Bishop: Feast of freedom and hope

by Bishop Joensen | June 14, 2022

Bishop William Joensen

Even if we are not formally under siege in our country, the spate of horrendous shootings in recent weeks leaves us saddened, mortified, and at risk of losing hope in our fellow human beings.  Ordinary venues of life—a school, a grocery store, a hospital, and even a church practically in our own backyard, among other places—have become sites of bloodshed and brutal human sacrifice.  It’s no longer a matter of merely taking our freedoms for granted; wherever we go, our daily lives can seem at risk, so vulnerable do we find ourselves.  And even on rare occasions, those charged to protect us and uphold the public peace seem to fail us.  Shock and awe can turn into indignation and anger—this should not be!  Yet sadly, how often our collective desire for justice, accountability, and heightened safety seems to devolve into reinforcing the status quo.  And so we sigh as the great sucking sound of our waning hope drowns out the murmuring voices populating our society.

Two late monsignors of Italian heritage, Lorenzo Albacete and Luigi Giussani, refer to Dostoevsky’s words in The Brothers Karamazov in response to possible consolations about suffering and death, which I cite at length: 

I must have retribution, or I shall destroy myself.  And retribution not somewhere in the infinity of space and time, but here on earth, and so that I could see it myself.  I was a believer, and I want to see for myself.  And if I’m dead by that time, let them resurrect me, for if it all happens without me, it will be too unfair.  Surely the reason for my suffering was not that I as well as my evil deeds and sufferings may serve as manure for some future harmony for someone else.  I want to see with my own eyes the lion lie down with the lamb and the murdered man rise up and embrace his murderer.  I want to be there when everyone suddenly finds out what it has all been for.

How astutely the novelist captures the cosmic cries lurking within our hearts, our bowels: I want to see!  I want to see justice!  I want to make sense of sacrifice! I want to see human beings freely make things right without a gun or a prison sentence hanging over their heads!  I want to see people reaching out for help when they are hurting, and have someone there to answer them before they melt down and take others with them.  I want a God who doesn’t turn away in exasperation in the face of evil—whether that of others or my own—and who doesn’t wait until the human race gets its act together to make peace with the messiness of it all.  

While manure may be the “smell of money” for our farmers, I want humans to stop making a stench that stems from denying each other’s dignity, their right to exist on this planet.  More than retribution, I want reconciliation, and barring that, I want a reason to get up another day rather than stay crawled up in a fetal position in bed.  I want heaven and earth to be in closer communication, so that maybe trust will rise again, and hope will live among us.

With all these unrequited desires, there’s one thing above all else that enables me to go on:  the Eucharist.  The Eucharist is God’s decision to bend down and remain with us no matter what.  The Eucharist is divine vulnerability, Jesus placing himself into our hands to do whatever we will—and we will love ourselves more if we venture love of others, regardless of how they respond to us.  Jesus lowers himself into human airspace at the appointed time, which is whenever we remember at our local Mass who he is and what he did at the Last Supper, so that we can recall who we are when we’re tempted to lose it.  As my brother bishops and I reflected on the Mystery of the Eucharist, “At the Last Supper, Jesus reveals himself to be the Paschal Lamb . . . whose sacrifice brings liberation from slavery to sin and who blood marks out a new people belonging to God” (n. 15).  
Jesus doesn’t let his body and blood be composted; he consecrates bread and wine so that we can see him and consume him and become more like him.  And if I let my gaze linger on him for even a few moments, let alone an hour, I catch a glimpse of heaven, where I believe at last it all makes sense, and suffering is never in vain.  

Then, rather than contract in the rigor mortis of self-protective and self-righteous attitudes, I find myself more flexible and responsive rather than kneejerk reactive.  All in all, I remain free to choose to be a neighbor, a brother, a civic friend; I am God’s volunteer to go with grace rather than the flow, and above all, to keep hope alive.  
I am inspired to imitate people like Jesus, a member of Our Lady of the Americas Parish in Des Moines, who with a group of 16 or so fellow parishioners spend a good portion of their Thursday evenings going around neighborhoods knocking on doors.  If they open, they try to engage residents to see if there are traces of faith in their life story, if they have questions or issues they would like to talk about, and if they are open to keeping the conversation open for further visits.  Jesus and his friends have helped to mend broken hearts and hopes, to revive Catholic faith in some of the people they have visited who return to communion with their parish and the universal Church.  I need to be like Jesus! 

This year’s June 19 Feast of Corpus Christi, the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, marks the official beginning of a three-year Eucharistic revival sponsored by our nation’s Catholic bishops.  There are a host (pun intended!) of inspirational initiatives and reflective opportunities and on-line and print materials, culminating in a national assembly in 2024 in Indianapolis.  This is all well and good, but just as all politics is said to be local, so is faith.  Unless we freely choose to be present to the Presence, to set aside the mobile device and embrace the “inconvenience” of setting our bodies in motion and at rest before the mystery of the Sacrament and of the persons seated around us, any felt security or self-sufficiency will be falsely, cheaply purchased.  Only in Jesus do life, suffering, and death make any sense.  Only in Christ Incarnate does human life become sacred, regardless of appearances, natural disaster, or humanly induced tragedy.  
Again, the U.S. bishops: “St. John Chrysostom preached that when you see the body of Christ ‘set before you [on the altar], say to yourself: Because of this Body I am no longer earth and ashes, no longer a prisoner, but free: because of this I hope for heaven, and to receive things therein, immortal life, the portion of angels, [and closeness] with Christ” (n. 19).  

July 4 may be the one holiday we celebrate our nation’s freedom, but June 19 is one signature occasion informing and inspiring every day we rise from slumber and feast on the freedom and hope available to us each time we celebrate Holy Mass.  We meet Jesus in the Eucharist, gain a preview of what it all has been for, and find that along with bread and wine, we, too, are transformed.  As the Social Doctrine of the Church describes, we become “people capable of bringing peace where there is conflict, of building and nurturing fraternal relationships where there is hatred, of seeking justice where there prevails the exploitation of man by man.  Only love is capable of radically transforming the relationships that [humans] maintain among themselves” (n. 4).  The Body and Blood of Christ:  Amen!   

Bishop Joensen

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