COMPASSION and COURAGE to LISTEN!
Every year, on 24 January, the Feast of St Francis de Sales, the patron Saint of all Communicators, (particularly of journalists and writers) the Holy Father releases to the world a special message for the World Day of Social Communications of the Catholic Church. These annual messages are specifically meant for ‘catholic’ communicators, but if read in its entirety, they are for all Catholics and also for all women and men of goodwill who are concerned about what is happening in the world today and seriously want to do something about it.
Pope Francis, in the typical style which characterizes his writings and also his verbal communications, has given the Church another profound message, full of challenges and very contextual. The theme of his message for this year’s 56th Communication Day (29 May 2022) is ‘Listening with the Ear of the Heart’. It is rooted in the Gospel of St. Luke ‘Take care, then, how you listen.’ (Luke 8:18). The theme complements the one of 2021 and in his opening statement he says, “Last year we reflected on the need to “Come and See” in order to discover the reality and be able to recount it beginning with experiencing events and meeting people. Continuing in this vein, I would now like to draw attention to another word, “listen”, which is decisive in the grammar of communication and a condition for genuine dialogue”.
‘Listen’ for Pope Francis then, is not merely a buzzword but is the sine qua non for any catholic communicator who is interested in authentic communications, through searching and arriving at nothing but the truth, just like the Master Communicator Jesus! One hears a common complaint today “nobody is listening!” Many experience this feeling – there is a painful story to share, a cry that needs to be heard – but nobody cares! That story, that cry becomes a voice crying in the wilderness! Is there someone listening? Does anybody care? In his message, Pope Francis throws a direct challenge to communicators: to listen and when you listen to do so with the ear of your heart! He minces no words when he insists that we need compassion and courage to listen to the ‘other’!
In October 2021, Pope Francis launched the Synodal process on the theme “For a synodal Church: communion, participation and mission. The process will culminate with the 2023 Synod in Rome. Throughout, Pope Francis has been insisting that this entire journey is about listening, learning and loving. His Communications Day message reiterates this when he says, “A synodal process has just been launched. Let us pray that it will be a great opportunity to listen to one another. Communion, in fact, is not the result of strategies and programmes, but is built in mutual listening between brothers and sisters.” But is there serious listening? Or is it lip-service: a tiresome formality that one needs to get over with as soon as possible so that the rigid ‘status quo’ may continue?
Are we listening to the cries of the poor and the vulnerable, the excluded and the exploited, the minorities and the other marginalized? When we listen with the heart, we are called to do something about it – we need to make a paradigm shift, to change; to ensure a better quality of life for all. Pope Francis says it rather strongly “human beings tend to flee the relationship, to turn their back and ‘close their ears’ so they do not have to listen. The refusal to listen often ends up turning into aggression towards the other, as happened to those listening to the deacon Stephen who, covering their ears, all turned on him at once.”
In this context, he once again highlights the plight of the migrants and their cries. We often treat them as outsiders: they are not like us, they do not ‘belong’ here! These suffer because of man’s inhumanity to man. They are the ‘other’! To this Pope Francis says, “The reality of forced migration is also a complex issue, and no one has a ready-made prescription for solving it. I repeat that, in order to overcome prejudices about migrants and to melt the hardness of our hearts, we should try to listen to their stories. Give each of them a name and a story. Many good journalists already do this. And many others would like to do it, if only they could. Let us encourage them! Let us listen to these stories! Everyone would then be free to support the migration policies they deem most appropriate for their own country. But in any case, we would have before our eyes not numbers, not dangerous invaders, but the faces and stories, gazes, expectations and sufferings of real men and women to listen to”. The reality of forced migration is a key concern of Pope Francis’ papacy! Once again, we need to ask ourselves if we are listening to them with our hearts?
Pegasus spyware is in the news! Pope Francis has some direct words for snooping, which is a blatant violation of one’s right to privacy! He says, “there is a kind of hearing that is not really listening, but its opposite: eavesdropping. In fact, eavesdropping and spying, exploiting others for our own interests, is an ever-present temptation that nowadays seems to have become more acute in the age of social networks.” The Church in India needs to question itself on its complicit silence when the Government or their goons (as one sees in the Pegasus issue and the Sulli deals) intrude into the privacy of citizens, especially of journalists or activists who stand up for the rights of others.
