Bishop: Cross Walk

by Bishop Joensen | October 26, 2022

Bishop William Joensen

[Note: Inspiration for this column comes from the recent “Christ Our Life” conference homily based on Luke’s Gospel: 16:19-31.]

February 3, 1998, was not a shining day for America or for Americans living in Italy.  Tragedy struck when a US Marine Corp EA-6B Prowler aircraft based at Aviano Air Base in northern Italy struck a cable in a narrow valley in the Dolomite mountains. The severed cable resulted in a cable car carrying twenty Europeans to plunge over 100 meters to their deaths. The accident was dubbed the Cermis massacre; it resulted from the decision of the pilot and navigator to have fun and take low-level videos of the scenery while flying much faster and much lower than specified by military regulations.  The plane actually cut the cables from below.  

The pilot and navigator, who shall remain nameless, were put on military trial in the U.S. and were acquitted of negligent homicide and involuntary manslaughter, though they were dishonorably discharged in part for destroying the video evidence. 
With all due respect to our more valiant military service men and women, these two aviators were complacent and self-serving rogues who lived by their own rules, heedless of those around them who were at risk and vulnerable. Even if they did not directly intend death, they were at least mortal accomplices whom someday God will hold accountable; pray they have repented and confessed their lethal neglect.

The Cermis massacre is a grossly tragic, one-off event.  Yet in a Gospel reading last month, Jesus shows that even ordinary and seemingly benign neglect of others who have a claim on our care and compassion is a high stakes affair.  You remember the reading of the rich man, traditionally called “Dives” and the poor man. Dives lives in a bubble of excess and ego.  Jesus tells us the name of the poor man, Lazarus, but it is likely the rich guy never inquired. 

Dives is the antitype of the Good Samaritan.  He has no need even to cross over or go out the back door to avoid Lazarus; his pride propels him on his merry way, heedless of the peril before him.  The rich man digs a spiritual chasm between himself and his fellow human beings into which he plummets to death.

Dives thinks he has friends, but they are of the sort that the Kardashians and Crazy Rich Asians would covet; even we can succumb to fascination and fandom when it comes to wealth. Franciscan University theologian Regis Martin reminds us of GK Chesterton’s wry observation that “he could never quite understand the necessity people felt to heap honors upon a man simply because at some point in his life he had managed to corner the soybean market.”  

After death, Dives finds out how very alone, how very thirsty his soul is. The saddest thing of all is that even as he craves relief from the netherworld flames, he still wants others to march to his music; he has no qualms ordering Lazarus and Abraham around:  “Send them,” he implores. He doesn’t realize he’s not in a position to ask for anything. And there are those who, following his footsteps, will find the road to hell is paved by the same inattention to people who are hurting.

How do we erect and reinforce our own walls, or create chasms between ourselves and others?  

Humans establish all sorts of chasms among themselves: the class lines between the affluent and those who wonder where their next meal is coming from are most conspicuous. But there are those whose primary identity lies more with their partisan political affiliation than in being a disciple of Jesus or a believer in God. These folks are more likely to reinforce rather than remedy the polarization that plagues our social discourse.

There are those who know they are hurting, hungry and thirsty for human connection, for a place to lay their head and call home, and there are those who deny there’s a problem, the NIMBYs who shrug their shoulders and say, “Not in my backyard.”  
Here’s another example. We need not apologize for our belief that God in his goodness has created us male and female, that human sexuality is a great gift from God to be celebrated, reverenced, and gracefully expressed in the saving sacrament of marriage.  Yet that doesn’t permit us to exclude or write off those who are unsure of who they are, who feel like aliens in their own bodies, or who are attracted to persons of the same sex—persons who become like pawns being exploited in the culture wars by those who hold the Judeo-Christian view of human nature in contempt.  

We are not obliged to ratify all inclinations as inherently good, or say that all choices are created equal in God’s sight.  But God help us if we do not accompany these persons, intentionally inviting and including them into our families, our parishes, our inner circles of relationships where Spirit and life flow freely.  Recognition of our common dignity as daughters and sons of God and basic human decency will let us do no less.

God comes to save us all from ourselves.  Jesus restores the cables across the great divide between heaven and earth; he ziplines down from his divinity into our humanity at the appointed time.  Rather than clinging to life, he simply lets go and plummets into the abyss, to the lowest of low places which is death itself.  

We profess in the Apostles’ Creed that Jesus descends into hell.  He restores connections among those who are humble enough to cry out to him for mercy in this life, and those who have unfinished business in the cable car transporting them to the Father of mercies.  

By grace and nature, we recognize God in one another, whether our bodies are covered with sores or our faces creased with worry, sadness, self-contempt.  

As Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI said in reflecting on the Love who is God:  “In God and with God, I love even the person whom I do not like or even know.  This can only take place on the basis of an intimate encounter with God, an encounter which has become a communion of will, even affecting my feelings.  Then I learn to look on this other person not simply with my eyes and my feelings, but from the perspective of Jesus Christ.  His friend is my friend.  Seeing with the eyes of Christ, I can give to others much more than their outward necessities; I can give them the look of love which they crave”  (Deus caritas est n. 18).  

Dives was pathetically arrogant in saying to Abraham, “Send him.”  We are humbly and boldly prepared to say to Jesus, each and every morning, with gratitude and holy fear of the Lord, “Send me.” SEND ME wherever you will, Lord: into whatever gaps I encounter, whatever chasms I discover—especially those I have been a party to in the past.  Help me help others to cross from death to life, for they are my brothers, my sisters, your friends, my friends.  SEND ME.  SAVE US.  And our joy will be complete.

Bishop Joensen

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