Synodal Listening is Like…
Building towards the Synod on Synodality, a couple of years from now, Pope Francis has constantly emphasized the essential starting point of listening. And he wants everyone to listen and to speak.
Listening must bridge divides between lay people and those who are ordained and in religious life. It must be equally inclusive of women and men; young and old; fervent Churchgoers and those who have abandoned the Church or felt they were pushed away.
That’s novel. Historically, Catholic leadership has been adept at not listening: frequently in the case of women, or the poor, or people from a different culture, or those who have been abused.
Everyone yearns to be heard. Listening is part of real friendships. Sometimes we feel most profoundly loved when someone else truly listens to us. We feel rejected when others refuse to listen.
It is well known that listening is not simple and without pitfalls. This has always been true, and the situation worsened in this century due to ‘social medial’ that displace genuine human contact; privilege aggressive and un-nuanced language; and promote polarization rather than common ground.
The synodal process is already underway to the grassroots level: parishes and dioceses, lay people and front line religious, and even those who have turned away or have no use for the Church. I worry that proper listening may be difficult to achieve at this stage. Even if participants claim to be willing to listen, they might not do it well. For example, persons with strongly held positions on failings of the Church and how to repair them can be deaf to any views that do not relate to their agenda. Unless they learn to listen, the urgings of the Holy Spirit will be drowned out.
Participants in the synodal process will need to learn about listening, and I believe that this pedagogy would be strengthened by referring to the importance of listening in friendships, marriage and family life. Thinking about good dialogue within families and among friends can provide clues to good ‘synodal listening’. We should think too about listening that overcomes estrangement and ill-feeling, and how the feeling of not being listened to damages relationships.
A recent book by Kate Murphy called You’re Not Listening: What You’re Missing and Why It Matters provides a wealth of such points. In clear prose and with humour, the author covers a wide range of social and physical sciences research on listening. Some advice is obvious – you can’t listen properly while reading your social media messages. Some is more subtle, such as the sort of questions that prompt trust and deeper conversation rather than shutting off honest disclosure. At bottom, she writes, “Whether viewed as an evolutionary survival tactic, basic moral virtue, or what we owe the ones we love, listening is what unifies us as human beings.”
Listening is a corollary of respect and equal human dignity. Everyone can relate to this, no matter what they experienced in childhood and as adults. I hope that the vast literature on skilful and authentic listening in everyday human relationships will help make ‘synodal listening’ less mysterious and more successful.
Robert Czerny, Ottawa and Nova Scotia. I wrote about listening in an earlier igNation blog, https://ignation.ca/2019/03/29/it-pays-to-listen/