The absence of listening in public discourse is something else that the Holy Father laments. He emphatically states, “The lack of listening, which we experience so often in daily life, is unfortunately also evident in public life, where, instead of listening to each other, we often ‘talk past one another’ … “This is a symptom of the fact that, rather than seeking the true and the good, consensus is sought; rather than listening, one pays attention to the audience. Good communication, instead, does not try to impress the public with a soundbite, with the aim of ridiculing the other person, but pays attention to the reasons of the other person and tries to grasp the complexity of reality.” In his audience on 26 January, he told parents who had children who are gay/with different sexual orientations, to listen to them, accept them and never condemn them!
Pope Francis has consistently been talking about a Church that is void of clericalism and patriarchy. He has made some significant gestures in this regard. The appointment of French nun Sister Nathalie Becquart as the first female Under-Secretary with a right to vote in the Synod of Bishops. Earlier, he had appointed Franciscan Sister Raffaella Petrini as the new secretary-general of the Vatican governorate, making her the first woman to ever hold the post. On Word of God Sunday (23 January 2022), he conferred the ministry of Lector also to women, which is a major departure in the Catholic Church, which till then regarded it as a ‘men only’ ministry. Whilst the Pope does not mention in his message the ‘cries of women’ specifically, the Synodal process is all about that: Is the Church, is the world listening with the heart, to the cries of women today??
In the wake of Franco Mulakkal’s case and the recent verdict by the trial court, Sr. Nirmalini A.C. the President of the Conference of Religious of India (C.R.I.) has written a letter to Cardinal Oswald Gracias the President of the Catholic Bishops Conference of India (CBCI). This letter is today in the common domain. Among other things, Sr Nirmalini writes, “whatever the outcome of their appeal in the higher court, our serious concern now is, if the Church has a forum where religious women who suffer sexual abuse from their bosses, be they priests or bishops, can present their cases and where they would be heard sympathetically. As you know well, while the religious women are rendering incredible service in society and are the face of the Church, we have no power or jurisdiction. Where do we go?”. A plaintive cry from the women religious of India to be listened to! Significantly, the Pope’s prayer intention for February 2022 is dedicated to religious and consecrated women. In a video message released at the beginning of the month, Pope Francis recognises the injustices religious women have to face even within the Church and strongly says “I invite them to fight when, in some cases, they are treated unfairly, even within the church; when they serve so much that they are reduced to servitude, at times, by men of the church”. Wow! Is one listening to what Pope Francis is saying?
In his message, Pope Francis does not spare the Church and calls for a Church with a listening heart. He says, “It is sad when, even in the Church, ideological alignments are formed and listening disappears, leaving sterile opposition in its wake.” In the final segment of his message, he emphasizes the need and importance of “Listening to one another in the Church” emphasizing, “in the Church, too, there is a great need to listen to 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 should share. We should listen with the ears of God that we may speak the word of God”.
Interestingly, Pope Francis refers to the German Lutheran theologian Bonhoeffer, who was executed by the Nazis in 1945, “thus, the Protestant theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us that the first service we owe to others in communion consists in 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”. Strong words indeed if we have the courage to listen with the heart!
Pope Francis’ message is for all those who are entrusted with communicating through word and witness, the person and message of Jesus in today’s world! He shares a significant example, “A respected doctor, accustomed to treating the wounds of the soul, was once asked what the greatest need of human beings is. He replied: “The boundless desire to be heard”. A desire that often remains hidden, but those challenges anyone who is called upon to be an educator or formator, or who otherwise performs a communicative role: parents and teachers, pastors and pastoral workers, communication professionals and others who carry out social or political service”.
Ultimately, he keeps his choicest words to so-called Catholic communicators, many of whom are frightened to be visible and vocal in standing up for truth and justice. Pope Francis urges them to develop their listening capacities. “Communication does not take place if listening has not taken place, and there is no good journalism without the ability to listen….in order to provide solid, balanced, and complete information, it is necessary to listen for a long time. To recount an event or describe an experience in news reporting, it is essential to know how to listen, to be ready to change one’s mind, to modify one’s initial assumptions.”
It is highly unlikely that this message from the Pope will be popularized by the hierarchy or the clergy and if ‘so-called’ Catholic publications and portals will publish it in the context of the realities which grip India today! The synodal process has begun; but one needs to be reminded, all the time, that ‘synodality’ will become effective and meaningful only when respectful listening is at the heart of everything! Today, in the country and in the Church, the people cry out for justice, liberty, equality, dignity and fraternity!
Do we have the compassion to listen to these cries with the ear of our heart and the courage to respond to them?
The Author: Fr. Cedric Prakash SJ is a human rights, reconciliation and peace activist/writer.