In his 2022 message for World Communications Day, Pope Francis has urged that we renew our ability to listen–to God, to ourselves, to others, and to information from many sources. The Vatican released that message in January, but the Catholic Church’s actual day for its annual reflection on values to enrich the means and media of social communication is the Sunday before Pentecost. That arrives this Sunday, May 29.
It is timely, therefore, to use Memorial Day weekend as a time to put the Pope’s message into action. Our activities, possibly bringing us together with family and friends with whom we have not gathered during the Covid pandemic, returning us to the public square to honor the nation’s soldiers and citizens, can help renew our spirits and relationships if we plan to be better listeners. We can be attentive to people whose lives may have taken a negative turn in various ways; they need to be heard. We can participate in discussions about politics and society–to the degree certain topics are deemed appropriate holiday fare–where others’ voices matter and we can welcome different insights.
To tackle this beneficial project, it’s time to recall key points Pope Francis made when this year’s World Communications Day message was posted online on January 24. His thoughts are indeed worth listening to in preparation for this weekend–and for our mission of more fruitful communication all year round, on both the secular and spiritual planes. Here are some takeaways we can memorialize:
- He started with bad news. “In fact, we are losing the ability to listen to those in front of us, both in the normal course of everyday relationships and when debating the most important issues of civil life.” He added a galvanizing point to keep us motivated. “At the same time, listening is undergoing an important new development in the field of communication and information through the various podcasts and audio messages available that serve to confirm that listening is still essential in human communication.”
- The greatest need of human beings is to be heard. This is an important guide for parents and teachers, educators and parish ministers, educators and communicators of all types. Our sense of hearing is crucial for God’s interaction with us. “Faith comes through listening.” (Rom 10:17) Listening is a humble act and a freeing act. God sets the model because he “inclines his ear” to us.
- Sadly, humans have a tendency to close our ears. We even become aggressive in doing so, the Pope says. [This is the polarization we see continuing to grow in America, manifested in a “cancel culture” where we censor others and even ourselves, missing opportunities to seek truth in partnership with others who have experiences and viewpoints to be shared.]
- We are foolish if we try to censor God’s voice, too. He is always eager to reveal himself to us as an act of love. We must be ready to “listen well,” to receive his Word with an “honest and good” heart so that it bears fruit in life and salvation. (Luke 8:15) [Our secular society too often shuts out God from our public—and our interior—conversations. We consider ourselves the masters of our own truths, creators of our own realities. God, as the way, the truth, and the life, is our bridge to reality and to each other; if we make ourselves into gods and set ourselves in opposition to others who are “evil” because they disagree with us, we separate ourselves; the ideas of community and the ecology of God’s creation both break down.]
- Listening is a profound thing because “there is an interior deafness worse than the physical one,” says Francis. We must bring our whole personhood into the communication process; it is not just about talking points or manipulation of opinion. We are called to share all of the qualities and dignity that come from our being unique children of God. “And we can only start by listening to what makes us unique in creation: the desire to be in relationship with others and with the other. We are not made to live like atoms, but together.”
- This communication must start with listening to oneself—“to one’s truest needs, those inscribed in each person’s inmost being.” [We tend to mask every uncomfortable thing that arises in our own lives, perhaps using drugs, or disconnecting from relationships of responsibility and contribution, or retreating into artificial reality, or simply painting a false Facebook picture of an idealized life. I would say we also need to listen to our consciences and act accordingly, but only after we have done the diligent listening and learning which inform our consciences with virtue and wisdom. Ultimately, listening only to oneself is self-destructive because true information and formation come from God’s grace, inseparable from our relationship with Jesus and the wisdom of the Church, and the experiences of other people through whom that grace is working. We must acknowledge our flaws. That opens our hearts to forgiveness and makes us able to forgive others.]
- Listening goes awry when it slips into “eavesdropping and spying” or “exploiting others for our own interests.” Pope Francis says these have worsened in the age of social media. We should listen to learn, to take in truth, to encounter God in others through genuine two-way communication. He suggests the best communication is face-to-face. [So often, we say what others seem to want to hear; this decreases freedom and dignity on both sides of the equation. We manipulate and pander to others. We manipulate words and situations. Our actions and institutions become less authentic, less trustworthy. Information becomes propaganda. Meanwhile, information is also weaponized; many cases of “gotcha” communication uncover and narrowly judge something someone said in a different context or at a different time.]
- If we listen only to “talking points” that confirm our own biases or promise to bring us power and personal gain, “we often talk past one another” and fail to communicate the richness of our lives as individuals or the potential of our growth in community. [I think of the recent school-shooting situations, where our hearts yearned for a time of quiet, empathic sorrow over the human toll, but some politicians seized an opportunity to further their self-serving argumentation. The argumentation adopts an oversimplification of, even an ignorance about, the many complicated factors that make life’s tragedies and dramas worthy of deeper reflection. We tend to forget what really matters and to move on to the next item on the agendas of institutions and media. All the world’s a stage, and we are performing as narcissistic individuals, writing other persons out of the script. Much of our social interaction becomes theatrical in nature, geared to empower us, and we shape an “attention economy” where we seek to please our audience, capturing their minds and hearts so they are distracted from other information.]
- Pope Francis adds that “there is no good journalism without the ability to listen. In order to provide solid, balanced, and complete information, it is necessary to listen for a long time.” Journalists—and all people—must be willing to take in information that surprises them, challenges them, deepens their understanding of the whole story. “Only amazement enables knowledge.” Francis quotes a diplomat who spoke of “the martyrdom of patience” because becoming truly informed requires patience with others, including difficult people. [The Catholic Church fosters a spirit of wonder—and a “Catholic imagination”—that connects empirical experiences to profound mysteries, adding extra layers of insight that will stick with us and increase our wisdom. Our culture suffers from a severe case of attention deficit, snap judgments, and oversimplification. We fail to listen and learn about a number of interconnected subjects over a long period of time; we pragmatically deal with problems in the present moment, or not at all, without incorporating insights of the past and future. Pope Francis highlights today’s immigration challenges, reminding us that we need to look at population flows as more than statistics, and at migrants as individuals whose diverse stories must be taken into account.]
- Pope Francis addresses the Covid crisis and its communications aftermath: “The ability to listen to society is more valuable than ever in this time wounded by the long pandemic,” he writes. “So much previously accumulated mistrust towards ‘official information’ has also caused an ‘infodemic,’ within which the world of information is increasingly struggling to be credible and transparent. We need to lend an ear and listen profoundly, especially to the social unease heightened by the downturn or cessation of many economic activities.”
- The Pope also speaks of communication in the Church, where “there is a great need to listen to and to hear one another …. 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.” This “apostolate of the ear” is a segue into discussion of the current Synod on Synodality, which focuses on listening to everyone for the sake of a more authentic Church community globally and locally. “As in a choir, unity does not require uniformity, monotony, but the plurality and variety of voices, polyphony. At the same time, each voice in the choir sings while listening to the other voices and in relation to the harmony of the whole.”