Bishop: The New Adam's Family

by Bishop Joensen | October 15, 2021

Bishop William Joensen

With the release this month of the movie sequel, The Addams Family 2, we are invited into the chambers of the often bizarre, mildly scary, and weirdly attractive cast of characters identified as “one of the most iconic families in American history, up there with the Kennedys.”  For the almost cult-like followers of parents Gomez and Morticia, their children Wednesday and Pugsley, family members Uncle Fester and Grandmama, butler Lurch, disembodied Thing and other creatures, it’s almost as though every day is Halloween.

Yet as intriguing as the Addams are, there is another family who should capture our spiritual imaginations and intensify our participation in a drama that is sometimes frightful, frequently funny, periodically mystifying, and yet never boring.  For as we pray in the Salve Regina, we “poor banished children of Eve” descended from our first parents who found themselves estranged from God by their own willful disregard for God’s wise instruction.  By virtue of our common humanity, we belonged to the first Adam’s family whose story began in pure bliss but was hijacked toward a sober outcome until the God who is pure spirit intervened and took on flesh for our sake. 

This God remains not a “thing” but a community of persons.  St. Paul compares Jesus, the new Adam, to his predecessor: “Death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those who did not sin after the pattern of the trespass of Adam, who is the type of the one who was to come. . . . For if by that one person’s transgression the many died, how much more did the grace of God and the gracious gift of the one person Jesus Christ overflow for the many” (Romans 5:14-15).

When we identify fully as body-soul beings with the new Adam, Jesus, we find ourselves belonging to a family where dysfunction or disability is an occasion for compassionate solidarity, and mutual vulnerability is befriended. We accept our own bodies with their own distinctive features and imperfections without needing to exaggerate our own exceptionalism in a sweated attempt that screams, “Look at me!”  Instead, one has an attitude like Kathleen Berken, who lived in an “Arch” community in Clinton, Iowa with core members facing different cognitive and physical challenges. 

Kathleen, who contracted Stage IV breast cancer and underwent surgery and treatment, observes, “During my year of treatment, no core member even noticed that I was one breast short, or made disparaging remarks about my hair loss, weight gain, or change in appearance due to the ravaging effects of chemo. It’s not that they didn’t care; they just didn’t pay attention.” There is a countercultural note: “Their bathroom mirror reflects faces and bodies my culture doesn’t celebrate on covers of celebrity magazines. So, a bald woman, forty pounds overweight with one breast, a red face, and mottle chemo skin, looks just like some of them. I found myself breathing more.” 

Once baptized into Christ, our bodies are indeed a “temple of the Holy Spirit” that affords access to a community that is both human and divine, where we are free to breathe. Further, as a precursor to the glorified body with which God’s friends--the “hallowed” saints--are invested, our practices surrounding death should rightly reflect our human dignity while maintaining a graced detachment that does not cling unduly to the mortal remains of loved ones (as was the case with the woman who had some of her husband’s ashes baked into the clay vase that held the remainder that she intends to keep on her mantle at home until she dies). Nor should we manifest callous disrespect for the “stuff” that once marked our physical presence (as is the case, I suggest, in movements to legalize the composting of corpses and recycle them like any other organic material).

The body is important, Father José Granados reminds us, because it links us with our parents and connects us through generations to Adam and Eve with the same origin and history.  Happily, “In this kind of generation, not only is an original fault transmitted, but also the memory of an original beatitude, that is, an original relationship with God as a source of life and promise of fullness.” Our relationship with our mother and father may or may not become full-bodied friendship; in any event, beyond the natural order “there is a collective familial memory of happiness going back to Adam.”

While memory retrieves this past sense of original beatitude, there is also a future dimension of happiness accessed by faith that is inscribed in the individual body and the Body of Christ, manifest in the Church and the Eucharist. As we make our pilgrimage through life and begin to more intensely sense our mortality, our presence among a human community that mediates communion with God is a consolation and a source of hope, for we already anticipate the life of the new Adam, Jesus, and his death for our sake. The sacraments are our bodily means of remaining united with Christ. Granados concludes: “The Eucharist is the act by which, through the flesh and in union with Christ’s flesh, the entire Church directs herself to him. Thus, by this happy act, the Church makes herself a happy city.” The new Adam’s family is meant to radiate happiness even in the face of death beyond the Church to the whole world.

As a final note, I make this appeal: many clergy and others note the sorry trend among the children of deceased parents who were longtime practicing Catholics and even daily communicants not to request the Mass of Christian Burial for their parents’ eternal peace and joy, even when their folks clearly requested that the Eucharist be celebrated. Whether it is out of discomfort or misgivings given their own ambivalent faith lives, or a desire for efficiency or economy, I will not judge.

But it strikes me that it is not only a denial of the opportunity to invoke Christ’s merciful grace and the merits of his salvific death to aid in their parents’ purification and preparation for heaven, it is an offense against the command to “honor one’s father and mother.” Further, as traced above, to omit Mass introduces a rupture in the bond of generations that extends in both directions: back toward the original blessing that enfolded the first Adam (and Eve), and toward the future hope of communion in the beatific vision. There we aspire to see not only God, but our parents and our siblings in their beautiful, glorified bodies. 

While God and the Church might still supply what is lacking through the infinite merits of Christ’s cross, to forgo the offering of the funeral Mass diminishes the prospect of happiness not only in heaven, but dampens the happiness that is available to us here and now in our concrete lived experience in the world. And that is something that no real-life family, let alone the new Adam’s spiritual family, should suffer. 

Bishop Joensen

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