There are many reasons for the concerning polarization unfolding in the Church and in our culture. Certainly, one of them is because groups on opposite sides of political, ideological, and religious fences are not listening to each other. We are losing the art of listening. One of the first signs of disrespect toward those who are different from us is our refusal to truly listen and engage meaningfully with what they have to say. We either lack the patience and energy to do so or we have already made up our minds that they are simply wrong and have nothing to teach us. But it is not only on the horizontal level and inter-human level that the quality of our listening has diminished. If the quality of our listening is poor among ourselves, there is a good chance it is poor in the arena of our prayer too, where our first task is not to speak but to listen to what God has to say.
“Listening with the Ear of the Heart” is the title of Pope Francis’ message for World Day of Social Communications, published for the Feast of the Ascension of the Lord a few weeks ago. The title is taken from the prologue of St. Benedict’s Rule, where the great monk places much emphasis and value on listening—not just as a physical act of sensing sound but as an engagement of the whole person with the heart and an act of love toward another. For Benedict, humble listening is a gift of respect and love. A refusal to listen is to allow the ego to dominate and impose itself on those around me.
For St. Benedict and for Pope Francis, listening has a theology and spirituality found in the Scriptures. Israel’s first duty to God is to listen to Him: “Hear, O Israel” (Deut. 6:4). Though he was very young, King Solomon was blessed with wisdom beyond his years because he asked the Lord to grant him “a listening heart” (1 Kings 3:9). Samuel is the model of all people who engage in prayer when he said, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening” (1 Sam. 3:9). How many times in prayer do we begin with the opposite: “Listen Lord, your servant is speaking”?
In the New Testament, Jesus himself urges us to listen to his word: “Listen, anyone who has ears!” (Matt. 11:15). On Mt. Tabor, the voice of the Father spoke at the Transfiguration: “This is my beloved Son . . . listen to him” (Matt. 17:5; Mark 9:7; Luke 9:35). At the wedding at Cana, Mary urges the servants to listen to Jesus and “do whatever he tells you” (John 2:5). For St. Paul, faith comes through hearing and listening (Rom. 10:17).
The opposite is also true. Refusing to listen is a refusal to believe as we see with members of the Sanhedrin in the presence of St Stephen as he proclaimed the truth of Christ as Lord. They “covered their ears and turned on him at once” (Acts 7:57). Notice from the story of Stephen how a refusal to listen leads not only to rejection of others but, in short order, to violence against them. Later in the Bible, the Apostle James exhorts: “Let everyone be quick to hear, slow to speak” (1:19). Like Benedict, St. Augustine encouraged a true listening that must be done with the heart and from the heart: “Do not have your heart in your ears, but your ears in your heart” (Sermon 380, 1).
Taking Scripture and tradition as a whole, Pope Francis states in his message that “among the five senses, the one favored by God seems to be hearing, perhaps because it is less invasive, more discreet than sight and therefore leaves the human being more free.” This is because of God’s love for us and his respect for us as partners in dialogue. Out of love he speaks to us and “inclines his ear” to listen to us in return.
The Holy Father then sheds light on what happens when listening breaks down and the reasons why. He alludes to the negative effects of social media and the hostility that can be found among groups online. He identifies the danger of “talking past one another” as we listen to reply but not to understand. This happens when we lose sight of the person in front of us and focus instead on the audience, trying to impress them with soundbites and win the argument over our opponent. When this happens, ideological alignments are formed and listening disappears, leaving people polarized and alienated. True listening is not waiting for the other to finish speaking but a real moving out towards our brother and sister to meet them in truth and love. Therefore, true listening concerns itself with what is right and less about who is right.
Pope Francis is particularly concerned about how the polarization that we see in society is also eating away at the bonds of communion that unite us in the Church. He wants the Church to model a life-giving alternative where the power of faith, love, and truth can unite people. As an antidote to polarization, he says: “In the Church, too, there is a great need to listen to and hear one another. It is the most precious and life-giving gift we can offer each other. . . . Communion is not the result of strategies and programs but is built on mutual listening between brothers and sisters.”
For those of us dedicated to the mission of evangelization, this advice on listening is both challenging and enlightening. It is challenging because, at first glance, it seems to put the brakes on our strong impulse to proclaim Christ and to tell our story of how his love has touched our lives. Yet the message of Pope Francis is not about dampening our enthusiasm for mission. Rather, it is about our missionary efforts becoming more fruitful. This is what happens when we listen better—both to God and to others. When we listen with the ears of the heart, we communicate more effectively and increase the possibility of our message being received, heard, and understood. We become attentive to the heart of the other, begin to empathize with them, and connect with them. Quoting Protestant theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Francis urges us to “listen with the ears of God that we may speak the Word of God.” One scriptural example where this takes place is on the road to Emmaus, where Jesus listened to the disciples on the way. He wanted to hear them speak: “What are these things you are discussing?” (Luke 24:17). Jesus listened before he opened up the Scriptures to them in a way that set their hearts on fire.
For this reason, Francis claims that the most important task in pastoral activity is what he calls “the apostolate of the ear.” This means listening before speaking in a way that assures others that when we do speak, the joys, hopes, concerns, and heartfelt needs of the other have been understood. If we fail to listen with the “ears of the heart,” we could end up speaking our own word instead of God’s word and in a way that fails to connect with those we encounter.
The motto chosen by St. John Henry Newman on his appointment as cardinal was Cor ad cor loquitur, “Heart speaks to heart.” It is significant that one of the greatest thinkers and apologists for the faith in the history of the Church understood how evangelization is not just about speaking and proclaiming but about listening in order to connect with the heart of others and above all to the heart of God. At a time of disquiet and polarization in the Church and in the world, may we take a step back from the positions that divide us, so as to rediscover the art of listening to others who think differently.