Updated: Nov 29, 2022
Full disclosure…I really like Pope Francis. OK, now that we have that out of the way, I’d like to share with you some of what he’s had to say about synodality and listening. Why? Because I don’t think we are pondering his words, allowing them to mature within our consciousness, to take root. As a result, I fear we will miss the kind of ecclesial culture change becoming "synodal" requires. This is not just an exercise in improving our communication, as critical as that is. Pope Francis is calling for listening as a cornerstone of the way the Church is church.
I’m going to share with you some of the Pope’s perspectives, so that you can see why I believe active listening is instrumental to changing the culture within the Church.
6 years ago, in 2016, the Pope said, “We must first listen. Communicating means sharing, and sharing demands listening and acceptance.” He went on to say that listening is so much more than hearing. [i] Continuing his lesson for the Church, he said that to listen is “a sort of martyrdom or self-sacrifice” because it means valuing, respecting and pondering what the other person says. [ii] A sort of martyrdom or self-sacrifice? An attempt to imitate Moses before the burning bush, where we remove our sandals and stand on the “holy ground” of our encounter with another?[iii] That is a very different cultural standard than that of power over others, which, by definition means seeing no need to listen to most other people. And he says, “knowing how to listen is an immense grace, it is a gift which we need to ask for and then make every effort to practice.”[iv]
For him to say this made me wonder if he sees some deficiency in this kind of self-sacrifice within the Church? I know I have seen it. 5 years later, in 2021 as he opened the Synod on Synodality within the context of an extremely polarized world, he encouraged listening. “Let us ask: In the church, are we good at listening? How good is the hearing of our heart? Do we allow people to express themselves, to walk in faith even though they have difficulties in life, and to be part of the life of the community without being hindered, rejected or judged? Let us not soundproof our hearts.”[v]
In that same address, we seem to hear some perspective emerging from the Pope’s own deep listening:
"The Synod then offers us the opportunity to become a listening Church, to break out of our routine and pause from our pastoral concerns in order to stop and listen. To listen to the Spirit in adoration and prayer. Today how much we miss the prayer of adoration; so many people have lost not only the habit but also the very notion of what it means to worship God! To listen to our brothers and sisters speak of their hopes and of the crises of faith present in different parts of the world, of the need for a renewed pastoral life and of the signals we are receiving from those on the ground." [vi]
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“Listen carefully to the master’s instructions and attend to them with the ear of your heart.”
Fast forward to this year and the 56th World Day of Social Communications. In his message, Pope Francis says a human being’s greatest need is the desire to be heard. He goes on to assert that, despite that great need, “we are losing the ability to listen.”[vii] Here are some of the qualities of listening the Pope sees as disappearing:
An emphasis on the importance of relationships. Especially in the West, extreme individualism is eroding the sense that we need each other, that we need relationships. The result: increased aggression.
A recognition of the imago Dei in which we are all created, and therefore, a recognition that all people have something valuable to contribute. The result: elitism. Only some are worth listening to.
Seeking the true and good together. The result: monologue rather than dialogue. Soundbites designed to impress or ridicule. Sterile opposition, that is opposition for the sake of opposition.
Patience. The ability to give the space and time another needs in order to express themselves and then to jointly reach for shared understanding.
The ability to be surprised by discovering truth. Pope Francis says that “amazement enables knowledge.”[viii] The result of losing this? Arrogance; the sense that there’s nothing another can teach us, nothing we need or can learn that makes any difference.
I’d like to ponder with you for a minute. Pope Francis wants us to learn how to be a synodal Church, a Church that listens with mind and heart to one another, to the Lord in Scripture and Tradition, to the signs of our times, to other knowledge streams, and most especially to those on the margins, whose hopes, dreams, joys and sorrows are the voice of the prophet, crying out to us today. #synodjourney #synodlistening We are listening to one another in order to be able to hear the voice of the Lord. And he asks us to seriously ponder how well we are listening like this. What do you think?
