Pope Francis inaugurated a two-year synodality process that prioritises the practice of listening. To achieve this goal, the Church needs to listen to and learn from the experience of the early church, where all cared for and listened to one another and no one lacked anything (Acts 4:34). Far from being a one-off event, the Synod on Synodality is an extended process of inclusive and mutual listening guided by a discernment in common with the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. How can the practice of listening enrich the experience of the Church in Africa as we walk together as God’s people?
What Is Listening in the Synod and in the Scriptures?
Listening is hearing what other people say and being psychologically involved with those who are speaking. It entails a sincere desire to understand others with respect, acceptance, and a mind open to seeing things from other points of view. Genuine listening is founded on love and concern for all, even for those who do not share the same faith. This kind of listening challenges us to listen to those who hold different opinions and invites us to listen to those we may be tempted to see as unimportant or those who force us to consider new points of view that may change our way of thinking (Vademecum, 2.2). This kind of listening requires an open mind and a heart free of prejudice.
Listening to others and all listening to the Holy Spirit to learn what the Spirit “says to the Churches” (Rev 2:7) calls us to be attentive to the voices of the poor, the sick, orphans, widows, and others. We are called to sit at the feet of Jesus, as Mary did, and listen to one another (Lk 10:41). Mary of Nazareth is a model of listening (Lk 2:19). Listening is the basic attitude to the Word of God in the scriptures as we see in the example of the two disciples in Emmaus (Lk 24:13-35).
What Attitudes Hinder Listening in the Church in Africa?
The Church of Christ was not ordained to be clerical but a “synodal one that challenges us to change and transform clericalist practices where one person or a group of persons in the Church put together decisions without listening and consulting.”2 The true nature of the Church is not about command or control. As Laurenti Magesa points out in his essay, every exercise of authority in the Church is to be at the service of all People of God regardless of status.
Marcel Uwineza has examined the negative effects of fear on the synodal process. Fear inhibits us from expressing ourselves freely; the clergy fear the laity and vice versa. Pastors should not be afraid to listen to the people under their pastoral care even if they hold differing opinions. There is no competition in evangelisation; each one is called to assume and perform his or her mission with mutual respect and reciprocity as Magesa also points out.
Some cultural practices affect the way we relate in the Church. The family, age sets, and clans have shaped the way we think as Christians. In some cultures, women are not allowed to speak. This negative practice is present in the Church and communities of religious women. Children and youth are not allowed to address their elders. These practices hinder effective dialogue.
Lack of Dialogue
The inability to welcome difference and diversity can hinder dialogue and result in violence. Failure to listen and learn has significantly impacted the faithful and has even undermined participation in the Church.
Keeping silent even when one is called to speak is common in the Church in Africa. Such negative silence exacerbates problems such as sexual abuse and violence against women and children. Victims opt for silence for fear that no one will listen to them. Religious women who have been used by the clergy to do work without remuneration or have been abused sexually are compelled to remain silent in the name of protecting the reputation of the Church.
The Benefits of Good Listening
Synodality is not lobbying but listening and understanding the situation of people. Listening is a prerequisite for the emergence of a synodal Church that creates communion, facilitates participation, and empowers people for mission. This translates into multiple benefits.
- Listening will enable the Church in Africa to hear what the Spirit desires for the Church, where many are suffering and in need of a listening ear.
- Genuine listening enables the Church to overcome the scourge of clericalism and allows the members of the Church to have an open discussion about their identity, mission, and belonging to the Church. Pastors and people engage in a mutually respectful and beneficial dialogue.
- When members of Christ’s body listen to one another, they create listening spaces for constructive debates that allow each one to welcome what others say as a way by which “the Holy Spirit can speak for the good of all” (1 Cor. 12:7).
- True dialogue will lead to newness based on what each one will have learnt from others as they listen to them (VD, 2.3). Consecrated men and women will be heard, and their lives will be transformed.
- The synodal process in Africa gives us an opportunity to open ourselves to listen in an authentic way, without resorting to ready-made answers or preformulated judgments (VD, 2.3).
Synodality calls the Church to leave behind prejudices and to facilitate a listening process that frees minds and hearts from prejudices and stereotypes and overcomes ignorance and division.
Listening from the African Context
The African palaver ethics of communication is vital to understanding the practice of synodality in a synodal Church,
where all people together discuss matters that pertain to the Church guided by the Holy Spirit.
Similarly, the concept of ubuntu, which recognises the dignity and mutuality of human beings, calls the Church in Africa to an understanding of the importance of treating one another as humans and listening to all regardless of status.
Ujamaa, family hood, offers the synodal Church a means of empowering all people to understand that they are brothers and sisters whose dignity and purposes are enhanced through mutual listening and respect.
In conclusion, the Church in Africa needs to discern through listening and creating space for the guidance of the Holy Spirit at all levels of the Church.
*Leonida Katunge, SSJ is a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Mombasa, Kenya. She holds a bachelor’s in philosophy and theology from CUEA, a licentiate in liturgy, and a PhD from the Pontifical Athenaeum of St. Anselm, Rome. She is an advocate of the High Court of Kenya with a bachelor of laws and an LLM from the University of Nairobi.