October was an important month in the life of the Catholic Church.
Three-hundred-sixty-three delegates gathered inside the Vatican to convene the awkwardly named conference, Synod on Synodality. The event was the climax of two years of listening sessions involving every Catholic parish that discussed a myriad of controversial issues — including the place of LGBTQ Catholics in the life of the church, whether women should serve as deacons and welcoming divorced and remarried Catholics.
The Synod represents a pinnacle in the 10-year papacy of Pope Francis. Ever since the former Jorge Bergoglio was chosen to be Pope, Francis has been calling for an open, embracing church. Speaking to thousands gathered for World Youth Day in Lisbon, Portugal last August, Francis repeated his demand that the doors of Catholic parishes must be open to “todos, “todos,” “todos”—“everyone,” “everyone,” “everyone.”
Throughout his papacy, Pope Francis has called for priests and bishops to be “shepherds with the smell of sheep.” His repeated denunciations of “clericalism” stem from his revulsion at having self-centered leaders isolated from their people: “When the ministers exceed their service and mistreat the people of God, they disfigure the face of the church with machismo and dictatorial attitudes.”
To overcome any such remoteness, rotating groups of delegates at the Synod sat with each other and began to develop fraternal relationships. Formal titles were dispensed with, and each addressed one another by their first names.
When questions were presented for consideration, participants were given three minutes to respond with no exceptions and no interruptions allowed. As Father James Martin reported, that meant that a “cardinal-archbishop of an ancient diocese listened to a 19-year-old college student from Wyoming.”
After a period of prayer, a second round began with delegates responding to what moved them from the prior discussion — again, no interruptions permitted.
Finally, a third round involved a free range of dialogue, including expressions of agreement and disagreement. Pope Francis later reflected, “Everything was discussed with full freedom, and this is a beautiful thing.”
This forced listening involved exercising the long-dormant muscle of listening. For too long, listening has become a lost art — both within the Catholic Church and outside it. Many do not take the time to know each other — or even want to know each other.
In his new book, “How to Know a Person,” New York Times columnist David Brooks describes what, for many, including himself, is a challenge. Brooks, a self-admitted detached individual, confesses that, from an early age, he grew up watching others — a desirable quality for a journalist, but not one that invites intimate engagement.
Shaken by the suicide of a close childhood friend, Brooks describes two types of individuals: diminishers and illuminators. Diminishers are so self-centered that they make others feel insignificant. Predisposed to easily stereotyping others, they immediately render judgment.
Illuminators, on the other hand, are persistently curious, attentive listeners — well-versed in the habit of accompanying others and never seeking to put themselves first.
Pope Francis is seeking to transform the Catholic Church by cultivating this art of listening involving everyone. Cardinal Robert McElroy stated, “We can’t go backward. I don’t think there should ever again be a synod of bishops which does not include lay people as voting members.”
The final report of this phase of the Synod was somewhat anodyne, failing to address in any substantive way the controversial issues facing the church. Those will be taken up next October when the delegates, after a year of more listening, will seek to find consensus.
The report concludes with hope “that the climate of mutual listening and sincere dialogue that we experience during the days of common work in Rome will radiate in our communities and throughout the world.”
But the mere act of listening and having candid discussions has provoked fear among some Catholics who don’t want to hear from those with whom they disagree. Cardinal Raymond Burke writes that synodality leads to “confusion and error,” the fruits of which are “schism.”
Renegade priest, Father James Altman, has called for the assassination of the Pope, likening him to the Devil.
And Bishop Joseph Strickland of Tyler, Texas, warned that the Synod undermines the “deposit of faith” and threatens the “basic truths” contained in Catholic doctrine. Addressing a Catholic audience, Bishop Strickland read “a letter from a friend” who advised that the delegates “must not go to Rome and play nicely.” On Saturday, Pope Francis took an extraordinary step of relieving Bishop Strickland of his administrative duties and appointing Austin’s Bishop Joe Vàsquez as apostolic administrator of Strickland’s diocese.
Fear is animating the primal screams of those deeply opposed to the Pope’s call for an open, listening church. Some years ago, Harry Truman rebutted fears about a growing communist movement within the U.S., stating, “Confident people do not become communists.” In a similar way, confident Catholics can encourage both listening and disagreement while firmly believing their church will endure, even thrive, in a rapidly changing 21st century.
The importance of what Pope Francis is doing is not limited to the Catholic Church. While David Brooks implores us to become “illuminators,” robust institutions — including strong families, neighborhoods and faith communities — are necessary supports in order to make this happen.
Pope Francis is leading the way for Catholics to become the kind of “illuminators” Brooks so deeply admires.
John Kenneth White is a professor of Politics at The Catholic University of America. His forthcoming book is titled “Grand Old Unraveling: The Republican Party, Donald Trump, and the Rise of Authoritarianism.” He can be reached at johnkennethwhite.com.
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