizing himself with the real terrain of American Catholic life, because so much of it is hopeful and good despite the many challenges we face.”

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Conley noted that before becoming a bishop, he served at the Vatican’s Dicastery for Bishops, the office tasked with evaluating and recommending men for the episcopate, a process he said remains “objective in essence, with plenty of checks and balances along the way.” 

“I’ve been away from Rome now for nearly two decades. I’ve experienced the selection process from its other end. I’ve served as a bishop in the United States for the past 16 years, both as an auxiliary and now as an ordinary, the bishop in charge of a diocese. No matter what a man knows in advance, the ministry of a local bishop is a surprise and a challenge,” Conley continued. 

“Whatever social prestige Catholic bishops once enjoyed is long gone. The clergy abuse crisis buried it. Today the reality can be quite the opposite. But this is not finally a loss, because true Christian leadership is a ‘privilege’ only insofar as it involves service to others in a spirit of humility.”

The men serving as bishops today, Conley said, are “men who know full well that they will suffer” and who are “ready to carry the cross of Christian leadership and have prepared themselves through deep prayer, faithful theological formation, and pastoral experience in the trenches.”

“They need — and they deserve — encouragement, clarity, and support from the man who holds the office of Peter. Pope Francis can provide all three. We should hope and pray that he will do exactly that,” Conley concluded.