By Bishop John Stowe | Catholic News Service
Our Holy Father Pope Francis has given great emphasis to the importance of listening during the synodal process underway in the universal Church. He teaches that to be an effective teaching Church (“ecclesia docens”) we must also be a learning Church (“ecclesia discens”); listening is an essential part of learning.
Pope Francis, himself an effective teacher, shows the way and is widely known as an engaged listener. The first phase of the universal synodal consultation is essentially a collection of listening sessions going on throughout the world which will be distilled, synthesized and presented to the Office of the Synod in Rome.
My own experience, similar to that of many other bishops across the country, is that our people were eager to be heard but not especially familiar with processes that asked for their voice. Listening itself has been an important lesson as we embark on this synodal path.
What are we hearing? What is being said? As novel as the listening process has proven to be, obviously someone has to speak for that listening to take place. If bishops and pastors have been invited to listen especially to voices that we have not always been attentive to, we have to make sure that there are opportunities for someone to speak out on behalf of those voices.
I have frequently summarized Pope Francis’ directives to the participants in the Synod of Bishops on the Family as “speak boldly and listen charitably.” The pope has lamented that when given the opportunity and the optimal setting for speaking openly, there is often a hesitancy to say what is truly on one’s mind for fear that another will disagree, or that the speaker will be viewed unfavorably or offend someone by speaking openly.
There are appropriate moments for voicing disagreement, for presenting an unconsidered facet of an argument, for acknowledging the value of underrepresented points of view and even for challenging notions that have gone unchallenged even if it is unpopular to do so. The synodal sessions are indeed ideal for this kind of “speaking out.”
Of the many words that Pope Francis has introduced or reintroduced to our lexicon, one of his frequently employed terms (often left untranslated) is “parrhesia,” described as boldness or conviction, which the Holy Father insists is vital to the proclamation of the Gospel today and also needed in our interactions within the Church. Paul’s letter to Timothy insists that God’s Spirit is not timid (2 Timothy 1:7).
The Holy Father himself has not been timid in calling the world’s attention to the peripheries: from migrants drowning in the Mediterranean Sea to the plight of Ukrainian women and children refugees fleeing the destruction of armed violence in their homeland.
The Church must be a voice for the voiceless as witnessed by St. Oscar Romero who paid the ultimate price for courageously speaking against soldiers taking the lives of the poor in El Salvador. Advocates for the sanctity of human life must be bold in speaking against the taking of life in the womb through abortion as well as against the practice of euthanasia for the terminally ill; they must also be bold in denouncing the death penalty, nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction and the exclusion from access to health care, adequate clean water and nutrition, shelter and the basic necessities of life.
Can the Church remain faithful to her mission and not publicly challenge the poor treatment of migrants and refugees? Or confront the persistent manifestations of systemic racism in society? Can the Church be truly proclaiming the Gospel if not calling for mercy and compassion when society can be cold and heartless? Can the Church stand by silently when justice is more readily available to people of means than to the poor? What about when people are abused or treated unfairly, even within the Church’s own structures?
When we accept the synodal invitation to listen to all of the people of God, we certainly hear affirming voices and powerful testimony about the importance of faith and the joyful struggles of those putting that faith into action. We also hear the pained expressions of those who have been hurt or feel excluded by the institutional Church and who challenge the authenticity of our witness based on their experience.
The voices of those who are striving to live their faith with integrity but who face challenges from within and without the Church share their resolve as well as their failures. The voices of those which society considers the least important should encounter the most willing of listeners in the Church. Then as a body and as the leaders within that body, we must give proclaim what we have heard without fear of rejection or misunderstanding, but with the conviction of the Gospel’s truth.
We must be prepared to “preach the word in season and out season” (2 Timothy 4:2).
Bishop John Stowe has headed the Diocese of Lexington, Kentucky, since 2015.