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Leading by Listening

by Fr. Jason Laguerta

Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, the predecessor, and Cardinal Jose Advincula, the successor, are kindred spirits, cut from the same pallium of Pope Francis’ pastoral style of compassionate shepherding. They exude the same virtues of humility, simplicity and kindness. They mirror to us the merciful heart of the Father, the gentle face of Jesus, the comforting presence of the Spirit. Opposite in some personal qualities, they are, however, strongly bonded by their common vision of leadership. To lead is to listen.

In a short period of time, Cardinal Advincula has been able to articulate his clear understanding of who he is and what he aspires to be for the faithful of the Archdiocese of Manila.

His episcopal motto, “Audiam”, “I shall listen”, tells us in no uncertain terms how he wishes to administer and accomplish his ministry.

Silent to Listen

Silent and listen are anagrams. But their profound connection is more than just having the same letters. Silence is needed before one can truly listen. Simon Sinek, a renowned writer and motivational speaker, says that there is a difference between listening and waiting for your turn to speak, which many of us tend to do. While the other is speaking, we are in fact counter-arguing and stonewalling. Listening, he explains, is not understanding the words of the question asked. It is understanding why the question was asked in the first place.

In the 2012 Synod of Bishops on “The New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith”, Cardinal Chito Tagle delivered a spirit-filled intervention in the Synod Hall. He said, “The Church must discover the power of silence. Confronted with the sorrows, doubts and uncertainties of people she cannot pretend to give easy solutions. In Jesus, silence becomes the way of attentive listening, compassion and prayer. It is the way to truth. The seemingly indifferent and aimless societies of our time are earnestly looking for God. The Church's humility, respectfulness and silence might reveal more clearly the face of God in Jesus. The world takes delight in a simple witness to Jesus - meek and humble of heart.” This short but remarkable speech prompted the book on Cardinal Chito, Leading by Listening, by Cindy Wooden in 2015.

We must, indeed, reclaim the power of silence and attentive listening particularly in our time of “shout-outs”, “RTs”, and “like-subscribe-&share”. With social media, everybody has become a “messenger” and a “chatter”, producing endless streams of viral videos, emojis, messages, tweets, and notifications. Connectivity made us instant “commentators” but not necessarily better communicators. The call to silence is counter-intuitive but it may be what our world needs today.

A contemplative stance, a listening heart enables us to read the signs of the times, to discern the movements of the Spirit. Silence allows us to grow in empathy and compassion. It gives us the space to savor the good and process the toxic. Silence is neither cowardice nor apathy. It is a posture of wisdom and courage. So many of us are uneasy with silence because we are more afraid than bored, more anxious of the truth that cannot be drowned by our voices.

Listen to Dialogue

Listening is not a one-way street. It is an invitation to dialogue. The encyclicals of Pope Francis direct us to the necessity of social dialogue. To transmit the faith today, we have to engage the modern men and women in a language they can understand. To preserve our common home, we have to listen to the cries of the earth and the poor. To pursue peace, we have to treat one another as brothers and sisters all. We build bridges than walls. We go forth than be self-absorbed.

Dialogue is not primarily about words or negotiation principles. It is an attitude, an approach, an orientation toward the other. Many dialogues fail because no one really had the intention of “giving an inch” to the other. We debate more than we deliberate. We compete more than we cooperate. Dialogue as attentiveness means we are ready to listen without the baggage of our presuppositions and prejudices. This does not mean that we lose our own identity. In fact, the more faithful we are to our identity, the more that dialogue becomes more meaningful. Our identity differences become our common ground for social friendship and acceptance.

In his book, Let us Dream: The Path to a Better Future, Pope Francis speaks of a new organizing principle that should determine our personal lives and relationships, communities and societies as we navigate the pandemic and post-pandemic world. He says, “To dream of a different future we need to choose fraternity over individualism as our organizing principle. Fraternity, the sense of belonging to each other and to the whole of humanity, is the capacity to come together and work together against a shared horizon of possibility.”

We are living in a country of gross inequality and division. We refuse to recognize it but we have never been able to form a strong nation and a united front. Always there is something that turns us against one another. We tend to blame the colonizers for our “damaged culture”, and rightly so, but we also need to inquire on why we have always been outrageously divided, from Humabon vs. Lapu-Lapu to Bonifacio vs. Aguinaldo, to DDS vs. Dilawans, and so on and so forth. The challenge of dialogue is not to stop in seeking out those at the other side of our imaginary fences created by our imaginary loyalties.

Listening is a means. It is not an end. It leads to meaningful connections and relationships. When we listen in an authentic way, we enter into the world of the other, as we allow the other to enter into ours. It makes us vulnerable but it also makes us stronger. This is the course where Pope Francis is taking us. We can only be saved together, never alone. We are in the same storm but different boats. The big ones manage to stay afloat and even thrive. While so many are either barely surviving or sinking fast to unimaginable suffering. It is time to care, to reach out. We should come out of this crisis better not worse. The key is not individualism. It is fraternity.

Listen to Serve and Renew

In one of his reflections, Cardinal Advincula talked about the three keywords that guide him in his ministry: “audire”, “servire”, “renovare”. To listen. To serve. To renew. For Cardinal Advincula, listening is only the beginning. It has to be completed by the mission to serve and renew. Listening opens the door for service. Service responds to the cries and “groaning” of the sheep. Listening sustains and strengthens the pastoral project of Church renewal.

In other words, “Audiam” is not a slogan. It is a fundamental approach to mission and ministry. For some commentators, it is a “pastoral style” similar to Pope Francis and Cardinal Tagle, patterned after Jesus’ style of shepherding, characterized by closeness, compassion and tenderness. Listening humanizes leadership. It paves the way for person-to-person encounters. It puts primacy on relationship and ‘walking together”. When one listens, one pauses and gives importance to the person of the other. The shepherd starts to become familiar with each sheep as the sheep begin to recognize the reassuring voice of the shepherd.

Leading by listening is a tangible expression of the Ignatian “cura personalis”, caring for the whole person and every person. It is not a “one size fits all” leadership, which makes it more challenging than the usual generic or functional one. For Pope Francis, “Time is greater than space.” This principle, he says, enables us to work slowly but surely, without being obsessed with immediate results. It helps us patiently to endure difficult and adverse situations, or inevitable changes in our plans. Listening takes time, very much like the growth of the seed of the Kingdom of God.

Cardinal Advincula’s Latin “Audiam” must be taken, therefore, from the Hebrew context of the “Shema” (“Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone!” (Dt 6:4). To hear is to open oneself to a relationship with God. It is not just “auditory”. It evokes a totality of response, from the sense of hearing to obedience (“ob-audire”) and putting into practice what one has heard. To look at listening as a “soft skill” or a passive approach is to miss the force field it creates for service and transformation. The “Shema” and Cardinal Advincula’s “Audiam” call for hearing that leads to a covenantal fidelity to God and love of neighbor.

Listening is an act of service. In this time of absenteeism and isolation, listening is an essential service of charity. We are living in the age of hyperconnectivity but at the same time the age of loneliness and globalization of indifference. “Audiam” or “Shema” is an invitation to make room, to lend our ears to synodality and solidarity. Listening sets into motion the Church’s permanent state of mission, “Ecclesia semper reformanda, semper purificanda” (The Church always renewed, always purified). “Audiam” is a pathway to the continuing ecclesial project of “renovatio” (renewal) and “aggiornamento” (updating).

Cardinal Advincula wants us to listen, not passively but attentively. To serve with ears of empathy. To be vigilant as the Lord makes all things new for the Archdiocese of Manila!

Photos from Fr. Yulito Q. Ignacio's Facebook

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