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We interrupt this program to bring you a new message: how laypeople are teaching a priest to adjust his listening.

If some members of the clergy and hierarchy needed a little "hearing aid" for the deaf ears they have often turned to the laity, they may have found it in the sexual abuse scandal currently plaguing the Catholic Church. Given the increasingly vocal lay consciousness in the church, listening to the laity is no longer an option, it's a necessity.

"Pay attention to how you listen!" That was the repeated call at last summer's convention of the lay organization Voice of the Faithful (VOTF) in Boston. Francine Cardman of the Weston Jesuit School of Theology reminded us that "nothing is hidden which will not be revealed" (Luke 12:1-3) and stressed that a truly attentive ear will hear both the particular contributions and limitations in each voice raised in the church.

Reflecting on Cardman's invitation, I thought of how many opportunities I have had, as a priest, researcher, and teacher of theology, to hear the voices of committed lay Catholics. I have always wanted to really listen, but a series of comforting clerical mantras sometimes drowns out other voices and guides my thoughts:

"You are a competent, trained professional." Indeed. I've spent 12 of my 20 Jesuit years in specific programs of spiritual and academic training. I've worked hard and accomplished quite a bit. In the meantime, though, so have my lay Catholic high school and college classmates. They have amassed knowledge and experience that I and my brother clerics cannot hope to match in fields from child-rearing and family relationships to business administration and law.

As a priest, I need to start taking seriously another voice: "We are a community of gifted people, called together to live the gospel."

To the extent that we answer the common call to proclaim the gospel in our own situations, are we not all "professional" Christians? The Second Vatican Council was clear that whatever competence, expertise, or talent a layperson possesses is to be welcomed by the whole church as one of the ways in which God may speak to us. I may be competent and trained, but I am not, on those grounds, in a class apart.

"You are a voice of authority in the church!" I have been told this--and told it to myself--repeatedly since ordination, when I was startled to see that suddenly doors were opened and requests made for my "wisdom" that never had been before. In my best moments, this mantra has given me a confidence to speak that I might have lacked otherwise.

At my worst, though, it has turned me quite boorish when my words were not readily embraced by those who, according to traditional norms, were supposed to heed me. At those moments, I have forgotten the wisdom, knowledge, spirituality, and sacramental dignity that reside also in the laity.

The new voices remind me of something else instead: "You share authority with all of us; it is the gift of God to the whole church."

A bishop recently asked a gathering of priests, "Empower the laity? Why would we want to do that?" Yet it has been nearly 40 years since Vatican II exposed the foundations of lay participation in the authority of the church--foundations that should easily be considered part of the "common ground" on which we stand as Roman Catholics.

They include the sacrament of Baptism, which confers the very spirit of Christ on all its recipients, and the earliest beginnings of the Christian church in Jesus' intimate circle of friends, all ordinary Jewish laypeople. Perhaps most obvious of all, there is the church's total day-to-day reliance on the practical faith and activity of local communities of laypeople.

Some object that names like "Voice of the Faithful" lead too easily to the adage vox populi, vox Dei (the voice of the people is the voice of God). Certainly there are examples of heightened rhetoric. But my own experience is filled, not with lay presumption, but with laypeople who want to listen.

"You are a man of prayer and discernment; these are gifts with which you lead the people." I sincerely hope this is true more often than not. Without an ongoing relationship with God, nothing that I do as a priest can escape the charge of hypocrisy. But my natural fears and desire for comfort are at work, too. Deciding to listen, on the other hand, is admitting that I do not already know, that my vision is incomplete. To listen is to seek the voice of God and the assurance of God's continuing presence among us.

In essence, the call to listen is itself a call to prayer: "We are a people of prayer and discernment; come and listen for God's voice with us."

Is it not my role as a priest to call the people to prayer? Yet often it has been the invitation and expectation of laypeople--not my religious formation or some supposed spiritual advantage--that has led me to prayer. The VOTF convention last summer was not entirely tree of the ordinary human ego-stroking, sloppiness, or hints of boredom that clerics in their more honest moments know so well. Yet through all this humanness, amid a scandal packed with potential for self-righteousness or self-pity on all sides, I heard the same invitation that I have so often received from God's people: Let's call on God together and expect that God will answer.

"You are a sign of unity for the church!" I hope this, too, has its truth. As a priest, when I stand before a congregation, I am called to be among the visible signs that this group of believers is one with all the others, all over the world and throughout the centuries. But as soon as I try to exercise personal ownership over the church's unity, I make the whole effort a lie.

Rather, "Let us together, by our profound charity and cooperation even amid disagreement, be a sign of unity in the world."

Calling on God together is surely not as simple as it sounds, and laypeople clearly know it. Growing ideological polarization is evidence of our apparent inability as a church to handle contemporary diversity. It is easy enough for clerics to preach about such things. It is much harder to sit, listen, and take seriously people who have the fortitude to speak up. Some clergy and laity blame such courageous characters for the divisions in the church. We call them "fringe," and we'd sometimes rather "just get along" than take them seriously.

Increasingly, though, people are not content with the wishful thinking that automatically counts the silent as "loyal Catholics" and the vocal as either unfaithful or a little slow. In the desperation following the abuse scandals, many are turning to tactics involving the laity's one undisputed attention-getter: money.

Still, there is a sense in all of this--a deeply Catholic sense--of recognizing that our crazy patchwork quilt is stitched together by the Spirit of God. Tearing it apart, or cutting out certain patches, will only leave rags for everyone.

"You are calm and reasonable." I've used this voice to "whistle in the dark," given my personal tendency to fume over imperfection. I have learned, however, that being thought "reasonable" often consists more in being in control of a situation than it does in standing on solid theoretical ground.

This is why, as necessary as calm, rational discussion is for the church, claiming it for myself can be dangerous. The rage of the parent of an abused child and the frustration of a competent but ignored layperson can be written off as the "ranting" of agitated and unreasonable people. It is time to hear the voices that are not so calm: "Yes, we're angry. Yes, we're demanding. Yes, we are--finally--loud. Wouldn't you be?"

"Pay attention to how you listen." If we try it together, we may all rediscover our places--and our missions--among the People of God.

By FATHER WILLIAM A. CLARK, S.J., who teaches theology at the College of Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts.
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Title Annotation:Catholic Church
Author:Clark, William A.
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Article Type:Column
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2003
Words:1330
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