Is Anyone Listening?

Years ago, when I was a graduate student, I dated a young woman who was – how to put this delicately? – very decided in her views and not at all reticent about sharing them. She was great: smart as a whip, devotedly orthodox, and delightfully chipper for the most part. But if she was set on giving you a piece of her mind, it was best to pay attention.

One day, when we’d be discussing something for a bit, she said, “You’re not listening.”  I, being young and foolish, replied: “That’s not true.”  I then recounted the entire conversation from its beginning to that point, sometimes repeating back to her the same words she had used.  QED, I thought, quod erat demonstrandum:  thus, it is proven.  I was listening.

She looked at me, cocked her head slightly to the side with an expression I knew meant “I mean business,” and said: “You’re not liiiistening.”

Although simply lengthening the “i” sound in “listening” didn’t seem to me at that point in my life to strengthen her argument substantially, I thought it best to try to figure out what she meant.

Whenever I tell that story to my classes, all the women seem to know exactly what she meant.  In fact, when I get to the point where I describe how I repeated the entire conversation point by point, I can see many roll their eyes and shake their heads.  “What’s wrong?” I ask.  “Didn’t I prove my point?”

 “You weren’t listening,” they say.  “What? But I remembered nearly every word.”

“You heard the words, but you weren’t listening to her.  You were like a tape recorder, not like a guy who really cared about what was going on her heart, mind, and soul.  You weren’t trying to understand where she was coming from, what was going on behind the words, what was bothering her, or what she really cared about.”

“So that’s important?” I ask.

“Oh, yes,” they tell me.  “It’s the most important part of really listening.”

“Fair enough,” I tell them.  “So is that the way you listen to others?  Is that the way you listen to your mother and father when they’re trying to impart some wisdom or warn you against certain dangers?  Is that how you listen to the words of the Scriptures or the teachings of the Church?”  That’s when things get interesting.

I mention this little story because it comes back to me every time I hear functionaries in the Church talk about all the “listening” sessions they’ve been doing to prepare for the Synod on Something-or-Other. Sometimes I wonder whether they’re really listening.


Because when I go to daily Mass on our campus, here are the new developments I see.  Half the women have their heads covered with the mantilla.  When it’s time for Communion, half the kids drop to their knees to receive, even though we don’t have an altar rail and the modernist building makes it rather awkward.  And after every Mass, one student or another from the congregation spontaneously breaks into the prayer to St. Michael the Archangel or starts the Ave Regina, sometimes both.  No one plans this; no one has encouraged the students to do this; in fact, I don’t think the chapel authorities like it very much.

These kids aren’t especially “traddy.” That’s not our demographic. University of St. Thomas kids are pretty standard.  But they know what they want, and it’s not the Catholic Lite being handed on to them by Baby Boomer Bishops who still think it’s 1975.

So I am left wondering, who is listening to these young people?  Who is going to the Synod on Something-or-Other to speak for them and say: “Do you remember how it was back when we were young and how frustrated we were that the older generation just wouldn’t understand us and wouldn’t get out of the way of the things that inspired us?

 Well, that’s how these kids are.  And now you – yes, you – are the old fogeys stuck in your ways who won’t get out of the way for them, who want to keep doing the same old St. Louis Jesuit guitar masses with homilies that begin with a quaint little personal story.  They hate that.

The young people I teach want something serious.  They want to know that the people talking to them believe what the Church teaches because they understand that, if they give themselves to the faith in this culture, it will require nothing less than everything.  They want a serious Church that can stand in the bitter winds they know are blowing.

The “sexual revolution” stuff of the 1960s bores them.  They want sex, eventually, but even more, they want to know how to find someone to love them, how to have a successful marriage and career, and how to remain Catholic in a toxic culture that finds contemptible most of the things they care deeply about. Too many bishops have nothing meaningful to say to them.

Who speaks for these young people?  Who is listening to them, to their hopes and fears about the future?  Bishops won’t hear their voices if they spend their days listening to NPR or reading The New York Times.

I hear a lot of talk from certain Church prelates. The Pope talks and talks – in the Vatican, on planes, and to reporters who hate the Church. The German bishops talk and talk – as though everyone in the world should listen to them. But when others talk back, when they warn and try to reason with them and share their concerns, I don’t see a lot of listening.  Do they read any of the thoughtful commentaries from the other side? Do they care? They never respond as though they did.

They might be listening – vaguely, the way you listen to a buzzing fly you swat away – but there’s no evidence they’re really liiistening.  And according to my students, that’s crucial.


*Image: The Fortune Teller by Jehan Georges Vibert, late 19th century [private collection]

You may also enjoy:

Michael Pakaluk’s The Church: Corrupt from the Start?

Stephen P. White’s The German Response

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.