Bishop: Homeward Bound
by Bishop Joensen | May 16, 2020
When Moses gathered seventy elders of the Israelite people near the tent where he would usually meet the Lord God dwelling in his holy tabernacle, the spirit was readily distributed on all present. Yet a couple of guys, Eldad and Medad, who had remained back in the camp, also displayed the same prophetic spirit even though they were absent from the larger gathering. Moses had no problem with the fact that the prophetic spirit had sought out these men otherwise “left behind” at home. There were still a vital part of the community where God’s presence was manifest (Numbers 11:24-26).
For these weeks of pandemic self-discipline practices, we may have at times felt left out or left behind from the larger community where sacraments are celebrated and God’s presence and abundant life are shared. Yet my hope is that we all have come to deeper belief that God’s Spirit—the Spirit of the Risen Jesus—seeks out where we are, as we are. We have had the chance to invite God’s word into our daily lives and introduce God’s will and Spirit presence in the porous places where love is far from perfect and acute need is known. Mother Maureen McCabe observes, “To live through darker times faithfully is to grow in our capacity to receive God in all situations, for as our receptivity becomes less dependent on circumstances and feelings, an interior door opens up to another, deeper level.” That’s one definition of what it means to be a prophet: someone who places God’s word where it is absent, and helps others to believe God has come to them when they would otherwise feel God has left them behind in life.
The coronavirus contagion has afforded us plenty of chances to give witness that we are a prophetic people in Christ. But let’s be honest: The live-streaming Masses, even more than the Zoom and FaceTime encounters with loved ones and colleagues, are far from fully satisfying. If God’s Spirit has touched our hearts where we are, then that same Spirit urges us to make our way from our own homes—our “domestic churches”—to unite ourselves with God and each other as completely as possible. We long for the whole Christ: the Eucharistic Body who suffered and died for us, and is raised in the Spirit to become the nucleus of an organic communion that is glorious, grateful, and soul-filling.
By baptism, we are made prophets of the Word who is Christ, AND we are made priests who lend our holy desires to the larger Body, who mediate and shore up the tent of trust that allows our respective vulnerabilities and needs to be seen as valuable and not a drain on the larger whole, for they evoke the mysterious, sacrificial love of Jesus embedded in the Eucharist. When we are attuned to the Spirit pulsing among us, nothing less than actual reception of Holy Communion in the context of the Mass that is both source and summit of Christ’s abundant life, can allow us to sigh and say, “Ah, home at last!”
Before he became pope, Joseph Ratzinger recalled what happened in concentration camps and Russian prison camps, where people had to do without the Eucharist for extended periods yet did not take matters into their own hands. He observes how they made a Eucharistic celebration of their longing, waiting with yearning upon the Lord. “In such a Eucharist of longing and yearning they were made ready for his gift in a new way, and they received it as something new,” when the day at last arrived that they could participate in Mass again.
At this writing, and with the Feast of God’s Spirit at Pentecost approaching on the last day of May, it remains uncertain when that glorious day when we are able to regather and participate in public Mass—and celebrate baptisms, weddings, funerals, confirmation and other sacraments as a full community--will occur. God willing, it will arrive very soon. Our regathering task force, which includes both priests and lay people, has been hard at work to help outline the preparations and conditions in our churches that we must prudently observe in order to protect as much as reasonably possible the physical and spiritual well-being of our Des Moines Diocese family.
As with the Israelites who confronted Moses about Eldad and Medad, there’s been some grumbling about whether we’re going too slowly or too hastily in reassembling for worship. I get it. As I noted in my vespers homily the night before I was ordained your bishop, there are times when authority is enlisted to make decisions not based on absolute truth coming directly from God, but to guide the community as prudently, reasonably, and faithfully as possible—to limit and then liberate sacred action for the sake of the salvation of souls. As Fr. Thomas Joseph White, OP, notes, Catholics are not obliged to believe that every decision of bishops comes from God, but they are obliged to obey and believe that their legitimate exercise of authority is rooted in the Spirit of the Risen Christ to bind and loose.
And so I challenge us all—myself included—to seek the grace to let charity prevail as we continue our pilgrimage back home. This charity makes patience and forbearance possible when decisions are beyond our control, and prevents us from succumbing to the bitterness and rancor that are the fingerprints of the unholy spirit who seeks to divide us and set us against each other.
And this charity will also be manifest in embracing the gradual manner in which we resume a Eucharistic rhythm of life, for reasons of necessary social distancing and due diligence in cleaning and restoring our churches to a safe environment each time we gather for Mass. When it is practically wise to do so, we cannot all rush the altar at the same time, heedless of our neighbor whose holy longing is equal to our own. We recall St. Paul’s challenge to the church at Corinth after hearing that there were divisions among them, factions that were breaking rather than building communion. “When you meet in one place, then, it is not to eat the Lord’s supper, for in eating, each one goes ahead with his own supper, and one goes hungry while another gets drunk” (1 Cor. 11:18-21).
Paul is referring to the preliminary meal that precedes the actual Eucharist, but I think his counsel obtains for us as well as we all long to come home to Mass in our parish churches. May God’s Spirit, the Spirit of charity and abundant life, the Spirit of a prophetic, priestly people, be with us where we now are, and where God will have us be: united as one Body, more than ever before.