Bishop: A mystery worthy of trust

by Bishop Joensen | April 13, 2022

Bishop William Joensen In 1956 in Paris, France, the 26-year-old cop killer Jacques Fesch languished in prison awaiting trial; a year later he would be found guilty, sentenced to death, and executed at the guillotine.  Though he was in solitary confinement, he was on a spiritual journey from being a blasé agnostic to becoming a deeply convicted, heartrending Catholic.  He corresponded on April 11 with the one he called “little brother,” who would eventually be known as Father Thomas:  

“I promised to write you at the end of Lent so that you would receive my letter for Easter.  Forgive this delay.  . . .  I spent the months of January and February in a state of spiritual euphoria which helped greatly in my search for God, and then, from March on, I fell back into complete darkness. . . . God certainly wants to try me, and evidently he thinks this state of abandonment is the most profitable one for my salvation and my future glory.”

Jacques’ prison cell is far removed from the situation of the disciples in the upper room in the wake of Jesus’ grisly crucifixion and burial.  But maybe they are not that different.  For all but Mary and some other women, the fact of Jesus’ death likely cast the cloistered few into complete darkness.  Their sense of abandonment must have felt like a sort of captivity as they wore an oppressive yoke of fear and crushed hopes.

Then Jesus passes through doors locked from within (see John 20:19-23).  Before he speaks, he takes in the acrid smell of grief and guilt for not remaining with Jesus to the end.  He senses the incredulity expressed in gasps and sighs.  While he is entitled to his share of glory, our reality still weighs upon him; he “suffers” what he witnesses, and moves to meet his followers on their terms.  Jesus, who sees and suffers with us both before and after his death and resurrection, initiates the Gospel of his mercy.  Psalm 85:11 (“Mercy and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed”) is practically Jesus’ personal identity card.  Jesus unbinds and restores right relationship by the kiss of his mercy.  He can pass into locked rooms and into our hearts because he permits us to claim his heart burning with love if we can bear it.
Mercy is love flowing toward where there is a lack—a lack of right relation/justice, of forgiveness, friendship, trust, joy, peace.  Mercy is the decision of love that the world is not to be left alone, troubled and abandoned.  Mercy is not mere pity nor sympathy as the world knows them, where these feelings are ultimately ordered to ourselves.  Mercy is the extension of Christ’s heart and the rays of his love toward those not bent on making others more aware of what they lack or where they have gone wrong.  St. John Paul II, speaking of the God who is rich in mercy, observes, “The person who is the object of mercy does not feel humiliated, but ‘restored to value’ . . . returned to life” (Dives in Misericordia 6.3).  We are more than the evidence — certainly more than our worst affliction, moment, or deed — and far more precious and cherished than we could ever estimate. 

In 2000, the Polish saint and pope established the octave day after Easter Sunday as Divine Mercy Sunday.  As a young man, he often prayed at the convent just south of Krakow, Poland, where St. Faustina Kowalska lived and died, where she composed a portion of her diary that disclosed her devotion to Divine Mercy.  The image that God revealed to her first in Vilnius, Lithuania, and then was refined in Poland, is depicted above the key refrain of her prayer: “Jesus, I trust in you.”  

Trust is the substrate of mercy—and a missing element in society and world politics in St. Faustina’s time—a time not all that far removed from our own.  People who trust are able to go where Divine Mercy wills to go.  Mercy is a mystery worthy of trust; it is both its cause and its effect.  Mercy and its companion trust is apostolic and priestly in an era that is always tempted to suspicion, cynicism, and resignation.  Jesus initiates sacraments through the Kingdom priesthood he enacts as a ministry of mercy on behalf of his Father.  There is only one priesthood of Jesus Christ, but in the diversity of parts composing his Body, there are different kinds of priesthood called to communicate mercy to others. 

The priesthood of the faithful, initiated in the sacrament of baptism and sealed and fortified in confirmation, liberates us from the bonds of original sin that is our genetic inheritance.  The Holy Spirit stirs us to transform the chaos of the world into a place where sisters and brothers can dwell together in peace as a family.  Thank God for the hundreds of people of all ages, from various countries and counties in our Diocese, who have received and will receive initiation sacraments at the Easter Vigil and beyond.  They represent a stream of lives receptive to God’s mercy who help us recognize that we are all pilgrims—and sometimes refugees--heading to an “upper room” not made by human hands: the house of the Father.
Cardinal Walter Kasper (one of the German prelates who has not left the reservation of Catholic orthodoxy) frames the topic of migration of peoples in terms of the corporal works of mercy.  He says one of the signs and challenges of our time is the task of absorbing individuals who have fallen on hard times at home and seek acceptance from us.  But we must confront the fears within our own hearts that breed xenophobia and hostility toward foreigners.  How prophetic and priestly are the citizens of countries such as Poland, the land of Divine Mercy, who are receiving millions of Ukrainian refugees. Sites such as the Warsaw Central Train Station serve as a logistical “field hospital” of newfound neighborliness feeding and clothing exiles with God’s mercy.  If the Poles can receive so many with relatively fewer resources at their disposal, might we in our proportionate prosperity find it within ourselves to absorb “aliens” who are our fellow humans, and often our sisters and brothers in Christ?

We are also grateful for ordained priests of Jesus Christ, including our diocesan priests who renewed their ordination promises at our Chrism Mass celebrated at St. Ambrose Cathedral.  The Holy Thursday Mass of the Lord’s Supper is the “initiation sacrament” for the ministerial priesthood, instilling in those chosen by Jesus a habitual capacity to proclaim God’s word, to offer the Eucharistic sacrifice that is mercy personified, and to be a steady conduit of grace according to Christ’s plan and promise to his Church.  

Most priestly ministry occurs in discreet places such as the confessional or the hospital room.  But sometimes exceptional deeds are recognized by the larger community, as happened for Father Raphael Assamah, presently pastor at St. Theresa Parish in Des Moines, when this past April 6 the Iowa House of Representatives adopted a formal resolution honoring Father Raphael for his yeoman’s work assisting his people in St. Mary Parish, Hamburg, during the 2019 flood.  The community’s physical landscape was devastated, yet in partnership with others, Father Raphael’s relief efforts helped spare his people from greater harm and actually drew them closer as a tight-knit spiritual community undaunted by natural disaster.  Bravo, Father Raphael!

To conclude by returning to the story of Jacques Fesch, in the days before he was executed, he confided to Father Thomas, “When you read this letter I shall be in heaven and I shall see Jesus.  Before this, of course, the grain of wheat must be ground and the grape crushed, but what should I fear, since I possess Jesus.”  Thanks to the communication between this wayward soul become faithful “priest” by baptism and one who was an ordained priest of Jesus Christ, whether in French or English, we can decipher the words written on Jacques’ heart: “Jesus, I trust in you!”

Bishop Joensen

The Most Reverend William Joensen is the current bishop for the Diocese of Des Moines, having been ordained and installed in 2019.