In his “Letter to a Non-Believer” Pope Francis writes that he is entering on this dialogue with Dr. Scalfari from his personal experience of faith lived in the Church. That experience-based faith allows him to “listen to your questions and, with you, to seek the paths along which we may walk together.” It occurred to me that such a stance speaks to all adult Christians as we go out to work with and meet our fellow human beings, and especially to us who embrace the vision of the Ignatian Volunteer Corps. Throughout the letter Francis exudes an openness and kindness that reveal a profound faith, a faith that seems based on a personal experience of Jesus that imbues his life. He approaches Scalfari with a deep humility that springs from this lived faith. He does not have an axe to grind, genuinely wants to enter a dialogue with him and takes Scalfari’s review of his first encyclical as an invitation to such a dialogue. That openness to others is very moving and, I believe, the reason why he has in such a short time touched so many people.
The truth is, all of us want to be listened to, but listeners are hard to come by. Just think about the last time you tried to tell someone, even a close friend, about something painful in your life. Did that friend listen and let you talk more about your pain or did he or she give you advice, tell you about someone else who had the same difficulty, say “I’ll pray for you” and move on to something else? It really is hard to listen to another person’s story. What we need is to be interested in them, and not in ourselves. Pope Francis seems to have found the way to be a listener, and according to him, it has to do with his faith-based experience of God’s immense love for him. He has felt so deeply God’s loving attention to him that he has been freed from a lot of the self-concern that hinders listening in the rest of us most of the time. Because God has so patiently and lovingly listened to him, he finds himself able to listen to others and thus be the image of God he was created to be.
If I am right, we too can become better images of God in listening to others if we realize that God has been listening patiently and with great interest to us in all our loveliness and our messiness every day of our lives. When we are enabled to listen to others we will also find out what a delight it is to listen to others, and we will light up the world around us.
Fr. Bill Barry, SJ is a Spiritual Reflector for IVC New England. He entered the Society of Jesus in 1950 and was ordained in 1962. He earned a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of Michigan in 1968. He has taught at the University of Michigan, Weston Jesuit School of Theology, and Boston College. Bill is the author or co-author of 20 books, including The Practice of Spiritual Direction, God and You, Finding God in All Things, Spiritual Direction and the Encounter with God, Who Do You Say I Am?, A Friendship Like No Other, and Contemplatives in Action with Fr. Robert Doherty. For more on his writing please visit Loyola Press.