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Compassionate Listening

Fr. Chris Saenz, Director

From the Director

By Fr. Chris Saenz

As a minister and pastoral agent of the Church, I am often placed in an awkward position when someone approaches me with a request in which, at least in that given moment, I cannot grant due to their irregular situation. For example, many years ago in Chile, I worked in a small rural parish. The 32 country chapels of the parish celebrated Eucharist once a month. One Sunday, I arrived at a particular chapel and was informed that there will be a baptism in the Mass. The catechist presented the parents and future godparents of the child. However, there was a problem. The prospective godparents were not married in the Church. Therefore, I privately pulled the parents and prospective godparents aside and asked the parents why they chose the couple as the godparents. They said because of their friendship and the couple’s loving commitment to one another for nearly 40 years. I asked the prospective godparents if they were married civilly. Yes, they responded. I asked if they were Catholic. Yes, they responded. I asked if they had been married to another person before either civilly or sacramentally. No, they responded. I asked if they had any problem in getting married in the Church. No, they responded. Therefore, I proposed the following to the parents and prospective godparents: we will not celebrate the baptism this month. Instead the prospective godparents will present all the proper paperwork in the parish office to have their sacramental marriage processed. In the following month, we will celebrate the sacrament of marriage of the prospective godparents. This will be followed by the celebration of baptism with the newlywed couple as godparents. I asked if they were all in agreement and they said yes. In the following month we had a joyous celebration.

This experience is the fruit of my personal trial and error to develop a pastoral application of Church teachings and guidelines in which people feel that they are heard and respected even in if their request is denied. The following are guidelines I suggest for any minister, lay or ordained, in a pastoral setting.

1. Human dignity is central. As a minister you must continually hold before you the image of a fragile child of God who requests to be heard. Recognize that they came to you for help which required a great effort of humility on their part. Like Jesus who respectfully accompanied sinners such as prostitutes, try to be present and respectful avoiding attitudes that can stigmatize. You are creating a safe space for compassionate listening. Providing an objective, compassionate ear may be all they need.

2. Know the backstory. As they say, never judge a book by its cover. Initially, their situation may appear to be straightforward and obvious. Nevertheless, do not immediately assume as to what they seek or what is the solution. Generally, most are not forthcoming with all the details. A simple question such as, “how did you get to this situation?” invites the person to unfold their story giving more background. There can be hidden details that can give you, the minister, more options to work with. Also, it shows your interest in wanting to help.

3. Go beyond the “NO.” If you cannot comply with what the person requests, do not say “no, I can’t” and close the door. Take time to explain the Church’s guidelines and teachings. Misconceptions and lack of formation are common, and, as a minister, you should try to remedy this. And, if you do not feel confident in providing an adequate explanation, do not hesitate to say, “I will get back to you with more information,” and seek an expert’s advice in the area. Or, refer them to someone who can better assist. Recognize your own limitations.

4. Always move forward. After explaining why they cannot receive what they seek, you can explore alternative pastoral responses that can satisfy the person’s needs, albeit temporarily, while still respecting Church guidelines. Or, suggest how they can work towards obtaining what they seek. It may not happen overnight but giving them a hopeful path forward is better than a flat rejection.

This pastoral approach holds sacred the other’s dignity and story. It allows the person to be heard and, consequently, be ministered to with respect. Even if you cannot comply with their request, your time and effort of walking them through the process will be greatly appreciated and reduce feelings of rejection. As Jesus said, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Do not judge, and you will not be judged; and do not condemn, and you will not be condemned; pardon, and you will be pardoned” (Luke 6: 36-37).