At the age of 15, Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman was given the gift of faith.
Of that year, he writes: “a great change of thought took place in me. I fell under the influences of a definite Creed, and received into my intellect impressions of dogma, which, through God’s mercy, have never been effaced or obscured.”
Newman read his way to belief at a very young age—he credits works of Christian apologetics and spirituality as the reason he came to know the Lord. But Newman didn’t stop reading when he became a believer—he read his way into Anglicanism, and eventually into the Catholic Church.
Newman became a cardinal, and more importantly, a beloved Servant of God, because he was open to knowing Jesus Christ, and to deepening his relationship of prayer with the Holy Trinity. The conversion of Newman at 15, and his ever-developing relationship with Christ, is responsible for thousands of conversions, and for a great flowering of Catholic culture in Great Britain.
Newman’s greatest attribute is willingness to follow the Lord wherever he was called—to loving him, and to serving him in the providential plan of the Father. The effects of his docility and receptivity are still unfolding.
Earlier this month, the Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, announced that Bishop James Conley will serve as the ninth bishop of Lincoln, Neb. He will be installed on Nov. 20, in the Cathedral of the Risen Christ.
Bishop Conley is a great follower of Cardinal Newman, and his life has much in common with his spiritual patron. Both were converted through their reading of important Christian works. Both are men of keen intellects, who seek to know and understand the faith. And Bishop Conley’s life also testifies to a trust in the providential plan of God.
When I met Bishop Conley, neither one of us were bishops. I was Father Sam, and he was Father Jim, and we were both students in Rome, living at the Casa Santa Maria with priests in studies from all over the United States.
Bishop Conley was known among the priests for his love of ideas and conversation, for his genial and easy friendships, and for his commitment to working with undergraduate American students who were studying in Rome. He was well-known, and well-liked, but I never imagined that 25 years later, he and I would both be bishops, and Denver would be saying goodbye to him after four years of ministry.
The bishop’s appointment is a consequence of his trust in the plan of God. Like Newman, Bishop Conley has followed his conscience—and more importantly formed his conscience—in an earnest intellectual discovery of Christ and his Church. And like Newman, Bishop Conley has said yes to the will of the Father—which is why he has been called to serve the people of Lincoln.
All of us are called to trust in the Father’s providential plan. At times, it can seem outlandish. It is always surprising. I never imagined that God would call me to be a priest. Neither Bishop Conley nor I ever expected to be called as bishops. And yet, the plan of the Father, which is always surprising, is always more joyful than what we might plan for ourselves. God knows us, and builds us for a mission—and so our very nature is built for that mission. To follow God’s plan for our lives is to live exactly as we were created to live.
To follow God’s plan, we must know God himself. We must commit ourselves to lives of prayer—to spending time before the Lord in contemplation in adoration, in Scripture, and in the sacraments. And we should imitate the intellectual endeavors of Cardinal Newman and Bishop Conley—we should read good books about the spiritual life, and about God himself. We should ask the hard questions, and seek to know and understand our faith. Our intellects are given to us by God precisely so that we can know, love and serve him.
Let us celebrate the plan of God the Father for Bishop Conley. Let us wish him well, and pray for him. But let us also commit to knowing the plan of God for our lives, and to generously following it every day.