Bishop: The worthy Word at work in us

by Bishop Joensen | January 19, 2022

Bisop William Joensen

There are different denominational versions of an old joke, but the Catholic one describes a man whose longtime business is going down the drain, to the point that he is drinking too much and contemplating suicide.  So he goes to his parish priest to pour out his troubles and seek counsel.  The priest advises him, “Go home, take out your Bible, flip through the pages with your eyes closed until you let it fall open to a particular page; then put your finger on the page and open your eyes: read those words and do whatever they tell you.”  The man does as he’s told.  Three months later he drives up to the parish office in a luxury car, wearing an expensive suit and a flashy watch.  He hands the priest a thick envelope full of money and tells him he wants to donate it to the parish in gratitude for the priest’s advice.  The priest is delighted and asks him what words in the Bible brought him such good fortune.  The man replies, “Chapter 11.”

We get the joke because we know that’s not how things work:  playing Bible roulette and filing for bankruptcy are neither the way to enduring material prosperity, nor do they avail of us the spiritual riches God supplies in revealing his Word, Jesus Christ, to us.  Our relationship with the Scriptures cannot be a “one-off,” random affair.  If we are to encounter the living God who wants to abide with us in every aspect of our lives, then a genuinely lived relationship with God’s word in Scripture is not optional; it is a vital necessity, as much as air, food and water are required for life.  God’s word saves. 

God wants to reveal not only who he is but who we are in his sight.  The Father’s excellent counselor, the Holy Spirit, wants to help us interpret our lives in light of the mystery of his Son’s life, death, and resurrection.  God assures us that if we encounter him in his inspired word, we will find meaning, companionship, compassion, and encouragement amid the daily demands that too easily scatter our spiritual focus and wear down our hope.  The Scriptures are to be one battery for a spiritual life that never is spent, energizing our hearts so that we do not go into hibernation as disciples or forsake our mission to communicate that Jesus is Lord to a fatigued and often faithless world.

Shortly after I became bishop in 2019, Pope Francis announced that each year going forward, Catholics would mark the Third Sunday in Ordinary Time as the “Sunday of the Word of God.”  Analogous to the parent’s reply to children who wonder why we have Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, but not one for kids: “Every day is children’s day,” there might be wags who ask, “Don’t we proclaim the word every Sunday—in fact, every day—at Mass?  What’s so special about a Sunday in late January, when the flurry of the Christmas Season has subsided and the rigors of Lent are still weeks away?” 

 The Holy Father calls us to shine a particular light on the role of God’s word in the life of faith, both as a community and as part of an intimate dialogue between God and each person.  We experience anew how the Risen Jesus himself “opens up for us the treasury of his word and enables to proclaim its unfathomable riches before the world.”  Our belief in God’s inspired word should strengthen our bonds with the Jewish people and dovetails well with our celebration of the Week of Christian Unity and the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul.  Paul’s letters are the catalyst for our shared conviction with all our Christian sisters and brothers that there is one faith, one Lord, one baptism, one God and Father of us all.  Pope Francis reminds us, “The Bible is the book of the Lord’s people, who, in listening to it, move from dispersion and division toward unity.  The word of God unites believers and makes them one people.” 

We know tensions that beset us even within the Catholic community (pandemic protocols, reduced conviction that Jesus is sacramentally present in the Eucharistic, inconsistency of Eucharist belief and political positions, liturgical sensibilities that may or may not be linked to prophetic action aimed at social justice and inclusion of diverse members within the Body of Christ). 

THE Word of God who is Jesus continues to knock at the door of our hearts, to convert us and enlist us in his saving activity, but only if we are willing to sit at his feet, to daily retreat for even a few brief moments to savor mutual presence, and to allow the combined sweet and bitter taste of his words to season our sense of how we are to share ourselves with others, even in the face of our own personal discomfort or difficult circumstances. 

The late Trappist monk Thomas Merton speaks to the awareness that we might cultivate through daily reflection on the readings of Mass via print or electronic platforms, or praying of the psalms connected with the Liturgy of the Hours (readily available on iBreviary or other apps), or profiting as many have by following Fr. Mike Schmitz’s podcasts unfolding “The Bible in a Year.”   Merton recounts the inspired recognition that “where you are is where you belong, this is it,” as the only platform for real spiritual growth.  “God’s word checks our fantasies of ‘if only ‘or the fiction of ‘what if’, but instead calls us to reality that ‘this is me, this is where I’m at, there is where I am offered the opportunity to be with and begin the rest of my life’ ” (Northumbria Community cited by Diarmuid Rooney).

I was struck again during our recent annual Midwest bishops’ retreat at a Benedictine abbey how the combination of singing the Psalms and a few recited verses of Scripture ensures that God’s word is like an arrow piercing the heart and etching God’s live-time communication in my soul.  For me, as for many of our priests, each day at home is like a mini-retreat in my Holy Hour before the Blessed Sacrament spent pondering Scripture and lingering in silence.  I was reminded again in complementary reading of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI to simply read the readings and then stop actively meditating about them.  I allow the Spirit to work in my heart below the conscious level, an interior process that I must trust is unfolding so that eventually God’s words become words for me, which is an essential step if my words are to become words for others.  

We may well have only a few seconds or minutes in the morning rather than a whole hour.  It does not take much time for this silent encounter with the Word to become a lasting affair, carrying over into the way we listen to others and respond to them.  We are not alone in experiencing what St. Paul experienced on the road to Damascus.  We find all that is already good and true in life to be reinforced, but the additional grace afforded by the Divine Teacher permits us to mingle the wisdom and truth of the law and of the prophets with his own words in a new way that enables us to interpret situations in the light of the Spirit.   We are able to converse with all persons in a way that fosters connection and not division, for he is the Worthy Word who is working through us and in us.

On the Sunday of the Word of God, as the Week of Christian Unity also draws to a close, my prayer is that we heed St. Paul as he took leave of the presbyters of Ephesus at Miletus, entrusting them “to God and to the word of his grace” while cautioning them against division (see Acts 20:32).  We will not be bankrupt but abundantly blessed as the sense of unity of the word of God irrigates the unity of the Church and our love for one another.  Our love for God’s word will be one chamber of a heart that loves our Eucharistic Lord.   Our personal faith exudes a magnetic attraction as people sense that the Church has a place for everyone, and that together our communion itself is the wealth God has set in store.


Bishop Joensen

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