Pope Francis approaches the microphone to deliver his message in the Paul VI Hall as he meets with youth attending the Synod at the Vatican on Oct. 6, 2018. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)

At the synod of bishops, three modes of listening to the young

VATICAN CITY (RNS) — One of the buzzwords at the synod of Catholic bishops on young people is “listening.” In the film “Casablanca,” a kiss may be just a kiss, but in the Catholic Church, listening is never just listening.

The bishops, who were called to Rome for this monthlong meeting to discuss the church’s outreach to the young, have been urged by Pope Francis to listen to one another and especially to young people. The meeting, which began Oct. 3 and concludes Sunday (Oct. 28), is made up of 267 prelates and the 72 auditors, of whom about 30 are young people.

The young auditors, who sit in the back row of the synod hall, have been allowed to address the bishops and participate in small group discussions but not vote. They are a feisty group that, much to the surprise of the bishops, has not been shy about cheering and applauding speakers they like during the synod.

Nothing like this has been seen at earlier synods. At one of the coffee breaks, Francis made a point of going back to where the young people were sitting to tell them to keep making noise.


RELATED: Four challenges for the bishops at the synod on young people


The word “listening” has become almost a mantra, repeated constantly by every synod participant who speaks to the media during press briefings. It got to the point that the reporters began rolling their eyes, “not again.”

Not everyone, however, means the same thing when using the word “listening.” The word is being used in at least three different ways at the synod.

On some level, everyone seems to understand that listening means attending to what young people say in order to find out their questions, their needs, their concerns. The bishops recognized before the synod started that there was no point in talking to young people about things they were not interested in. Programs had to be crafted to meet young people's needs as they see them, not as the bishops see them.

Cardinals and bishops leave the Synod Hall at the end of a morning session of the synod of bishops at the Vatican on Oct. 11, 2018. The meeting of bishops on young people runs from Oct. 3-28. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)


 This image is available for web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

But many bishops are taking the church's traditional approach of looking to its theology for ideas and attempting to impose them on reality. This does not work today. Francis has been critical of ideologues of both the right and left who attempt to impose their ideas on people without considering the reality of people’s lives. As Francis has said, “Facts are more important than ideas.”

Perhaps this comes from Francis’ early training as a chemist. If a scientist has a theory that does not fit reality, then his theory must change. If a philosopher or theologian has a theory that does not fit reality, then reality must change.

For all the talk of listening, then, for many bishops listening is simply a way to discover young people’s questions, which they answer with the traditional theology of the church. When bishops here speak about the need for clear teaching, you can be certain that they already have the answers to any problem that the young auditors might present.

These bishops see young people as empty vessels into which they will pour content. Or worse, vessels filled with garbage that must be removed to make room for the church's content.

A second approach to listening is to hear what young people think about the church in order to discover how the church must change. Bishops who have been humbled by the sexual abuse crisis tend to listen this way. These bishops are more likely to admit that the church’s traditional programs are not working. Things must change. The church needs reform.

Pope Francis, top, greets cardinals at the end of the opening Mass for the Synod of Bishops on Young People, in St. Peter's Square, at the Vatican, on Oct. 3, 2018. . (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)


 This image is available for web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

These bishops are listening in order to get new ideas. They are hoping to learn about programs in other countries that are working. They want young people to accompany them in this path of discovery. Young people are not just recipients of the church’s ministries, they can be active participants in their creation.

These are also the bishops who are most open to the pope’s desire that the church become a discerning church, a church that listens, reflects and tries new things. With the pope they understand that clericalism endangers the church.

Finally, there is the kind of listening practiced by Brother Alois, prior of the Taizé community in France. He has brought listening to a whole other level.

The Taizé monastery in Burgundy is famous for attracting young people, including those who never go to church. Alois explained that Taizé is staffed by people who listen to young people to discover where the Spirit is alive in their lives, even in the lives of people who do not consider themselves believers. The job of these listeners is not to impose their ideas on the young; it is to help the young see the presence of the Spirit in their lives.

Alois is convinced that if God is love, then wherever there is love, compassion, a thirst for justice, a desire for reconciliation, then God is present even in the unbaptized nonbeliever. Alois believes that young people are already filled with the Spirit; they just need help in recognizing it.

This third approach to listening is radically different because it teaches the young to listen to their better selves and to hear in it the Spirit. Rather than filling the young with outside content, it first has them turn inward to listen to the Spirit within them.

