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Intentionally listening to the other

By Fr Donald Chambers

On August 18, 2021, I posted a personal blog entitled ‘Conversation, Conversation, Conversation’ (belovedreflections.org) about the fruits from a weekend conversation with two friends.

At the end of the blog, I identified three wisdom lessons about healthy conversation. It consists of (1) sharing and receiving different perspectives, (2) an awareness of what you don’t know, and (3) motivation for us to become more open, expansive, curious, and flexible.

Regarding the Church’s synodal journey, Pope Francis invites and challenges the People of God to engage in intentional listening especially with two groups of persons.

First, the Handbook on the Synodal process notes, “Special care should be taken to involve persons who may risk being excluded: women, elderly, the handicapped, refugees, migrants, people who live in poverty, Catholics who rarely or never practice their faith” (Handbook, 2.1).

Further, “Fostering participation leads us out of ourselves to involve others who hold different views than we do” (Handbook, 2.2). This open disposition to practise intentional listening by welcoming the perspectives of persons with opposing views is exceedingly difficult, if not unfathomable for most of us.

We are socially and religiously hardwired to include only persons of like mind in our own religious, social, ethnic, and intellectual circles. Hence, societies are organised based on strict social stratification.

Religion becomes a bedfellow with hierarchical systems offering preferential options to persons at the top of the hierarchical totem pole. The logic of politics divides persons, with those who possess power having first access to material resources of the country, and the masses being utilised as stepping stones to power.

If we delve beyond a superficial interpretation of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, we discover greater insights into Pope Francis’ synodal mandate.

In the book of Job (Chapter 1), it is interesting that the writer narrates a conversation between Yahweh and Satan. Yahweh says to Satan, “Where have you been?” And Satan responds, “Round the earth, roaming about.” Yahweh goes on, “Did you notice my servant, Job? There is no one like him on the earth: A sound and honest man who fears God and shuns evil.” Satan replies, “Yes, but Job is not God-fearing for nothing, is he?”

Why would Yahweh welcome and entertain Satan in a conversation?  According to Job 1:6, Satan belongs to Yahweh’s council: “One day, when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, Satan also came among them.”

In the book of Job, the writer also depicts Job welcoming and conversing with his friends who have opposing religious beliefs in explaining Job’s suffering. Notwithstanding Satan’s adversarial role and the opposing opinions of Job’s friends, neither is dismissed, but all are welcomed and included in conversations.

What theological message can we discern from Yahweh and Job’s disposition?  Richard Rohr reminds us of the meaning of the origin of two Greek words, ‘symbolic’ and ‘diabolic’. ‘Symbolic’ means to throw together. ‘Diabolic’ means to throw apart.

He writes, “Evil is always dualistic, always separates: body and soul, heart from head, human from divine, masculine from feminine. Whenever we separate, evil comes into the world.”

I believe that it is never God’s intention to be separated from that which God creates, despite the “adversary” (meaning of Satan) or “devil’s advocate” position of either Satan or Job’s friends.

God’s nature is to reconcile – to reconcile opposites. Consequently, in His ministry, Jesus Christ, like Yahweh, chose not only a diverse group of men as Apostles, but also an adversary, Judas Iscariot, within His close circle.

Pope Francis stated that the ultimate goal for the synodal journey is to forge communion among the People of God through a spirit and process of listening and discernment of the movement of the Holy Spirit. He is convinced that a powerful sign of the work of the Holy Spirit is the reconciliation of opposites – liberal and conservative, action and contemplative, young and old, rich and poor, rural and urban.

In that regard, the synodal journey is a powerful manifestation of his title Pontifex Maximus meaning greatest bridge-builder. As a bridge-builder, Pope Francis’ dream is that we all become bridge-builders or reconcilers as a result of this synodal journey.

However, the greatest obstacle in the mission of bridge-building is our self-assured and righteous spirituality in which we argue, “I am right, and you are wrong.”

This religious disposition securely places padlocks on our hearts and thinking, thus preventing us from exercising hospitality to persons of opposing opinions or outside our own circle. Therefore, this synodal journey calls for conversion, breaking us down so that we discover and learn a fresh and deeper definition of God, who communes with all, even God’s adversary, in conversation.

To what end? Rohr writes, “I think this will be the final revelation of God’s greatness, that God somehow uses evil and suffering in our favor.”

Let us not fear differences but be courageous to engage in intentionally listening.

Fr Donald Chambers of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Jamaica is the General Secretary of the Antilles Episcopal Conference.