Bishop: Pre-Easter Lilies

by Bishop Joensen | March 17, 2021

Bishop William Joensen

The motto for the religious Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, who used to staff the former St. Joseph’s Academy for girls in Des Moines, is taken from Song of Songs 2:2: “Lilium inter spinas,” “A lily among thorns.” The lily is often taken to refer to the Blessed Mother.  We also know that her husband, St. Joseph, is often depicted holding a staff from which a lily sprouts—suggesting that Joseph’s paternal authority is sourced in his care and protection for Mary and her Son Jesus. 

The Church celebrates the Solemnity of St. Joseph on Friday, March 19 -- a feast that takes on special luster in this Year of St. Joseph.  In his letter, “A Father’s Heart,” affirming Joseph’s patronage of the Universal Church, among the various personal qualities that Pope Francis extols is Joseph’s “creative courage” that extends not only to Mary and Jesus, but to all the “least” members of God’s family. “Every poor, needy, suffering or dying person, every stranger, every prisoner, every infirm person is ‘the child’ whom Joseph continues to protect.”  Joseph is both exemplar and mentor for all of us in the Church, deepening our concern and the will to take responsibility for our neighbor who might otherwise be neglected—or worse, whose dignity might be denied. 

While we might get a dispensation from Lenten abstinence on St. Joseph’s feast, there are many for whom there is no “meat” or even “daily bread” to sustain them physically or spiritually. Our Lenten almsgiving and other acts of solidarity with persons who need our protection—whether channeled through our diocesan Catholic Charities or other agencies—should deepen the virtue of “creative courage” in us.  Inspired, bold initiatives for the ‘children’ of every age to whom the Holy Father refers allow us to image Joseph in his spiritual fatherhood. They are joined to prayers asking his intercession for all under our watchful, compassionate gaze.  Even if, God willing, the pandemic is abating to some degree, the needs of so many of our vulnerable neighbors remain acute. If the next round of stimulus checks finds us in a stable place, not really in need of the added benefit, we might ask ourselves: WWJD/What would Joseph do?

Two days after St. Joseph Day, a different sort of global event occurs on March 21: the tenth annual World Down Syndrome Day, as declared by the United Nations General Assembly.  WDSD is an occasion for people with Down syndrome, their families, and those work with and care about them to celebrate and raise public awareness by advocating for the rights, inclusion, and flourishing of people with Down syndrome.

The intentional selection of the 21st day of the third month of the year points to the genetic origin of Down Syndrome: Trisomy 21--an extra or third version of human chromosome number 21. Credit for the discovery of the basis for this condition goes to the renowned scientist, physician, and ardent Catholic family man, Dr. Jér?me Lejeune. Dr. Lejeune was a personal friend of St. John Paul II, who appointed him as head of the Pontifical Academy for Life just months before Lejeune’s death on Easter Sunday morning 1994.

Called by some “the father of modern genetics,” Lejeune would have garnered many more prestigious awards from his scientific peers for his discovery of various chromosomal abnormalities had he not been such a strong advocate for the lives of the intellectually disabled. He was indeed creatively courageous in a culture that sometimes cherishes the flexing of knowledge and power more than the people for whom no therapeutic remedy is available.  Today, the temptation to terminate pregnancy upon diagnosis of genetic abnormality remains prevalent. Lejeune’s witness strengthens our conviction that our mutual humanity is at stake unless we love and draw such persons into the center of our communities, our church. 

In her biographical memoir, Life is a Blessing, Lejeune’s daughter Clara reflects on the fatherhood of the man who became anathema to pro-choice adherents, yet who revealed the true nature of freedom:  “All the while that my father was spending his days with his patients and their parents, easing their sufferings, while he spent hours with a microscope and a computer looking for a cure. . . while he wiped off the spittle of contemptuous know-it-alls, while he meditated on human nature and the divine plan, he was loving us, too.” 

Clara continues, “He fed us and lived up to all our expectations in order to give us what he considered to be the most precious gift that a father can give to his children: the gift of knowing that they are loved, infinitely loved by the God of the living. And because he believed that ‘the truth will set you free’, he also gave us the instruments of this freedom, which he made his own.”

No wonder that at Dr. Lejeune’s funeral Mass in the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, Bruno, a young man who has Trisomy 21, came forward during the prayer of the faithful, took the microphone, and said, “Merci, mon professeur, for what you did for my father and my mother.  Because of you, I am proud of myself.” No wonder that just a couple of months ago, Pope Francis advanced Lejeune’s cause for canonization by recognizing his heroic virtues, enabling this Servant of God to be referred to as Venerable Jér?me Lejeune.

If Lejeune can be said to have carried St. Joseph’s staff in his advocacy for the protection of rights and social inclusion of persons with Down’s Syndrome, then we in the Diocese of Des Moines might take further pride in the “lily” of recognition to be given to one of our native daughters who has extended Lejeune’s legacy in her own right. Dr. Meghan O’Neill Guzman, a 2002 graduate of Dowling Catholic High School, whose intensity and high level of achievement on the basketball court and in the classroom was translated into her later studies and research at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, is now attending physician at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago. She likewise directs the Lurie Children’s Down Syndrome Clinic, where her main research seeks to better characterize the comprehensive neurologic status and developmental behavior of children with Down Syndrome. The enduring goal is to provide beneficial therapeutic strategies and interventions for these persons and those who love them. Dr. O’Neill Guzman will be honored after Easter with Dowling’s Distinguished Young Alumna Award. Congratulations, chère professeure!   

If Dr. O’Neill Guzman might be likened to a lily, I’m not sure I want to describe St. Joseph and Dr. Lejeune as the thorns that surround her. Surely, they each encountered and surmounted the thorny challenges they faced with creative courage. Collectively, they represent a pre-Easter blessing and beautiful source of inspiration from whom we can all take heart--fathers, mothers, and children of God alike!  
Bishop Joensen

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