The Acts of the Apostles – Chapter 10
Stories Seldom Heard
Listening: A Gift of the Holy Spirit
Welcome to Stories Seldom Heard. I especially would like to welcome the parishioners of Our Lady Star of the Sea, Staten Island, and the Community of Catherine of Siena, Manhattan, New York.
Throughout April and much of the month of May the first reading at Mass is from the Acts of the Apostles (Acts). Tremendous energy and profound insights come from these stories: trials, prison sentences, conversations, extraordinary decisions and new heroes/heroines who speak on behalf of their newly found faith. All of these situations and people help the early Christians and us explore our mission as followers of the risen Christ. Yet, the daily readings at Mass skip over many of the adventures and the changes that took place in the early church’s development. These experiences are rich and formative not only for the early disciples, but also for us. So let’s take some time to read Chapter 10 and as Pope Francis would say “listen with our hearts and minds.”
The initial ritual for this Year of Mercy was the opening of the Door of Mercy in Rome. After that event every diocese identified particular churches to do the same: to open a Door of Mercy. In a way, we in the United States might say the church has lain out a welcome mat: all are welcomed to come through the door. But Pope Francis is saying more than the obvious. Open doors, like two-way streets, give us the opportunity to go outside our sacred spaces and traditional boundaries. The open door is a symbol, an invitation to enter into the larger world that surrounds us. The Pope has shown us the way. He has reached out to many different groups of people. He has assembled the Synod of Bishops to discuss issues concerning family life resulting in Amoris Laetitia: The Joy of Love. He has traveled extensively to diverse regions of the world. He has met with people who are often left out of the news and the concern of their societies. He has greeted leaders of nations with the same warmth and concern as he has the “little ones” of society. Yet, in all of his encounters, diverse as they are, he has the same focus: a resolve to listen.
Listening doesn’t seem like an extraordinary practice, but it has proven in Pope Francis’ life and, if we reflect on our own lives, to be a game changer. Listening carefully to another person’s concern can change our hearts and minds. The Pope has not been afraid of immersing himself in a world that is broken. He has listened to those who need to speak and those who have been silenced by pain, confusion or shame. He asks us to do the same: to enter into the confusion of life with all of its complexity and listen to those whose voices have been excluded.
As we read the Acts, the disciples have many decisions to make. How are they to live out their call in light of Jesus’ death, resurrection and the realization that the Holy Spirit is leading them into the future? As we read Chapter 10, we find Peter in a quandary. It’s a time of great consternation for him. Up until this time he had thought his mission was only to the Jews.
He had a limited understanding of his call. No wonder he had some hesitancy when the messengers from the Roman centurion Cornelius summoned him. Peter was at first resistant. Yet, he opened the Door of Mercy and welcomed the strangers into his house. Peter had learned his lessons well. He used every tool that Jesus had taught him. Peter drew heavily on prayer. He studied the circumstances and entered into a sincere dialogue with the messengers and Cornelius’ community. Emboldened by the Holy Spirit he had the courage to make a radical decision. “The truth I have now come to realize is that God does not have favorites, but that anyone of any nationality who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to God” (Acts 10:35). After Peter announced his decision the Holy Spirit came down on those who are gathered. This time the Spirit came down “on all the listeners”- gentiles and Jews alike. (Acts 10:44) God speaks to all those who listen!
This year, as the Pope has stated, is a year of encounter not just with new ideas, but with real people whose lives might look very different from our own. Trying to understand another person is not easy. But listening intently to another can build a bridge of respect and lead to significant insights between people who hold very different points of view. Listening also is part of each of our discernment processes as we try to understand what God is asking of us in our lives.
Entering into the spirit of the Year of Mercy is a dangerous invitation to accept unless we are prepared. For sure our preparation has begun. We have many experiences to guide our decisions. We can lean on the insights we have gained from prayer. We can draw on our capacity to center ourselves as a result of our regular meditation practices. We can trust the sound information we have gleaned over many years of study including the more recent documents that Pope Francis has written (1). We also have two other strengths. First, built into our human DNA is our capacity to have compassion for others. Second, our desire to actively participate in the Year of Mercy can strengthen our resolve to listen. Listening attentively and intentionally to others is a religious practice. It’s a way to symbolically open our Door of Mercy to others.
Where do we begin? We could begin with those who are closest to us. We could broaden our focus, as the Pope has illustrated, and go beyond our usual boundaries. Reading and listening to the lives of people who have very different life experiences than our own, can be extremely enlightening. No matter on what side of the fence we find ourselves, it is important to hear the other side of the story from someone who sees life from a different vantage point especially if we want to actively participate in this Year of Mercy.
Recently I did just that. Charlie Rose was interviewing a well-known journalist and author Ta-Nihisi Coates. Coates’ new book Between the World and Me is written as a letter to his teenage son. The book explores Coates’ experiences as a black man in the United States. He discusses the history of racism in the United States, as well as his own experiences of racism and systems that perpetuate racism. As I listened to Ta- Nihisi speak, the word that struck me was “systems” that perpetuate racism. Even though we have heard people identify this issue before Ta-Nihisi offers us new insights as to how these systems continue to be divisive factors in our society. Particularly at this time in our history we have abundant examples of structural injustice and prejudice. Just listen to the news. Some of us are insiders and have privilege, others of us are on the outside looking in and feeling left out. Yet, even in these situations we have one thing in common: all of us want to be heard and understood.
What I Have Learned So Far
Meditation is old and honorable, so why should I
not sit, every morning of my life, on the hillside,
looking into the shining world? Because, properly
attended to, delight, as well as havoc, is suggestion.
Can one be passionate about the just, the
ideal, the sublime, and the holy, and yet commit
to no labor in its cause? I don’t think so.
All summations have a beginning, all effect has a
story, all kindness begins with the sown seed.
Thought buds toward radiance. The gospel of
light is the crossroads of — indolence, or action.
Be ignited, or be gone (2).
1. The Joy of the Gospel, Laudato Si (Encyclical on Climate Change and Inequality), The Name of God is Mercy, Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love).
2. Oliver, Mary, New and Selected Poems, Volume 2, Beacon Press, Boston, 2005. p. 59