Bishop: Threshold Crossed
by Bishop Joensen | February 25, 2020
While I had previously thrown coins into the Trevi Fountain based on the popular legend that guarantees one a return trip to the Eternal City, it was a decidedly unique voyage to Rome this past January for my first ever “ad limina” (“to the threshold”) visit of our country’s Region IX (Kansas, Nebraska, Missouri, and Iowa) bishops to the “confessions” that mark a sort of spiritual border before the tombs of the Apostles Peter and Paul, and to deepen our collective solidarity with Peter’s successor, Pope Francis.
The week was part working retreat with Masses at four major basilicas and time spent in prayer and reflection, and partly taken with appointments and conferences with the staffs of the various Vatican congregations and councils that represent the administrative extension of the pope’s executive role and ministry. There was also the graced opportunity to get to know my brother bishops and our Des Moines seminarians more deeply. There’s too much to recount in detail, but I offer some highlights:
First, despite some rumblings of misperceptions of the U.S. Catholic Church by our European counterparts, we encountered a largely appreciative and affirming estimate of American Catholicism by several of the groups we met. The Congregation for Education applauded the general state of our K-12 parochial schools, with ongoing dedication by diocesan laity who staff and support schools often once operated by religious communities, while also recognizing that we must continue to be intentional in forming lay administrators and teachers who are “missionary” in their approach to their educational vocation. Similarly, the Council for Promoting New Evangelization applauded the American spirit that is willing to adopt innovative strategies for bringing the Gospel to bear on the lives of young people and others. While the accent is more upon proclaiming Christ than upon reasserting doctrinal truths, the pending completion of a revised national catechetical directory will ensure that the integrity of the faith is respected while bearing the joy of the gospel to the “nones” and others who’ve yet to encounter Jesus.
The solid cultural values sown in the Heartland were acknowledged in our time with Cardinal Marc Ouellet of Canada, prefect of the Congregation of Bishops. Successful initiatives to promote priestly and religious vocations among men and women on campuses and within dioceses were touted, with the need to foster Hispanic vocations and ministry in the spirit of the 5th Encuentro were points of emphasis. The recent canonization of Cardinal Newman can enliven the centers at universities – such as at Drake – that bear his name. Our personal witness as bishops to greater simplicity of life and prophetic presence to our people in the face of racism, opioid and other addictions, and natural disasters such as flooding, is vital.
These notes were echoed in our meeting with Cardinal Peter Turkson (familiar to Des Moines folks from his presence here in conjunction with receiving the World Food Prize), Cardinal Michael Czerny and their staff on the Council for Promoting Integral Human Development. Their scope of responsibility is wide, including advocacy and outreach to migrants and refugees, victims of human trafficking and the distinct category of “internally displaced” persons within countries, including those estranged from homes and native cities by the effects of climate change and overall food insecurity.
While we were repeatedly told at the outset of our sessions that Vatican officials and staffs were poised to listen rather than talk, Roman loquacity sometimes prevailed, with mild frustration that we could not more fully engage experts such as Dr. Linda Ghisoni. She combines bioethical expertise with great passion for promoting marriage and family life, including new movements of spirituality and solidarity among young people.
There were more sober moments, including our time with the Secretariat of State where issues of religious freedom, the accord between the Catholic Church and the Chinese government, and the disposition and disclosure of funds entrusted by donors to the Papal Foundation and Peter’s Pence collection were discussed. But there were also frequent opportunities to be grateful for the support of Vatican officials—including several American priests from various dioceses working tirelessly behind the scenes—to address head-on the effects of clerical sexual abuse and other malfeasance by clergy, whether by the Commission for the Protection of Minors, or the Congregations of the Doctrine of the Faith and for the Clergy. Their efforts to work with survivors, to form and educate church ministers and the faithful, to provide more comprehensive guidelines and norms to safeguard our young people—and to apply church law appropriately to sanction and remove perpetrators or those guilty of misconduct from ministry, are encouraging, even as more needs to be done.
My one-on-one conversations and meals with our seminarians – Reed Flood, Alex Kramer, and Michael Mahoney – assured me that we are heeding the counsel of the Congregation for the Clergy that we should aim for quality men rather than numbers of candidates for the priesthood. Capacity for normal social relationships, ongoing conversion and configuration as disciples to Christ, and deep interior reflection and prayer that enable men to freely go out of themselves as prospective shepherds in the world: all of these are ingredients for vocations who will embrace the cross and help take up the cross of those whom they serve.
We were reminded of the need for fraternal support and collaboration when, by happenstance, at our concluding afternoon Mass at the Basilica of St. Paul-outside-the-Walls we arrived just as a solemn procession of the relics of St. Timothy was taking place, with all the medieval pageantry they could muster. Ss. Paul and Timothy were spiritual co-workers who offered encouragement and strength to each other, and our group of bishops reverently joined the procession in silence and song, graced to deepen our own bond as successors of the apostles.
Of course, it almost goes without saying that the highlight had come the day before when Bishop R. Walker Nickless of Sioux City presided and preached at the Mass at the crypt in the lower level of St. Peter’s Basilica. He spoke movingly of the unfolding deepening of Peter’s love in the face of Christ’s merciful probing of his soul. And then, after Mass, we were ushered into the papal apartments as a group of bishops, priests and seminarians, where the Holy Father dedicated two-and-a-half hours to engaging us in a private audience. He is truly a shepherd after Christ’s heart who is energized by genuine dialogue; with the aid of a translator, he proved untiringly receptive to fraternal repartee, where he displayed with amazing stamina and good humor, and did not skirt the tough questions about life-related issues, or the sorry matters surrounding the former cardinal and now Mr. Theodore McCarrick.
A couple light moments included being asked whether he takes a regular day off, to which he responded by beating his breast and confessing, “I am a sinner,” who maybe eeks out a couple hours’ relaxation on rare occasions listening to music, chatting with friends, or taking a brief walk—not bad for an 83-year-old with one lung! And when I prefaced a question about the engagement of North and Latin America by saying I was formerly a philosophy teacher, he retorted, “At last you’ve come down to earth!” The lighthearted photo as we parted company was in response to my promise to him that I would keep my feet, faith, and commitment to the people of the Des Moines Diocese firmly fixed at ground level–which, having “crossed the threshold” of the earthly nucleus of our Roman Catholic faith, is what–with lots of prayers and regular reminders from others–I intend to do. After all, I promised the pope!