Bishop: Still together after all these years

by Bishop Joensen | August 17, 2021

Bishop William Joensen

Our August celebrations of the Feast of the Assumption and the displaced feast of Mary, Queen of Heaven—the patronal feast of our Diocese—spur some sunny musings on what it means to become gracefully united within ourselves and as a local church bound by Spirit ties of faith, friendship, and unfolding opportunities to lift one another up in love.  This month also marks the celebration of the 110th anniversary of the founding of our Des Moines Diocese: Happy Birthday, sisters and brothers in Christ! 

Our genesis as a Diocese was anything but an easy delivery, as Davenport Bishops Henry Cosgrove and his successor James Davis were not eager to loosen the ties within the southern half of Iowa and let the western counties form their own organic body of the faithful.  But with the pope’s ratification of the request to form a new diocese on Aug. 6, 1911, and the Aug. 31, 1911 directive to Bishop Davis by U.S. papal nuncio Archbishop Diomede Falconio to pay administrative costs for the “fission” of Davenport and Des Moines—talk about taxation without representation!—our Diocese was born.

In her Assumption, Mary’s graceful passage from earth to heaven enables her to transcend the fear and felt rupture that death ordinarily induces.  The enduring unity of her body and soul until she is ushered by angels and saints into the company of her glorious Son is the culmination of a lifelong pilgrimage where she is sheltered from sin and triumphs over the forces that want to disrupt her and our own integrity of life.  Mary remains a lithe dance partner of the Holy Spirit when her Son is conceived, when she hastens to her cousin Elizabeth to visit her in a shower of joy, and is a sublime vocalist as her “soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, her spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” She keeps her wits about her as she gives birth and then flees with Joseph to Egypt and eventually returns to the hidden life at Nazareth.  She grieves but does not despair when Joseph dies, when her Son embarks on his public ministry whose meaning she does not always grasp (see Mark 3:21, 31-34).  Yet she trusts and remains truly present with all her being to the flesh of her own flesh up until Jesus’ last earthly breath on the Cross.

Mary is privileged to anticipate the first breath of her Son’s Resurrection Spirit, and abides in this Spirit until she takes her last breath.  Mary’s soul is never divorced from her body, for she realizes God’s intention that we achieve harmonious coordination of our physical and spiritual potentials in order that we might share fully in God’s merciful promise to draw us to himself.  How painful it was to witness the decorated Olympic gymnast and woman of Catholic faith Simone Biles suffer bouts of the “twisties” that left her disoriented and unable to compete, let alone achieve the athletic perfection that lay within her grasp. 

How much more anguish and “dis-ease” do we experience when we sense our body betraying us in the diagnoses of cancer, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s, childhood or adult onset diabetes, or when our minds or those of loved ones grow dim through dementia or stroke, or bulimia or other mental condition.  As Robert Sokolowski observes, when we become sick, our very “I” becomes an issue as we ponder the disruption of our personal subjectivity, and are tempted to view ourselves as a heap of parts set against one another, a bag of objects that are destined to dissolve into oblivion unless someone takes drastic action.  Soul and body can be seem as antagonistic competitors who are foreign rather than friendly powers inherently dependent on one another.

One of the acute challenges facing families and our society is the rising attention devoted to the situation of persons suffering from gender dysphoria/gender-identity discordance.  The discomfort most people feel through puberty and the process of psychosexual maturation is rarely easy and often confusing.  But for select young people, who at some point early in life may have experienced sexual or other forms of trauma, the sense of being either male or female inserted into a mismatched body is often connected with a sense of alienation within oneself and from the people around them.  Those who advocate dramatic interventions such as prescribing hormonal blockers to sexual development, or surgeries that would alter sexual organs and recraft one’s physiognomy, whether within the medical, LGBTQ+ communities or even one’s own parents and family, may represent well-intended efforts to relieve suffering. 

But these attitudes represent a fundamental mistaking of our essential human identity as original body-soul composites who are vulnerable from the moment of conception to all the disruptive forces of disease and original sin (including the unfortunate instances of genetic or physical anomalies such as hermaphroditism or intersex).  Each of us is created by God from the first moment of our being—as for Mary and Joseph—to be this particular soul intended to activate this particularly sexed body, which is the root of our vocational calling to accompany one another on the pilgrimage where we take our proper place in the company of God’s children. 

The emerging medical data confirm that so-called gender-altering surgeries and the chemical disruption of sexual development that is a preceding step do not deliver promised long-term therapeutic relief.  Sadly, the incidence of suicide for these patients does not decrease. We do not want to be complicit with a cultural mindset that simply shrugs and goes along with irregular drumbeat of the demands to abet what is a fundamental mis-taking of our human personhood. 

At the threshold of heaven, Christ is forever the firstfruits of eternal life, followed by those who belong to Christ, with Mary his mother foremost in the queue of saints as she is assumed into heaven, and then is crowned with the stars as the fairest daughter of humanity. Perhaps for persons who suffer gender-identity discordance, the yoke of suffering they bear may not be fully alleviated until Christ destroys all authority and power, including death itself, and hands us over to his Father as the most prized possessions of his Kingdom.  We take comfort in the Gospel truth that those who share most fully in the cup of Christ’s suffering will be filled to overflowing with the new wine of Spirit joy.

Meanwhile, on this side of the vale of tears, we commit ourselves to love one another unconditionally, to be present to accompany one another through whatever personal crises we experience on the path of life, including whatever crosses we feel powerless to carry by ourselves.  We enlist the Spirit to be prudently discerning, to distinguish voices that ultimately scatter and divide persons within themselves from those that solidify the bond of shared trials and anguish that by God’s grace unite us ever more closely to one another in a compact of compassion and care. 

When we respect our God-given “I,” we discover anew that “we” take part plurally in the communion of persons meant to remain together until a mysterious number of years yield to eternity.  With St. Joseph, we declare our own “fiat,” let it be done, in whatever challenges that are imposed upon us, just as Mary did at the Annunciation (and Assumption), and as Jesus did in the Garden of Gethsemane.

And we become ever more the Church God intends when he created and called us, and when by his providential design, the Diocese of Des Moines came to be 110 years ago.  May God continue to alternately shine on us and shower his graces upon us as we enter another decade, processing further into a second century of mission and identity as God’s faithful in Southwest Iowa.

Bishop Joensen

Diocese of Des Moines Bishop William Joensen