DES MOINES, Iowa — The new bishop-elect of Des Moines met former Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch decades ago on a flight. Upon learning he was a postgraduate philosophy student, the lawmaker asked if his studies would erode his faith, the Catholic priest said.
“Actually, it enhances my faith,” Bishop-elect William Joensen replied. “It gives me a great reverence and respect for the created order. I can’t check my faith at the door. It’s the background horizon of everything I’m about.”
The former Loras College professor is readjusting to life in central Iowa, where he grew up, ahead of his ordination and installation this month as the 10th bishop for the Diocese of Des Moines. Pope Francis selected Joensen, 59, to replace the retiring Bishop Richard Pates.
The bishop-elect’s background and personality differ from Pates’, Joensen noted, saying he intends to guide parishioners in moral discussions through the lens of philosophy and science. (He has a zoology degree and studied medicine before seminary school.) Davenport Bishop Thomas Zinkula described his longtime friend as “intense,” saying he’s well equipped to advance the diocese’s long commitment to social justice issues.
Because no priest applies for the “tall order” of becoming a bishop, the initial request takes many by surprise.
Zinkula told The Des Moines Register he assumed an unanticipated voicemail from the Vatican’s ambassador to the United States was a crafty prank by seminarians on retreat. It was really from the apostolic nuncio himself, Archbishop Christophe Pierre, hoping to relay the pope’s request.
Joensen heard the message around July 4, quickly recognizing the nuncio’s voice. He needed a day to contemplate, but Pierre cautioned him not to overthink the decision.
“(Overanalyzing) is an occupational hazard for someone who is trained as a philosopher,” Joensen said with a laugh.
Joensen is the eldest of five siblings born to Alfred and Marilyn Joensen. His father, an Air Force veteran and Iowa State University engineering professor, died in 2018. His mother still lives in Ames, where he grew up.
Ordained as a priest in the Archdiocese of Dubuque in 1989, he served in parish ministry for six years in Dubuque and Waterloo before going back to school.
At a news conference announcing him as bishop-elect, Joensen said he’s humbled to become one of the state’s four bishops, “for I am thoroughly an Iowa guy. You’ll notice I didn’t say, ‘Iowa Boy,’ as I’m aware that former Des Moines Register columnist Chuck Offenburger still retains that title.”
Pates played up the bishop-elect’s roots here, joking that Joensen’s younger brother Tom, an attorney, “now will be able to look down on his older sibling” from his office in a skyscraper near the diocese.
Zinkula, the Davenport bishop, highlighted the astronomical odds that he and Joensen — ordained within a year of each other and both active in the same prayer group during the last three decades — would each go on to their respective positions.
“I was overjoyed. Who would have thought that the two of us would one day be bishops of neighboring dioceses in our own state?” he said of his friend. “It’s kind of surreal.”
Joensen’s hobbies are well suited to the metro, he’s already noticed. The cyclist said the hundreds of miles of bike trails, notably flatter than eastern Iowa’s, are a welcome amenity.
And he’s closer to Ames — where he grew up, played football at Ames High, and graduated from Iowa State.
He’s a Cyclones fan through and through, and remembers going to football games at Clyde Williams Field and basketball games at the Ames Armory as a kid. Sports, he said, “give us a certain zeal and zest for life.”
Joensen earned a doctorate degree in philosophy from the Catholic University of America, in Washington, in 2002, completing a dissertation titled, “Genetic Enhancement and the Ends of Medicine and Human Life.” He’s since taught in the philosophy department and at Loras, a small Catholic college in Dubuque.
Shae Slaven, a 20-year-old junior, took Joensen’s class titled, “Witnesses to Heart, Hope, and Humanity,” last year. She said his ability to help students find personal connections to the material stood out to her.
“He has a great ability to draw students into whatever he’s teaching by incorporating personal stories and jokes,” Slaven said. “He not only challenged us to understand and master the content, but challenged us to apply it to our own lives, which is something that I think is rare.”
She registered for another course with him this fall, but that was before he became the bishop-elect. Despite being disappointed to have taken her final class from him, she thinks he’ll make Loras proud.
“He is genuinely invested in everyone he encounters,” she said.
Another student, Michael DeClerck, said Joensen helped him through personal struggles. The 32-year-old seminarian said he approached Joensen, then his academic adviser, for advice. Joensen immediately suggested they get lunch and talk about it, he said.
“I won’t forget that conversation because I recognized him as a pastor, and not just a teacher,” DeClerck said.
The three classes DeClerck took from Joensen were memorable, he said. In one, students dressed up as famous philosophers and debated.
“(One student) was Thomas Hobbes, and I was Descartes, and we had to argue our ideas with each other,” he said.
He also took students to observe drug court proceedings at the Dubuque County Courthouse. It was part of Joensen’s devotion to the idea of restorative justice and “giving people chances,” DeClerck said.
Zinkula called him “a pastoral academician” — an intellectual whom people seek out for spiritual guidance. It’s a unique combination, he said.
“He’s very bright and articulate. He’s intense. He’s driven,” Zinkula said. “But he still keeps a joyful demeanor.”
An AP Member Exchange shared by The Des Moines Register.
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