During my novitiate year, 1980-81, I discovered that the word, “obedience,” comes from a Latin word, obediere, which means, “listen to” or “pay attention to.” Like most people, I understood the vow of obedience to mean ‘do what you are told to do.’ What a revelation! My Initial Formation Directors did their best to impress upon me that the vow of obedience called us to listen deeply and attentively not only to one another in community, but also those with whom we serve. Sometimes the voice of God may be heard in the most unexpected of places or persons.
As Roman Catholics throughout the world prepare for the 2023 Synod on Synodality, the significance of listening cannot be underestimated. As Cardinal Joseph Tobin, the Archbishop of Newark, NJ states: “While a synod is a meeting, our Holy Father has invited the Church into a process of ‘synodality,’ a way of being a Church that includes all the baptized in a humble search to understand what the Spirit is saying to us today.”
Pope Francis is calling upon the whole church— bishops, priests, religious, and lay people— to be involved in the preparations for the 2023 Synod. “The Church needs intense internal sharing: a living dialogue between the Pastors and between the Pastors and the faithful.” (Vatican website, “Towards a Spirituality of Synodality.”) To date, those dioceses and groups that have embarked upon dedicated listening sessions in preparation for the 2023 Synod have reported a dynamism and an openness in these sessions that has energized the whole process. Imagine the richness and vibrancy of our church as the input of all of its members comes together in this graced moment.
Most of my ministry in the Franciscan Order has been in retreat preaching and spiritual direction. In the listening and the sharing that takes place within the context of an overnight retreat, especially an extended retreat, I could see the Holy Spirit gently inviting, perhaps prodding, one, or both of us, to consider our situation not only from our own perspectives, but from the perspective of the divine. The question, “Where is God in all of this?” encourages both retreatant and retreat team member to look more deeply and prayerfully into the challenges or joys that we find ourselves situated.
One of our friars who ministered as a nurse in the ER once told me that he found that a lot of agitated energy could be dispelled in a situation when he would simply acknowledge the person’s distraught state and ask, “I can tell that you’re filled with emotion…What’s going on?” By inviting the patient to give voice to their feelings, our friar could see the patient become calmer than before. In many situations all we can offer is a listening ear and a caring heart. For so many people who feel that their voices don’t matter, listening can be an empowering moment, a genuine turning point in their life journey.
Years ago I read a book titled, Listening is an Act of Love; no truer words have ever been spoken. When we listen to one another and to the Almighty, with openness and respect, the horizon of our lives grows wider, deeper, and more wonderful. The challenges and opportunities that our church faces in the decades ahead may seem daunting, even insurmountable, but as we listen to one another and to the Holy Spirit during this time of preparation and discernment we can remember the words of our dear Lord at the conclusion of the Gospel of St. Matthew, “And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20)