To listen first requires one to be silent. That is a lesson from a 2010 homily by Pope Benedict XVI: “Let us not fear to create silence, within and outside ourselves, if we wish to be able not only to become aware of God’s voice but also to make out the voice of the person beside us, the voice of others.”
Cardinal Robert Sarah includes this insight from Pope Benedict XVI in his new book, “The Power of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise,” in which he reflects on silence as a positive presence and not simply an absence of noise. Poignantly he adds, “We can hear our heartbeats only in silence.”
This book recounts an extended interview in which Cardinal Sarah leads the reader into a peaceful but also challenging journey with him. I have had the occasion to meet with this native of Guinea in Africa. He is among the first generation of faithful in his country to hear of Jesus and the Catholic Church, and he brings a fresh perspective.
Drawing on the wisdom of Church spiritual leaders over the centuries, he speaks of preparation for attentive listening as the music of silence. He concludes that only those who can practice silence are really able to hear the other speak when there is an encounter. How can we not recall the life of Jesus as conveyed in the Gospel pages; our Lord often drew away for a night of silent prayer between busy days of pastoral activity.
This powerful theme occupied my thinking as I prepared for five listening sessions with our deacons and spouses. This month I have invited deacons and spouses from throughout the Archdiocese to come together for a time of mutual listening. A structure for listening and dialogue already exists in the Deacon Council, which meets five times a year on Saturday mornings. This council includes an elected deacon from each region of the Archdiocese and two spouses. A good deal of communication gets done, and there is often time to hash out items dear to the diaconate as well as vital questions for the life of the Church in the Archdiocese. In addition, there is an annual Deacon Assembly in September, which includes a 90-minute town meeting at which I present an update on major developments within the Archdiocese and hear comments, concerns and questions from the deacon community. I look forward to this yearly event.
From time to time, however, I seek more intentional listening opportunities with extended communication and so worked with the Diaconate Office to schedule these regional meetings. This month’s gatherings will consist of small groups, limited to no more than 35. I have been praying for the fruitful dialogue of these sessions and was very motivated by the book on silence by Cardinal Sarah.
At the time of this writing, I have participated in one very rich listening session with the deacons and spouses. The format is simple, and any question or comment can be voiced. For the first half of the meeting and to prime the pump, I ask the deacons and wives to name what they regard as their most important ministry and their favorite ministry and whether the two are the same. Then I ask that they identify any internal obstacles in their hearts or external challenges that stand in the way of more effective ministry.
The second half of the session has been devoted to the main theme of my pastoral letter on the parish, “Your Parish: the Body of Christ Alive in Our Midst” (www.archlou.org/parish-discernment). Amazingly there is a great richness to the conversations. Each session has a note taker (thanks, Deacon Denny Nash!), and we will reflect on the themes at the next deacon council meeting.
I can tell you already that the great conversation made this listening exercise worthwhile for me, and, I suspect, for each participating deacon and spouse. Hearing the experiences that overflowed from a loving pastoral heart was gratifying. Deacons and their spouses told stories about baptisms and funerals, marriage preparation and visits to the sick. Many spoke of their contacts in the community with co-workers and neighbors. The theme of accessibility to and with the faithful came through loud and clear. I left the first session and could say only: “I am so proud of our deacon community!”
I pray this experience will be a valuable one in listening. Dialogue requires both listening and speaking. The first century Greek philosopher Epictetus once said that we have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak. As Pope Benedict XVI said, may we listen by cultivating silence in our lives, “…to become aware of God’s voice but also to make out the voice of the person beside us, the voice of others.”