Bishop: Undaunted Trust

by Bishop Joensen | March 17, 2020

Bishop William Joensen

The March 25th Feast of the Annunciation marks the 25th anniversary of the release of St. John Paul II’s encyclical, Evangelium Vitae [EV], The Gospel of Life.  If you’ve already finished or haven’t yet found your Lenten spiritual reading, I commend it to you.  I think it may help us keep our bearings and not succumb to paralyzing panic or despair as we cope with the covonavirus COVID-19 unfolding all around us.

The real threat posed by this virus—whatever the mortality rate actually is—has raised in relief our instinctive love for life as something both sacred and yet fragile. God has shared his very own life with us, and we have been given a supernatural vocation that only eternal life can fulfill (EV n. 2). We love our earthly existence, yet “the divine origin of this spirit of life explains the perennial dissatisfaction which man feels throughout his days on earth” (EV n. 35).  As the late Catholic philosopher Robert Spaemann observes, to love someone means we want them to live forever. Against the horizon of eternity, earthly existence is appreciated as a relative, and not absolute reality (n. 2). Given this lens on life, it is our sense of responsibility to one another and the call to give ourselves to God and one another that takes precedence. 

The God of the covenant, the God who sends his Son to suffer and die for us (n. 24), with us, has given us to one another. Our life finds “its meaning and fulfillment when it is given up” (n. 51).  We are entrusted to one another, giving and receiving, accepting one another in our respective vulnerabilities in a way that reflects the love and self-giving of the Holy Trinity.

Viruses can pose grave threats to the human community—but persons themselves are not threats or enemies, unless we succumb to a survival-of-the-fittest mentality that is beneath our dignity.  If self-interest eclipses the sense of human solidarity rooted in the recognition of life bestowed by God, then we are set against each other in a way that the household of faith, let alone our larger civil society, cannot stand.  The Adversary seeks to splinter the ark of faith and trust in God which carries us beyond deluge of anxiety and fear that this disease incites.  God wills to help us pass through this crisis to purify and perfect our love.

The late St. John Paul II is not particularly prescient in noting the fact of pandemic diseases; he refers to the “ancient scourges of poverty, hunger, endemic diseases, violence and war,” and goes on to detail the more serious emerging threats on a vast scale that are more spiritual and moral in nature (n. 2).  These threats represent the “culture of death” that is opposed to the “culture of life” where love germinates and nurtures, and shines all the more brightly in the face of hostile conditions.   Regarding the culture of death, I will not recount the “usual suspects” of ethical relativism or the “network of complicity” in international institutions and associations that trample upon the unborn, the elderly, and those with special needs (n. 59).  One might add the deleterious role played by those who regard conscience as independent arbiter of good and evil apart from a discerning community in which choices are enacted (evident in persons who know themselves to be exposed carriers of COVID-19 and refuse to observe self-quarantine limits; see n. 4).  And we are soberly brought to our senses in our engagement with other species and the environment, for “when it comes to the natural world, we are subject not only to biological laws but also moral ones, which cannot be violated with impunity” (n. 42).

In contrast, the culture of life represents the network of spiritual solidarity that awakens our freedom (cf. n. 96) to draw ever closer to one another as members of a human community.  Physical separation or isolation cannot erode that bond of decency and dignity that sustains our unceasing prayer for people we know and those we’ve never met, and the willingness to risk care and healing presence to the sick among us (as we witness the nobility of countless health care professionals who are steadfast in harm’s way).   We lift our heads and bear the yoke of suffering with Jesus and one another in the belief that God alone can draw meaning and glory from that which appears most traumatic: suffering and death itself.  The great pope cautions us against a cultural climate dismissive of religious faith that “fails to perceive any meaning or value in suffering” and instead sees suffering as the epitome of evil (n. 15).

Perhaps one of the graces that might emerge from the darkness of this pandemic, with all the economic downturn it has caused, is that we might again appreciate the “priority of being over having” as our lifestyles have undergone a decisive change (n. 97).  To BE human is to BELONG to someone to others whom God has placed in our paths, sometimes by choice, and sometimes imposed upon us.  The luxury of coming-and-going as we please, to freely assemble with whomever we want, has temporarily—we pray—been curtailed.  And yet, with the peeling away of sports events and many other entertainments, and most painfully, our capacity to commune with our Eucharistic Lord, we are afforded the chance to be ever more intentionally present with our families and our intimate circle of life, including those we tend to ignore or take for granted.  To simply live with someone is not necessarily to share a culture of life with him or her, unless we truly make mutual gifts of ourselves in a habitual way.  St. John Paul II appreciates that “there is an everyday heroism, made up of gestures of sharing, big or small, which make up an authentic culture of life.”   Whether these acts involve tending to those who have fallen sick or simply listening and caring for other persons for whom God has made us responsible, we activate resources of Spirit that will vaccinate us against callous indifference or malignant fear (EV nn. 86-87).

COVID-19 has further unmasked an ongoing struggle between good and evil, light and darkness, the culture of life and the culture of death.  We do not know how this pandemic will play out, how many lives will be claimed, or whether our societies and markets will ever be reset to what they were just a few weeks or months ago.  What we do know is that Jesus is Lord, the Lamb of God who, as the late pontiff reminds us, is “master of all the events of history.” Jesus unseals the power of life over death, and continues to draw us as pilgrim people to the abundant life he promises.  And so we are not afraid, but undaunted in trust, as we press on toward the new world where “death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away’ ” (Rev. 21:4; EV n. 105). 

Bishop Joensen

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