Bishop: Summer camp, desire & Sunday obligation

by Bishop Joensen | June 18, 2021

Bishop William Joensen

The late physicist-turned-priest, Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete, used to caution young people about the spiritual peril he calls, “the reduction of desire.”  He refers to the condition whereby we become so accustomed to accepting the status quo or other conventions that we uncritically opt for the avenue of least resistance.  We accept the dictates of the powers-that-be and go with the flow without exerting any creative energy or resistance to the unhealthy forces either outside or within ourselves that would pacify us.  We neglect inclinations toward goods and experiences that would ultimately be personally fulfilling.  We become “domesticated,” which might be a good thing for pets and livestock, but is ultimately unworthy for human beings whom God intends to be passionate, prophetic partners in his Kingdom project.

The remedy for the reduction of desire, says Albacete, is love—sheer, unadulterated love.  Love is the “x-factor” that urges us beyond ourselves, that moves our hearts to become restless first responders to the promptings of grace, rather than cautious damage-control experts whose chief concerns are avoidance of punishment and personal convenience.  In God’s wise design, love often discomforts us, but only so that God might disclose his mysterious presence.  When we recognize his primary and most profound gift of self in his Son Jesus, our own desire is activated to offer ourselves to him as we are without hesitation or second-guessing.

As I’ve come to learn about the great legacy of St. Thomas More Catholic Youth Camp near Panora, whose brand-new stylish cabins await this year’s campers (thanks to many friends and benefactors who’ve made them possible), my sense is that this summer extravaganza of fun, faith, and an incredible array of exhilarating activities induces, rather than reduces desire: desire for small-group sharing, for young adult mentors to look up to, for creativity and uninhibited joy and laughter, for well-designed risk-taking in the ropes course, and for newfound gratitude for one’s immediate family and for a larger family of faith within the Diocese of Des Moines.  Above all, CYC sparks deepened desire for friendship with Jesus, fueled especially by the daily opportunities for Mass and Eucharistic adoration. CYC is a weeklong adventure of love!

In the Eucharist, Jesus’ desire to love us meets our own desire to be loved and love in return.  As he sits down with his disciples in the Upper Room, he reveals, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer” (Luke 22:15), radically identifying himself with the bread and wine they share.  And rather than saying afterward, “Been there, done that,” his self-offering anticipates his passion and death on the Cross and stirs his desire that spans life on earth:  “I tell you from now on I shall not drink this fruit of the vine until the day when I drink it with you new in the kingdom of my Father” (Matthew 26:29).  The Eucharist both satisfies and stimulates our appetites for peace and consolation, companionship, for renewed wonder and gratitude.

I received a note not long ago from a woman who has long since returned with her husband to Sunday and weekday Mass.  She had encountered a young-ish couple who used to attend their parish regularly.  When she asked if they were back at Mass, they replied that, even though they had received the COVID-19 vaccine and were not really afraid of contracting the virus, they had grown used to watching the livestream in the comfort of their own home.  Talk about the reduction of desire!  While parish livestreams of Sunday Mass, weddings and funerals will be an enduring legacy of the pandemic as we continue to connect with our own people and a wider audience, and while there are certainly persons who have compromised health conditions or who care for those who do that make extra precautions a prudent choice, there is no substitute for “real presence”: of Christ to us in his Eucharistic gift, and in our mutual presence to him and one another.  There should be a gravitational pull on our hearts from the awareness that Jesus remains always turned to us and available at the altar and tabernacle, such that we would never settle for anything less than his technology-free presence.  We do not want to be domesticated spectators but partakers at the divine banquet, any more than we would want to watch Fourth of July fireworks on TV or gaze at others who are savoring barbecue at their local neighborhood picnic. 

I communicate in another message my long-planned decision to lift the dispensation from the obligation to participate in Mass on Sunday and holy days, effective this coming July 24-25.  That weekend, we will proclaim the John 6 Gospel where Jesus multiplies the loaves and fish to feed the multitude, to be followed in subsequent weeks by passages from the Bread of Life discourse.  By reinstating the Sunday Mass obligation, I am relating God’s clear expectation that we act on the desire he has instilled in us from the moment of our baptism to actually commune with him; we dare not domesticate and deaden this desire by ignoring it.  Our worship together in church is an affair of the heart and head, and not blind submission to God’s commands or even the conventions of our Catholic culture.  We allow the Spirit gifts of piety/devotion and fear of the Lord to be guiding forces stirring attraction and respect for the Father who only asks that we receive his most precious gift: his beloved Son.

