In the midst of crisis, the most common human reaction, understandably, is an impulse to DO SOMETHING. As our Church reels from long overdue revelations of clerical sexual abuse and corruption, there is an overriding, incontrovertible need for action. When one receives a diagnosis of a serious ailment, the response is often two-fold: amelioration of symptoms and attacking the underlying disease. The vile symptoms of this disease afflicting the Church are clear. Abuse in the Church must always be condemned and rooted out. But when abuse is aimed at the most innocent, the need to address the severity of the symptom predominates, occluding further action. However, this abuse must be addressed not only symptomatically but also causally. We must acknowledge and treat the underlying disease.
All forms of abuse are rooted in cultures of power and self-aggrandizement. Regretfully, our Church has persistently created and preserved hierarchies of power validated by spurious absolutist claims to superiority: male over female, those ordained over laity, etc. A Church called to witness the love and compassion of the Tri-Une God too often has exercised judgment and exclusion instead, purportedly in the name of preserving Truth. Church leaders have become comfortable as elite teachers more than companions and co-disciples. As a result, they fail to attend to the voice of the Spirit amidst the People of God.
It cannot be said that listening is absent. Catholics are well practiced in the art of listening, in one sense. Papal pronouncements are listened to, after which everyone from across the spectrum (whichever spectrum you choose) responds within their own echo chamber. Similarly, hierarchs, clergy and laity may listen to alternate voices, only to explain, within their own networks, why the alternate voice is misguided, in error or naïve. While listening occurs, it fails to convert to a new understanding of the movement of the Spirit in our lives and in our world.
However, a listening Church necessarily is a Church of conversion. Pope Francis has frequently called the Church, specifically bishops, to become better listeners. In his 2018 document “Episcopalis Communio,” Francis reminded us that a bishop must “simultaneously be a teacher and a disciple.” Francis has indicated that bishops must listen to the People of God to more fully discern the movement of the Holy Spirit. In other words, a bishop’s listening must lead to his conversion, just as the Pope’s listening must lead to his fuller understanding of how he is to exercise his charism of leadership. However, listening cannot be limited to special occasions such as the Synod of Bishops. Listening must become the very lifeblood of the Church. This is the medicine for the disease of power devastating the Church—a remedy that is not so easy to swallow. This listening demands a new humility. It is listening to the other not simply to be informed of their reality. Rather, it means listening in silence and asking how what I hear reveals the Spirit to me. Clerics who listen to laity in humility do so not for politeness or even respect, but rather with a willingness to hear truths that may change how they minister. The voices of others, especially the victimized, excluded, marginalized and denigrated can restore the Church from its disease of power, but only when we, with power, internalize this process of listening. Requiring historical “unlearning” of privilege, this process demands nurturing and careful practice. To become a Listening Church of conversion, we need to create structures of dialogue at every level. We need to accept our own personal fallibility and so enter into any dialogue with a little less certainty of our positions and a little more openness to the other. We need to prepare ourselves for the uncertainty that being a Church of listeners will bring, because discernment seldom takes a quick route. We need to be prepared to live in the tension of seeing “through a glass, darkly” (1 Cor. 13:12) with only the certitude that, through our openness and humility, the Spirit will speak and “lead us to all truth” (Jn. 16:13).
Along with causing pain and outrage, the acknowledgment of the betrayal of the Community of Faith, of its Christian mission presents an opportunity for decision/conversion. This time of crisis is a time for us, all members constituting the Church, to move from illness to health, to re-build the Church as a community of listeners perpetually converted by the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Myroslaw Tataryn is professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University, Canada, and a Ukranian Greco-Catholic priest.