What I’ve Learned From the Pope’s ‘Apostolate of the Ear’
COMMENTARY: Listening is not a passive attitude — listening is an active work, an apostolate that we do with intention
Sometimes the guy just wants to talk, but sometimes he wants to seize the floor. Sometimes he just likes to argue, but sometimes he wants to condemn, or disparage, or insult, or exclude, or otherwise proclaim his own superiority. Anyone who has tried to have a serious conversation on social media has seen this, or been the victim.
Many people don’t want to listen. They want to talk. They want to be listened to. Others really do want to listen, but they can’t listen for long. At some point, they just have to talk. And both need to tell other people what’s what, usually what the other people should do with their lives. They have the answers, after all. Of course they should speak.
In contrast to this, Pope Francis calls us to “the apostolate of the ear.” As he put it in The Name of God is Mercy, “Mostly, people are looking for someone to listen to them. Someone willing to grant them time, to listen to their dreams and difficulties. This is what I call ‘the apostolate of the ear’ and it is important. Very important.” He goes on with advice to confessors useful to the rest of us: “I feel compelled to say to confessors: Talk, listen with patience, and above all tell people that God loves them.”
That way of listening to others has been one of Francis’ most helpful teachings to me. As I’ve grown older, I’ve learned how much better a listener I had needed to be, and wasn’t, because I like to talk as much as anyone, and also how much a listener to me I needed other people to be. I would have helped people had I stifled the strong impulse to talk and really listened to them, and I would have been better had other people really listened to me.
Most of you probably feel the same, in both ways, as someone who talks too much and someone who hasn’t been listened to enough. Some people have both the charity to want to listen and the ability to listen and not talk. The rest of us need to work at it. As Francis admitted to young people at the end of the Synod on Youth, “Often we have not listened to you … instead of opening our hearts, we have filled your ears.”
An Active Work
What I love in Francis here is that he doesn’t talk just about “listening.” Everyone talks about “listening,” but usually in a general way, without making it practical. It’s a religious equivalent of the dentist’s “Brush between meals.”
We tend to think of listening as a passive act, as sitting still, receiving, taking in, absorbing. It’s “just being there,” as some people like to say. But an apostolate is an act, an active work, a thing we do with intention, a work we can practice and learn from others.
He talks about this work all over his writings, but unsystematically and usually in passing. In A Future of Faith, for example, he tells an interviewer that the apostolate is exercised through the “four criteria” he gave in Amoris Laetitia: “Welcome, accompany, discern, integrate.” Then — frustratingly, as it’s a profound suggestion — he moves on to another point.
The effect is more a constant pointing to the truth than explaining it at length, but that’s the nature of much of Francis’s ministry. Here are three slightly fuller examples.
Listening begins in knowing how not to speak, he notes in A Future of Faith. “Silence is tender, affectionate, warm. And it’s equally painful at difficult moments. … It’s in silence that the capacity for listening is born, the capacity for understanding, trying to understand, suffering when you can’t understand.”
In The Name of God is Mercy, the Pope describes the first four Spiritual Works of Mercy as ways of exercising the apostolate: “Reach out, know how to listen, advise them, and teach them through our own experience.” We hear others in a way that might touch them “by welcoming a marginalized person whose body is wounded and by welcoming the sinner whose soul is wounded, we put our credibility on the line.”
“To listen to and to hear one another … is the most precious and life-giving gift we can offer each other,” he said in his message for the World Day of Social Communications. Then, quoting Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “‘Christians have forgotten that the ministry of listening has been committed to them by him who is himself the great listener and whose work they should share. We should listen with the ears of God that we may speak the word of God.’ Whoever does not know how to listen to his brother or sister will soon no longer be able to listen to God either.”
Bringing People to Jesus
I value Francis’ insight for a personal reason: It may help people I care about. The apostolate of the ear describes the main way people are brought to Jesus, especially people who haven’t been prepared by any sort of religious upbringing, for whom Jesus is just a figure in a story and his Church a typically corrupt human institution.
The other night in our townie dive bar, a young couple called me over. The man describes himself as “spiritual” and the woman is an atheist. We talk frequently and I like them a great deal. They’re kind and serious people, but very far away from belief in Christ as Christians understand it.
An older couple had come in a few days before, being in town to help their daughter move, they said. The wife was especially chatty and kept asking them personal questions, and kept apologizing for asking them. She asked how long they’d been married and my young friends said they weren’t, and she said she was sorry and that in the world she came from people just assumed other couples were married. My friends said they didn’t mind.
But then, the girlfriend told me, the out-of-towner had turned to them and asked if they knew Jesus as their savior. “She apologizes for asking us if we’re married because that’s too personal and then she asks us if we believe in God?” she said, on the edge between shocked and angry.
The couple didn’t exactly apologize this time. They kept pressing the matter. The opening friendliness felt to her as if it had been leading up to their sales pitch, and my guess is that she was right about that.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “It’s just predatory.”
“It is predatory,” she said. She felt tricked, ambushed, targeted. She did not feel the love of God. I have had this same experience and you feel like a rabbit in the middle of an open field with wolves circling around you.
We talked for a while, and I tried to convey the way Christians see them, as people to be loved for themselves, as friends. But the damage isn’t going to be undone so easily. I wish that couple had asked themselves, “What would Francis do?”