Even apart from the pandemic, I am aware of folks who see the summer months as a chance to “take a break from Church,” to find God solely in nature—even if that nature is a manicured golf course.  In response, I would draw from Pope Francis, who observes, “In the Eucharist, fullness is already achieved; it is the living center of the universe, the overflowing core of love and of inexhaustible life.” “On Sunday, our participation in Eucharist has special importance. . . . In this way, Christian spirituality incorporates the value of relaxation and festivity.”  Our souls, our world, grow larger, rather than drawing in on themselves: “The day of rest, centered on the Eucharist, sheds its light on the whole week, and motivates us to greater concern for nature and the poor” (Laudato ‘Si nn. 236-37).

We may not get to go to summer camp, but all of us can do our own spiritual “ropes course”—honoring the binding Sunday obligation by responding to the cords of love tethered to our Eucharistic Lord, who has set in store for us a feast for all seasons.

The following is a letter Bishop Joensen sent to the faithful of the Diocese of Des Moines on June 18.

Dear Friends in Christ,

This coming July 25th, the Seventeenth Sunday of Ordinary Time, the Sunday and holy day Mass obligation will be restored in the Des Moines Diocese.  It was a profoundly sobering decision to suspend public Masses and the Sunday obligation over a year ago, and throughout this pandemic I know we have all longed for a more ordinary rhythm in our life of faith and communal worship.   Reinstating the Sunday obligation is an encouraging step forward; it is being taken in response to a much improved public health situation, and the widespread accessibility of effective vaccines against COVID-19. 

We have all experienced times when an unchosen period of absence has helped us to more deeply appreciate the many gifts in our lives, and my hope is that the same will be true in our experience of Sunday Eucharist and the obligation that points the way toward shared presence with Jesus and one another.  Our society often views obligations as burdens to be endured or obstacles to freedom.   A healthier “human ecology” recognizes that obligations can often orient us toward the good, especially if we are mixed in our dispositions toward that good.  I hope that the restoration of the Sunday obligation will give us all an opportunity to reflect on the marvelous generosity of the “One who alone is good” (see Mark 10:18), yet whose goodness is instilled in everything in this world in which we live, move, and have our being. 

Fundamentally, our participation in communal worship on Sundays and holy days is both an entry into, and an expression of, an intimate personal relationship with Jesus. This intimacy is the transforming experience that gives life “a new horizon and a decisive direction” (Pope Benedict XVI, Deus caritas est/God is Love n. 1).  We are invited to worship God who has gratuitously given us everything we have, including life itself.  Further, the Mass draws us ever more deeply into the communal Body of Christ, the People of God whom Jesus calls and redeems.  Our participation in Mass is not a supplemental practice in the life of discipleship; it is the beating heart of faith, the source and summit of our entire Christian life.  If you have been away from Mass, whether due to the pandemic or for any other reason, I’d like to personally invite you to join us again at the wellspring of God’s love. 

While the general dispensation from the obligation will be lifted on July 25th, there will always be cases where individuals are excused or dispensed for serious reasons (see the Catechism of the Catholic Church n. 2181).  These reasons would include, but are not limited to, personal illness, known or suspected exposure to COVID-19, or if you are a caretaker of a member of the vulnerable population and your participation in Mass would expose him or her to a significant risk of contracting COVID-19.  If you are unsure of your situation, please consult with your pastor who can assist you in your discernment.   

On July 25th, the Gospel at Mass will recount Jesus’ feeding the 5,000, and in the following weeks we will hear successive passages from the John 6 account of Jesus’ Bread of Life discourse.  As we prepare for the reinstatement of the Sunday obligation, please join me in praying for a greater awareness of, and attraction to, Jesus as the Bread of Life.  Jesus nourishes and sustains us in all seasons of life.  May we grow in our appreciation of Mass, and in our observance of Sunday itself, a day of rest and feasting “which heals our relationships with God, with ourselves, with others and with the world… the pledge of the final transfiguration of all created reality” (Pope Francis, Laudato Si’/On Care for Our Common Home n. 237).  

Let us continue to pray for Eucharistic Renewal, in our own Diocese and in the world.  Please know of my prayers for you and all your loved ones.  May you receive the blessing Jesus promises to those who Eucharistic hunger inspires all they do:  “Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied” (Matthew 5:6).



Bishop Joensen

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