Bishop: Playing for Fish

by Bishop Joensen | August 22, 2020

Bishop William Joensen

Father James Ahenkora of St. Patrick Parish in Council Bluffs shared with me that while on retreat recently in Schuyler, Nebraska, he sat by the side of the pond to play his guitar and—lo and behold!—a school of fish came swimming up to the shoreline, drawn by his beautiful music.

I can’t remember from my zoology days how fish might “hear,” but maybe they felt the pleasant vibrations coursing through the water—or maybe they simply spotted Father James and have learned from previous retreatants that they had a chance of gaining breadcrumbs thrown on the water?

Father James does enlist his guitar as part of his preaching at Mass and in his larger priestly ministry.  Music does more than soothe the savage beast; it has the capacity to speak to our hearts, shape our moods and resonate with what’s already going on in our souls.   Music can expand our capacity to praise God and to draw into ever greater harmony with God’s Spirit, drawing us toward God’s will to sustain and save us.

Given our COVID-19 mitigation measures, we’re singing a lot less at Mass these days.  Music ministers might feel particularly frustrated that they are not permitted to express their gifts and let the music already alive in their hearts and minds loose.  Our “fast” from liturgical music for the sake of the health and well-being of the Body of Christ is truly a sacrifice for many, and might introduce a sour note or two into the Spirit-led song God instilled in us when we were baptized. 

But, as with many of the challenges we face these days to discern what God is doing and why he has allowed so many stumbling blocks to befall us (can we say together, ‘derecho’?), we have to be careful so we don’t lose the capacity to hear and see the Divine Musician beckoning to us.  We risk amplifying our own wills, our own demands, our own disgruntlement to an extent that we drown out the more subtle melody—the whisper, even—of God’s overtures toward us.  We don’t want to be like the folks about whom Jesus exclaimed, “To what shall I compare this generation?  It is like children who sit in marketplaces and call to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, but you did not dance, we sang a dirge but you did not mourn’” (Mt. 11:16).  

Whether we are musically gifted or not, each of us can sound a note, be a voice that appeals to others, reassures them, helps conduct them closer to Christ.  By our presence and accompaniment of others, we can amplify the stirrings God is already strumming in their hearts, enabling them to discover the next step they might take in life, to realize their yearnings for meaning and some place in the larger symphony of God’s Spirit.  We can be instruments God uses to reveal their vocational call within the Church and the world.

 I had the chance recently to visit individually with each of our 19 seminarians to hear what God’s grace has been doing in their lives, how the people and parishioners they encountered this summer and earlier in their vocational discernment have helped propel them in the path toward priesthood God seems to be affirming.  I was struck by one of our new seminarians who shared that while in public high school, one of his teachers sensed in him an openness to matters of faith, and who began an ongoing conversation about God, the Church, and what matters most in life.  This teacher was not “preaching” to him, but gave witness through his own docility to the Spirit that here was someone who might hear him, whose longing to know and serve Jesus more deeply only needed someone who was not afraid to “go there.”

It was a beautiful moment for me to witness this month the profession of perpetual vows by one of my former students and spiritual directees, formerly Kathleen and now Sister Mary Elisha Glady, a Religious Sister of Mercy of Alma, Michigan. This former southern Minnesota farm girl has had an interesting path to arrive at the altar: a math education major who edited science books for a publisher for a while in Iowa City, she found niches of space and time to simply sit before the Blessed Sacrament (no mere breadcrumbs for her!), weathering roommates and the occasional discordant note from her family, falling in and out of love, and yet fearlessly allowing Jesus to beckon her over the years to and within the Mercy community in various apostolates, including now as a Catholic school principal and teacher in Colorado. 

My privilege for a decade or so as her director was to listen and reflect back to her what I was hearing, sometimes but not always filling in the spaces of conversation with a note or two as I tried myself to listen for the Spirit’s lead.  Now, like the beloved in the Song of Songs, she can declare, “The sound of my lover! Here he comes, springing across the mountains, leaping across the hills.” “My love speaks and says to me, ‘Arise, my friend, my beautiful one, and come!’” (Song of Songs 2:8, 10).

In the midst of these often turbulent times, when it seems like the deluge of concerns and competing claims on our hearts can drown out the sounds of the Spirit, Jesus needs ever more to enlist us as “musicians” of his mysterious will in the lives of our young and not-so-young people who might be called to priesthood, religious life, or simply deeper faith.  He invites us to be like the seventy-something year-old woman who one day said to her coffee-klatch partner, “Have you ever thought of becoming Catholic?”—and who became her sponsor as she entered into the Catholic Christian initiation process and professed full communion with the Church this summer.  There’s still plenty of fish swimming out there—what sort of music are we playing?


Bishop Joensen

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