Listen: it’s a family thing


At some point during a child’s growing up years the parents realize a peak moment. This one is going to be all right; or this one is going to be a source of worry for a long time. Some children allow an early parental relaxation. Others, not so much.
Parents fit the shepherd image spoken of by Jesus, the one who couldn’t give up on the lost sheep. Our attention relaxes with the orderly members of the flock, but we can’t even sleep because of anxiety about those who wander off.
We might even focus on the shaky ones so much that the rest are neglected.
In at least two ways, the American Catholic bishops are like the anxious parent/shepherd. First, the current focus for Church leadership is a “new evangelization,” meaning attention to wandering parts of the flock: people and places where our message doesn’t seem to be catching on. And second, the U.S. bishops have to wonder what’s wrong after their message appeared to be a loser in the recent national election.
At least half of self-identified Catholics — 50 percent in one exit poll and 51 percent in another — voted for President Barack Obama. This comes after a year of intense pressure against Obama from many sources in Church leadership. Some bishops in high-profile incidents all but declared that a vote for him would be a sin. Priests made the same suggestion from the altar — definitely not all, but enough to be noticed across the country.
At the same time, ballot measures favoring same-sex marriage were winners, again with Catholic help, especially among younger voters, despite hard resistance by the bishops.
Exit polling found that a clear majority of Catholics who attend Mass at least once a week voted for the President’s opponent, Mitt Romney: around 56 percent. This has been a point of satisfaction for some, indicating that people who are in church to hear the message are getting it.
But is it really enough to allow easy parental sleep when nearly 44 percent of the flock stays close to home and still doesn’t follow the leader?
A closer look also shows that the most faithful “faithful” by this test are old white guys. Almost two-thirds of them voted for Romney. The young, women, Latinos — they seem to be hearing in a different way. What does this say for the future?
Back to the family and those parents who notice the tendencies of their children. The wiser ones don’t lose their balance. By intuition they are drawn to maintain the centering energies of the family — those interests, activities, habits and direction that have meant healthy communion in the home. They accept the reality of differences in the children and that they must constantly relearn how to listen to each child’s growing life.
They know that a certain atmosphere in the family is crucial: a certain mellowness, or peace in the midst of tension as relationships run through ups and downs. Communication may be difficult, confusion common and wandering a worry, but core attention is kept on the good of the whole.
The good shepherd doesn’t leave the flock to go after the “lost” member in the sense of abandoning it. The flock is left with the security of the love which defines it and holds it together. That atmosphere is what it feeds on most. With it, the shepherd can also attend to a special need on the margins.
Our bishops, like wise parents, will want to be careful with the atmosphere in the Church. When gaps appear in the margins it usually means that communication isn’t what it should be in the whole enterprise. Something important, some crucial part of the spirit that gives it life, is breaking down. To find out what that is, the reciprocating engine of listening needs attention.
Best practices among families usually begin with top-down listening.
Frank Wessling

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