Friday, 30 October 2015

A listening Church ... but listening to what?

It is nearly eleven years since I had the opportunity to hear Fr Raniero Cantalamessa speak at a Eucharistic Congress held in Birmingham. At the end of this talk, the audience showed their appreciation by applauding. Father turned towards the image of the Face of Christ that formed the backdrop to the stage and joined in the applause, re-directing it towards the person of Christ and, for the more reflective in the audience, through Christ to the Father in the Holy Spirit.

I recall Father's action from time to time as being a representation of what happens when a Christian offers a "testimony", a witness to the action of God in their life. In Catholic life, the range of movements in the Church which invite participants to offer such testimonies is more extensive than one might imagine. Some examples I am aware of: a session at the end of a "fundamental retreat" of the Foyers of Charity, at the end of a Youth 2000 retreat, in the magazine and on the website of the Focolare, the Charismatic Renewal. I am sure, in different ways, there are many others.

In all of these circumstances what we listen to may first and foremost be a person who shares their testimony. But most fundamentally, as Father Cantalamessa's action of turning towards the Face of Christ indicates, we seek to listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit speaking through the life and witness of the one who offers their testimony. This does make a significant demand on the person who offers the testimony, a demand that they be transparent to the Spirit and do not project themselves, that they recognise the mix of grace and failing in their story (the tares and the wheat of the Gospel story). But it also asks of the listener a certain discernment in order to hear what in that testimony is "of the Spirit". It isn't just anything that we listen to.

It is worth recalling that Pope Francis is very familiar with the Charismatic Renewal, so that, when he speaks of a "listening Church", we might expect the experience of testimonies to be at least a part of what he refers to.
A synodal Church is a Church which listens, which realizes that listening “is more than simply hearing”. It is a mutual listening in which everyone has something to learn. The faithful people, the college of bishops, the Bishop of Rome: all listening to each other, and all listening to the Holy Spirit, the “Spirit of truth” (Jn 14:17), in order to know what he “says to the Churches” (Rev 2:7).
I have my doubts as to whether listening exercises undertaken by questionnaire and survey response, or in the form of "consultations", actually deliver this ecclesial form of listening. I suspect that they produce a rather indiscriminate listening that gives equal weight to everything that is said, without that element of discernment necessary in order to genuinely hear what the Spirit is saying to the local and to the universal Church.

What Pope Francis calls us to recognise, though, is the real possibility that testimonies offered among the faithful of the local Churches and ecclesial movements can illuminate the Christian mystery in a way that has a universal significance. Testimonies can be an expression of the sensus fidei, in its properly understood sense, an expression deserving of our attention in order to hear the voice of the Spirit. This is true listening.

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