By GARY P. RICHARDS, PH.D.
CHARLESTON – Bishop David B. Thompson provided an inspirational witness on the importance of listening during a recent ultreya at St. Joseph’s Church.
An ultreya is a monthly meeting of individuals who have attended a Cursillo weekend. Cursillo is a short course in Christianity. Comparable to a three-day retreat, it is different from traditional retreats because it asks for a long-term commitment from the participants to meet weekly, in small sharing groups, to discuss their progress toward personal piety, study and evangelization. Monthly meetings, known as ultreyas, allow the small groups to join in the sharing process.
At these meetings, a cursillista (one who has made a Cursillo) tells a personal story, a testimony of some event that bears witness to the effect of Christ in his or her life. It is not often that the witness is the bishop of the diocese.
But the Bishop of Charleston provided the witness talk at the March ultreya. Bishop Thompson has been a strong advocate for Cursillo since he made his own in Pennsylvania in 1977. His message was on the importance of listening. He focused on two short stories. One was about a former parishioner who was highly conservative and vocal about her views of the church, and probably most other things as well.
Most people avoided conversations with the domineering woman. The bishop’s philosophy is that people have much to gain by listening and considering the opinions of others. Quietly listening does not suggest approval of what is said, but can allow the listener to learn.
In the Bishop’s witness story, the woman asked to meet with the then Monsignor Thompson to discuss a few things. She spoke for one hour and six minutes nonstop. The Bishop listened intently. At the end, he thanked the woman for her thoughts and, knowing that she was a traditionalist, asked her if she would like a blessing in Latin. She thought that would be wonderful and the monsignor blessed her. With hardly a word he turned a situation which could have been confrontational into one which was a blessing for both of them.
In his second story, the Bishop spoke of the synodal process underway at parishes throughout the diocese. The process began with listening sessions across the diocese between the Bishop and the people during which he heard their desires, their needs and their concerns.
Through the synod process, he said, he has given the parishes back to the people to mold according to their needs and motivations. This does not involve changes in religious doctrine, Bishop Thompson said. Rather, it permits the people of each church to determine the parish’s destiny within the framework of existing church law. It challenges everyone to greater participation in parishes the better to serve the community at large.
At the ultreya Mass, Bishop Thompson read from the Gospel of John which said, in part, “The works that the Father gave me to accomplish, these works that I perform testify on my behalf that the Father has sent me. Moreover, the Father who sent me has testified on my behalf. But you have never heard his voice nor seen his form, and you do not have his word remaining in you, because you do not believe in the one he has sent.”
Afterwards, participants in the ultreya asked themselves: In our own lives, how often do we listen to the Lord? Do we listen to our children or our spouses, to our parents or the elderly neighbor down the street?
Bishop Thompson’s message was clear: if we can’t hear those around us, how can we ever expect to hear God? Listening is the beginning of a process which will allow us to grow and mature in our faith. To listen is to care, and to care is to become more Christ-like. Listening allows one to develop feelings of compassion, pity, love, understanding and a multitude of emotions which distinguish humans from all other living creatures.
Perhaps we can all learn a lesson from this witness.