Bishop: Triptych of Witnesses

March 23, 2022

Bishop William Joensen

It’s not just a Lenten thing, but the vale of tears stirred by the awareness of suffering humanity both remote and near to us seems especially thick and heavy these days.  The onslaught of evil wrought by the monstrous dictator, Vladimir Putin of Russia, grinds on to what seems like an inevitably horrific outcome in Ukraine, regardless of what dissuasive measures world leaders adopt.  While some might judge us as impotent bystanders, we do well to heed the caveat that those who consort with evil, even in the good-willed attempt to rebuff evil, often end up becoming like those whom they seek to vanquish.  The prospect of World War III is no fantasy video game, but looms ominously before us, and so we mobilize all the humanitarian aid, all the economic and political sanctions, and most importantly, all the spiritual capital in the form of prayer and penance that we can.  We pray in particular that Our Lady of Fatima and St. Michael the Archangel will bind the hands of Satan and his minions, that Russia will be stopped, Putin will return to sanity and receive his just punishments, and that Ukraine and the world will be restored to peace.

And nearer to home, the staccato sound of gunshots shattering a normal March Monday afternoon in Des Moines as school was dismissed at East High School further rocked the world of students, staff, surrounding neighborhoods and the entire community.  Six teenage assailants, in what seems to be a premeditated slaying gone awry, shot and killed 15-year-old Jose David Lopez and left two others seriously injured. Any blithe presumption that central Iowa is a zone of relative tranquility compared to other places was deflated, as our latent fears that we cannot fully protect our children and loved ones from random acts of violence were again evoked.  Again, people turn to God and to one another in prayer vigils and communal gatherings for support and consolation in the wake of such trauma.  

The Mass of Christian Burial celebrated for Jose by Fathers PJ McManus and Reynaldo Hernandez Minero at Christ the King Parish on Des Moines’ South Side was intended to provide balm and peace for Jose’s mother Deborah, his brothers and all who love him.  It was a moment to be reminded that whatever evil we encounter,  however much death seems to be an abrupt terminus for all we hold dear, both life and death are in the hands of the Lord Jesus, for he has conquered death and opened heaven through the blood of his Cross.  The miasma of war, episodic bloodshed, and general disregard for human life and dignity pale in comparison to the transcendent power of the Paschal Mystery of Jesus’ Passion, Death, and Resurrection.
All of us in our own way look for signs of God’s presence in darkness, for seeds of hope that will allow us to go on in trust and not become paralyzed by fear and despair that “God has left the building” of a world that humans seem bent on ruining.  In brief order, I propose three sources of hope for me personally—a “triptych of witnesses”—that maybe will bolster your own spirits.

The first is the Ukrainian people themselves.  While millions have fled and continue to flee the hot breath of the beast from the east as refugees understandably seek to protect their children, dependents and themselves, how many more have remained resolute and even returned to do whatever good they can.  The relief efforts, the heroic resolve displayed by President Zelensky and his colleagues, the popular resistance in the streets, and most of all, the unflagging faith of the people and their religious leaders, are remarkably inspiring in these dark days.  The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, led by its shepherd Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of Kyiv-Galicia, by the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and other Christian pastors, have been stalwart in guiding their flocks through their valley of darkness, in resisting the temptation to hatred and hardened hearts by praying ceaselessly for the enemy, and in keeping alight the lamp of naked trust in God’s providence.  

I’m struck by the account of Father Mateusz, a Roman Catholic parish priest in Kyiv, who along with roughly 30 of his parishioners have been keeping vigil in adoration of the Blessed Sacrament in their underground air raid shelter. In contrast to the “upper room” where Christ dined with his apostles, in this “lower room” the vivid sense of God’s presence fills the space.  Fr. Mateusz related the experience that came to him in prayer before Our Eucharistic Lord: “I said to the Lord, ‘I am ready for everything, and I thank you for my whole life’.” 

In communion with one another, persons are fortified in their belief that their heavenly Father wills good for them, and will hand over his Son and not a scorpion in response to their ceaseless prayers.  They are, strangely enough, happy in the sense that Jesus elaborated in the Beatitudes:  “Blest are those who mourn. . . who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness.”    If each of us is able to say each day to God, “I am ready for everything, and I thank you for my whole life,” how free we would be, and how much more we would accompany each other and Jesus as emissaries of peace who help put violence and evil back in its place.

The second witness is Saint Óscar Romero, whose March 24th anniversary of his 1980 martyrdom in San Salvador reminds us that only by nonviolent means and the power of God’s word proclaimed can the nefarious designs of human regimes be toppled and the Kingdom of God shine forth.  Despite the political pressures that sought to muzzle him by pulling the plug on his weekly radio messages and the threats to his life, Archbishop Romero was not cowed by the menace of terrorists and stayed true to his vocation to the end, so that his people might do the same.  

Months before he was slain, this good shepherd commended his flock: “Christ’s best microphone is the church, and the church is all of you.  Let each one of you, in your own job, in your own vocation—nun, married person, bishop, priest, high school or university student, day laborer, wage earner, market woman—each one in your own place live the faith intensely and feel that in your surroundings you are a true microphone of God our Lord.”  
Romero’s blood was mingled with Jesus’ own blood when the assassin’s bullet struck him down while celebrating Mass, magnifying the mystery played out before him: “This is the Eucharist: proclamation of the Lord’s death, proclamation of his life, optimism of men and women who know that they are following, even amid the darkness and confusion of our history, the bright light of Christ, eternal life.”  It is this light of life that we pray now shines brightly on the face of Jose David Lopez as he passes over to restful waters in company with Jesus and saints such as Archbishop Romero.

Finally, and while he is not officially a saint yet (!), I draw personal inspiration from the example of my uncle who is my Mom’s brother, Monsignor Ralph Simington of Waterloo, Iowa.  I was present to help Uncle Ralph celebrate his 60th anniversary of priestly ordination a few days before the actual date, March 17, which seems most fitting for this apostle of mirth and joy who revels in his Irish heritage.  As seminary classmate to our Diocese’s Father John Acrea and Father Frank Palmer, who also celebrate their 60th Jubilees this year, Uncle Ralph served as school counselor to youth, as long-time pastor especially in rural parishes where he was much beloved, as merciful confessor, and patient and wise listener to so many including his nephews and niece.  To be in Uncle Ralph’s presence is to always be on the verge of a chuckle and a hug.  His own humility as he now bears his own cross of physical infirmity complements his witness as a faithful priest for God’s people, and an attractive and humane source of inspiration for present and future priests like me.  Congratulations Uncle Ralph!  Blessings upon you, Fathers John and Frank, as you celebrate your 60th year of serving our Diocese!  
Together, the Ukrainian people, St. Óscar Romero, and some priests near and dear to us are all witnesses who help us keep hope that our own time is not ultimately swirling into darkness and death, but ascending to where the Lord of history and eternity is seated at the Father’s right hand.