Listening: An art ‘too frequently overlooked’

In July, following the shooting deaths of black men by law enforcement and multiple killings of police officers, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops instituted a Special Task Force for Peace in our Communities, chaired by Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory of Atlanta. After engaging in listening sessions and interviews with communities and leaders in places touched by racial tension and violence, the task force issued a final written report Jan. 5, making recommendations to U.S. dioceses on how to promote reconciliation. Archbishop Gregory spoke with Our Sunday Visitor on Jan. 12. The following are highlights of that conversation.

Our Sunday Visitor: What is the greatest need that emerged over the course of the task force’s work, or the biggest gap where we need to build bridges?

Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory: First of all, the people on the task force — the bishops who agreed to serve as members of the task force and consultants, as well as the other people who were invited because of their experience or their expertise or their history in working with the African-American community and multicultural environments — they really all concurred that probably the most important thing for the Church to do at this moment is to invite dialogue — civil, constructive dialogue.

We’re at a moment in our history where civil conversation has become a rarity. We’re more inclined to address each other through accusations and through hostile and sometimes very brutal verbiage than to sit down and to try to both listen and to speak from our hearts and from a sense of a desire for reconciliation.

And the Catholic Church, working in the ecumenical and interreligious world that we live in, is uniquely situated to do that. We have the structures that are a part of our reality. We have parishes, we have schools, we have organizations — Catholic Charities and national organizations and local organizations that give us an entrée into the lives of our people. And that’s important because we don’t want to be in a position where our only involvement, or our first involvement, is to apologize or express regret at an event that has already taken place.

OSV: As a protégé of the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, you understand how issues interconnect, how these killings of black men and law enforcement officers speak to larger issues in our society. How does the work of the task force relate to the larger social fabric?

Archbishop Gregory: I’m glad you brought up the example of Cardinal Bernardin. His approach to pastoral service was holistic. He was always looking for opportunities to draw people together — the Common Ground Initiative, the initiative for his approach to moral questions, sometimes referred to as the seamless garment. He was always looking for ways to connect people that brought them together around issues that, while they may be disparate in their origin, are very similar in the impact they have on the lives of people.

So when we talk about the issue of racism and reconciliation in our nation at this point, it has to be broader than merely black and white. It has to include the plight of our immigrant communities, the issue of the hostility that has been expressed toward the Muslim community. It has to touch the sometimes antagonistic relationship to be found in our broader society in terms of sexual orientation. All of those events have erupted at some point or another in very volatile and mean-spirited conversations and sometimes in physically brutal encounters.

It really touches on a much broader spectrum of concerns than simply black and white, police and the African-American community, because every act of violence ... seems to beget another act. Violence is a very fertile behavior, and it spawns other acts. When we talk about the lack of civility in our common conversation, it only engenders more incivility. So we really do, in looking at this issue, have to see the links that have drawn them together and made us all vulnerable, in some form or fashion, to hatred.

OSV: How can we work with vulnerable communities — immigrants, refugees, religious minorities — who are so often the target of the brutal rhetoric? Doesn’t that rhetoric just make these things worse?

Archbishop Gregory: Of course. The level of incivility that is now at least commonplace in too many circumstances does poison the atmosphere. I can recall that part of the training that many of us, I pray that most of us received at home, was that parents told their children to be respectful of others — a respect that didn’t necessarily mean that you agreed with people, but that you recognized that there was a humanity in the person sitting across the table, or sitting in the classroom, or riding the bus. And you would recognize that humanity as constitutive of another human being or another individual. It belonged to them by right.

OSV: What, practically, does this mean as people of faith moving into the presidency of Donald Trump?

Archbishop Gregory: The Catholic Church has a tradition of always praying for those in civil and political leadership. And that’s the first thing that I would urge Catholics everywhere to do, that we pray for him — that he has assumed through an election process a terribly burdensome and terribly significant role not just for our nation but for the entire world. And he deserves our prayers. He deserves the support that men and women of faith can give to those in authority. Now we also need to back away from rhetoric that is either attributed to a political party or an individual and to simply say: We will not engage in such conversations. And we disavow that kind of brutality. And we have to say that consistently and very publicly.

One of the suggestions that’s in the full report is that we find occasions and opportunities to pray for reconciliation, healing and peace, and we do it on a regular basis. We do it in our Sunday worship in the Prayers of the Faithful. We do it with our young people. We do it and teach those prayers and spiritual approach that belongs to our heritage, and we encourage other religious families to do the same. ...

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Then out of that response we find ways of reaching out to people, promoting dialogue, promoting opportunities for people to come together not just to speak but also to listen. I think listening is an art that has been too frequently overlooked. I don’t want to just shout what I believe or shout my opinion or shout my objection or shout my criticism. I want to at least allow other people to tell me what’s in their heart, what causes them unease, what causes them fear, what causes them shame, what causes them anxiety. Dialogue that we speak of in our task force report is a two-way street. And I want to make sure that the one component that gets more attention is listening.

OSV: What are the stakes for our culture if we continue not to dialogue?

Archbishop Gregory: Unfortunately, I think we will continue to ratchet up the violence. If we don’t back away from some of the hostility, some of the incivility, it will just keep multiplying itself in an exponentially destructive way. I really believe that we have to begin in small ways, on the local level, that hopefully will spawn greater conversation, greater dialogue, greater listening, greater opportunity to really hear someone else. And we need to do it before there’s a crisis.

OSV: Another recommendation of the task force was that the U.S. bishops draft another pastoral statement on racism, following earlier statements in 1958 and 1979. What are your hopes for this?

Archbishop Gregory: One of the things that I have suggested — and it’s a suggestion, because other people have to weigh in with their suggestions — (is) that in the drafting of this new pastoral letter we find some opportunities to have regional listening sessions, to do exactly what I referenced earlier, to have opportunities for people to tell us what they feel would be helpful in such a letter. So it’s a bishops’ letter, and therefore the bishops are the owner of such a letter, but I think a series of regional conversations with our people — clergy, religious, lay, ecumenical and interfaith partners — to let them buy into the crafting of this letter ... will heighten the desire to see the finished product. ... And it would follow a drafting procedure the bishops have used in the past — the peace pastoral, the economic pastoral. They provided opportunities to engage people in conversation so that the final product was purely and clearly and completely a bishops’ letter, but a letter that came out of a dialogue with the people that the bishops are called to serve.

Don Clemmer is managing editor of OSV Newsweekly. Follow him on Twitter @clemmer_osv.