By now you may have heard about a process that Church is currently undertaking as part of Pope Francis’ “Synod on synodality. »Much can be said – and much has been said about the synod. People can disagree about the process and the intended (or unintended) outcome. In fact, the Pope has pointed out that arguments and conflict have always been a part of the Church and can be, in fact, part of the way we discover truth.
The crux of the matter, however, is that the Pope has asked the Church to listen. He wants us to listen to each other and to the Holy Spirit.
“The Cardinal Vicar, the auxiliary bishops, priests, religious and laity have to listen to one another, and then to everyone else. Listening, speaking and listening. It is not about garnering opinions, not a survey, but a matter of listening to the Holy Spirit, as we read in the book of Revelation: ‘Whoever has ears should listen to what the Spirit says to the churches’ (2:7). To have ears, to listen, is the first thing we need to do.”
To be honest, listening – both to each other and the Holy Spirit – is not something I believe we have done well, both as hierarchy and laity. While it appears the Holy Father would like this changed, I cannot help but wonder if it is going to be difficult to make up for lost time. Do we even know how to listen?
« Listening Sessions”
Over the last few months, the result of this call for listening has been to hold “listening sessions.” The synod website refers to” synodal consultation meetings, » and all it takes is a cursory internet search to find dioceses and parishes announcing listening sessions throughout the United States.
I know that, in some ways, these are necessary. If you have to submit a report, you need data, and you need a formal process. I concede that. Previous synods have begun with a questionnaire, and this synod naturally includes one that particularly asks for the input of the people of God.
If we truly want to listen, however, listening sessions are not the answer. If we honestly want to walk with people in order to bring them to Jesus, listening sessions are not the answer. How was the Gospel spread? Not with listening sessions. But one-on-one, heart-to-heart, in vulnerable self-gift.
A listening session says, » We are going to listen this year. We will listen for one hour at a time, at a time and place of our choosing. And then we can mark that off the list. We listened.”
This isn’t what it means to truly listen. What we are called to do as Christians is to accompany people, as Christ accompanied the disciples on the road to Emmaus. It means investing in people, looking at them, taking in what they are saying – and most importantly, what their heart is feeling. It is not something to be relegated to a session.
Nor does it mean gathering people in a big group and asking them to publicly share their thoughts, their concerns, and their wounds, only to go on to the next person in line. Can you really listen to 25 people at once?
Do we care why people have left the Church? Are we content with slipping Mass attendance, a growing secularism, and a disregard for Church teaching? Do we care that people have been hurt by people in the Church, that they have questions that haven’t been answered, or that they don’t feel at home in the Body of Christ?
What if these people don’t come to public listening sessions that are advertised in the church bulletin and on diocesan websites? Or what if they want to be heard next year? Or by the pastor or the bishop who has delegated « listening » to someone else?
The Pope has asked us to listen. It’s not a pat, scheduled, easy program.
Listening to people is hard. It’s uncomfortable. It’s inconvenient.
It means setting aside our own plans when someone needs to talk. Perhaps it might mean stopping in our tracks and pausing. It means taking that phone call, answering that email, or agreeing to a meeting.
Listening means not talking. Not interrupting, not making excuses, not defending.
It is not something that comes naturally to many of us.
Listening means being prepared to see tears and to hear anger. It might mean feeling remorse or feeling uncomfortable.
“You Are Worthy”
But people are not problems. They are not responsible. They are children of our Father. And too often, as a Church we have treated people as problems to be delegated to someone else or as liabilities to be solved by lawyers. We have written them off as pagan relativists or radical traditionalists or any generalization so that we do not have to think about their concerns.
Are we listening? Are we willing to be stretched and inconvenient?
There might not even be a need to “fix” their immediate concern. Perhaps they are not even looking for an answer or a change. They are simply desiring to be treated as humans. Maybe it would just require sitting, listening, looking, and loving.
You are worth my time. You are worth my heart.
Listening sessions might be a necessary component for this synodal process. But that is not at the heart of what the Holy Father is asking of the Church. Nor is at the heart of what it means to be a shepherd or a follower of Christ.
Bishops, priests, religious, and fellow Christians…are we really listening?