A lot of listening is going on at the synod. What is being heard depends as much on the listener as the speaker.

Comments

  1. I have no desire to tell the RCC about how to talk with (NOT TO) people fifty years younger than I.

    But you are in trouble if you think that “Perhaps this comes from Francis’ early training as a chemist. If a scientist has a theory that does not fit reality, then his theory must change. If a philosopher or theologian has a theory that does not fit reality, then reality must change.” makes sense.

    If Francis recalls his training as a science he will know that, to a scientist – if it doesn’t fit reality – it is not a theory. Not only is it not a theory – it is but a disproven hypothesis.

    In science a theory (such as Gravity, Evolution, Electricity) “…….is an explanation of an aspect of the natural world that can be repeatedly tested and verified in accordance with scientific method, using accepted protocols of observation, measurement, and evaluation of results. Where possible, theories are tested under controlled conditions in an experiment.” (Wikipedia)

    Scientists, Philosophers and Theologians often have “Hypotheses” which they seek to justify.

    A scientist must follow the rigours of the “Scientific Method”, and even then few conclusions will reach the degree of approval to be considered a “Scientific Theory”.

    Philosophers, ISTM, make a living moving from one hypothetical question to another without coming up with much that applies to real life.

    Theologians have a different problem and a different solution. Unlike scientists and philosophers they are restricted in the answers they can reach, not by the reality of the natural world (since religion is about the supernatural) but by the religious dogma that is, for them and their audience, acceptable. That restriction complied with they can, of course, utilise tricks such as miracles and revelations to pretend that the gaps in logic they strew through their “reasoning” are not really gaps but “evidence” of the divine.

  2. I recently had a nice conversation with a young man at a spiritually diverse divinity school, preparing for hospital chaplaincy. He is an atheist who will lead people in spiritual and contemplative exercises (and conversations) rather than in religious exercises. This kind of ministry in needed, and would be welcomed by all my relatives who have left religion behind (some in their 60’s and 70”s, almost all the young).

  3. Good article. Most of those young people will eventually abandon the church, and possibly even belief in a God. The church will always have its appeal but it will gradually cease to be a mass phenomrenon, even in places where it now flourishes. But the church will always have an appeal even to many skeptics who conclude that having religion in the home would be a good thing for their children.

  4. “Listening” is respectful, yet these clergymen cannot listen. When I have been with these clergymen behind closed doors they are fouled mouth, lots of reacting and I always felt shocked about the aggression these men expressed. They were sometimes quite vicious, as if they were up against an outsider and even against members of the church who seem not completely on their side. My impression with clergymen is they are in a fog of dissociation and it is like they need to take flight so reality will not happen to them. I also believe the underlying problem with clergymen is there is too much “my authority and my belief system” and they deny all the hatred and aggression within. This is unhealthy, dangerous, and it comes out in needing to go to any length to uphold the churches’ traditional values. Maybe we could begin by listening to denial and how it works by dissociating from life, because denial is a deep sickness in the catholic church. This is to say, my experience with clergymen is their denial prevents anyone to have access to them, unless it is on their terms.

  5. Very well done.

    I had no idea such a place as Taize existed. Briefly, according to Wiki Taize is: “an ecumenical Christian monastic fraternity in Taizé, Saône-et-Loire, Burgundy, France. It is composed of more than one hundred brothers, from Catholic and Protestant traditions … important site for Catholic–Lutheran ecumenism. A Catholic, Brother Alois, succeeded as prior after his predecessor’s death in 2005.” And, astonishingly: “Over 100,000 young people from around the world make pilgrimages to Taizé each year for prayer, Bible study, sharing, and communal work.”

    Fr. Martin notes: “Alois is convinced that if God is love, then wherever there is love, compassion, a thirst for justice, a desire for reconciliation, then God is present even in the unbaptized nonbeliever.” He then says: “This third approach to listening is radically different because it teaches the young to listen to their better selves and to hear in it the Spirit. Rather than filling the young with outside content, it first has them turn inward to listen to the Spirit within them.”

    I wonder how this monastery is viewed by the Vatican. It sounds as if it might be a better place for the U.S. bishops to hold the retreat that has been ordered by Pope Francis. It would break the routine of how they approach a process of discernment – individually and collectively. A fresh start, a different angle from which to seek out the Spirit.

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