Share this on social media: “Today we need a Church capable of walking at people’s side, of doing more than simply listening to them; a Church which accompanies them on their journey.” Pope Francis[ix]
As I hear him plead for us to learn to listen with our hearts, as I hear him speak of a Church of accompaniment, of presence, of mercy and forgiveness, of healing and hope, I can’t help but hear the subtext: we are not enough of that now. Or we are not that at all. We have become something else altogether…a place of hard hearts, of arrogance, of self-righteousness, of enclaves of the privileged, and a Church that is not listening now to the voice of the Spirit. We, the Church, do not listen well to God, to one another, to the Magisterium, to the signs of the times, to other knowledge streams. It is not our current ecclesial culture, this deep, active listening.
That is a sobering assessment from our Pope (and perhaps an irritating assertion from me!) He has said, “No one listens willingly to someone who speaks to them from a position of self-righteousness and judgment. Again and again in the Gospels, Jesus reserves his harshest words for those who ignore their own weakness in order to lord it over another.” [x] But that does not remove the obligaton to speak as a prophet, with truth spoken from the heart.
From his forthright sharing of the fruit of his deep listening, the Pope reminds us that “Listening corresponds to the humble style of God. It is the action that allows God to reveal himself as the One who, by speaking, created man and woman in his image, and by listening recognizes them as his partners in dialogue. God loves humanity: that is why he addresses his word to them, and why he ‘inclines his ear’ to listen to them.” [xi] The humble style of God.
Let’s close this time together agreeing to ponder listening as the humble style of God, and ask ourselves how we as parishes, small groups, dioceses and individuals, children of God, can emulate God’s humble style by improving our active listening. For, the Holy Father has said
In the Church, too, there is a great need to listen and to hear one another. It is the most precious and life-giving gift we can offer each other. “Christians have forgotten that the ministry of listening has been committed to them by him who is himself the great listener and whose work they share. We should listen with the ears of God that we may speak the word of God.”[xii] Thus, the Protestant theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us that the first service we owe others in communion consists is listening to them. Whoever does not know how to listen to his brother or sister will soon no longer be able to listen to God either.[xiii]
And so friends, our journey toward creating a culture of listening within our Church is not ancillary. It’s also not simple, easy or already in place. It is a cornerstone of the synodal culture. So Pope Francis says. So let's get to work and get on the #synodjourney together!
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Photo by Ashwan Vaswani on Unsplash [i] Elise Harris. “What’s the first step to good communication? Listening, Pope says.” Catholic News Agency. January 22, 2106. https://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/33290/whats-the-first-step-to-good-communication-listening-pope-says Accessed 7-19-22 [ii] Ibid. [iii] ‘His Holiness Pope Francis on LISTENING---the Vital Hope for Society.”” Global Listening Centre. https://www.globallisteningcentre.org/his-holiness-pope-francis-on-listening/ Accessed 7-19-22. [iv] Harris. [v] Michael Sean Winters. “Follow Pope Francis’ call to be a listening church-but from a 45 degree angle.” National Catholic Reporter. October 13, 2021. https://www.ncronline.org/news/opinion/follow-pope-francis-call-be-listening-church-45-degree-angle Accessed 7-19-22. [vi] Ibid. [vii] “Pope Francis: We are Losing the Ability to Listen.” Melbourne Catholic. May 12, 2022. https://melbournecatholic.org/news/pope-francis-we-are-losing-the-ability-to-listen Accessed 7-19-22 [viii] Ibid. [ix] Philip Pulella. “Pope Francis Gives Candid Speech On ‘Exodus” Of Followers from the Catholic Church.” July 27, 2013. www.businessinsider.com found on AZ Quotes, Pope Francis, Listening. https://www.azquotes.com/author/5099-Pope_Francis/tag/listening Accessed 7-19-22 [x] AZ Quotes. [xi] Pope Francis. “Listening with the ear of the heart.” Message of His Holiness Pope Francis for the 56th World Day of Communication. January 24, 2022. https://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/messages/communications/documents/20220124-messaggio-comunicazioni-sociali.html Accessed 7-19-22. [xii] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, La vita comune, Queriniana, Brescia 2017, 76 in “Listening with the ear of the heart.” [xiii] Ibid.