“Dad, did you hear what I said?”

What father, or parent, hasn’t heard that question? And if I’m honest, it’s generally a good and accurate one. Too often I am distracted, engaged elsewhere, tending to one of the other kids’ needs, changing a diaper, trying to type an email, or just caught up in my own activities and thoughts. And as a result, I fail to listen and to fully honor the one the Lord has put right in front of me at this moment.

On the occasion of the 50th World Communication Day, Pope Francis offered the following: “Listening is never easy. Many times it is easier to play deaf. Listening means paying attention, wanting to understand, to value, to respect, and to ponder what the other person says. It involves a sort of martyrdom or self-sacrifice as we try to imitate Moses before the burning bush: We have to remove our sandals when standing on the ‘holy ground’ of our encounter with the one who speaks to me (cf. Ex 3:5). Knowing how to listen is an immense grace, it is a gift which we need to ask for and then make every effort to practice.”

A well-known Christian evangelist was asked years ago to share what he would do if he only had one hour to evangelize someone. His short reply? “I would spend the first 58 minutes listening.” This certainly was not the response the questioner was expecting. However, it captured an important point, the importance of listening. For in listening we can encounter more fully another person; their life, their heart, their joy, their pain.  And into that encounter, we can bring Jesus and the Good News of the Gospel.

As the Synod on Synodality, called by Pope Francis has concluded, much has been made about the process, the lack of definition, the possibilities, and the ultimate point. This has certainly lead to no little amount of commentary and critique. One particular theme emerged though all of it however — the idea and practice of listening. Indeed, this is one thing Pope Francis has emphasized throughout his pontificate: the value of listening (and its relatedness to accompaniment and the life of discipleship.)

This is borne out in the two documents produced by the synod. In the short Oct. 25, “Letter to the People of God” from the synod participants, the word “listen” and the idea of listening shows up some nine times.  In the synod’s final synthesis report, the word or idea of listening appears 56 times! Cleary the idea of listening was a focus and something experienced at the synod. This is further borne out in the reflections offered by the participants who regularly referred to this idea of “listening”— both to the Holy Spirit (the “protagonist” of the synod according to Pope Francis) and to their fellow synod participants from throughout the world.

It is perhaps a commentary on our modern world, that the simple experience of listening, and being listened too, should be such an unusual event. And perhaps, a fruit of this synod process, which will continue through the next year, will indeed be a renewed attention and focus on listening — both to the Lord and the people He brings into our lives.

The theme of this issue of Vermont Catholic is the works of mercy.  As we consider these various ways of serving our brothers and sisters in the name of God, I wonder how many of them can actually be accomplished without first listening, without first taking the time to listen to what the needs are; to listen to what is on someone’s heart; to listen to the hurts, the aches, the longings? And of course, all of this is rooted in ultimately being willing to listen to the Lord who also listens to us (Mk 10:51; CCC 2616).

The earlier synod synthesis report for the United States noted, “The rediscovery of listening as a basic posture of a Church called to ongoing conversion is one of the most valuable gifts of the synodal experience in the United States.”

After a recent Mass and a delightful conversation with a parishioner, she looked over as she was departing and said simply, “Thanks for always taking the time to talk with me.”

Now, to work on doing the same with my children and all those I encounter.

—Deacon Phil Lawson is the Executive Director of Pastoral Ministries for the Diocese of Burlington.  He can be reached at plawson@vermontcatholic.org.

—Originally published in the Winter 2023 issue of Vermont Catholic magazine.