Andrew Prevot is the Joseph and Winifred Amaturo Chair in Catholic Studies, senior fellow at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, and professor in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at Georgetown University. He studies the vital roles that Christian spirituality plays in contemporary theology, philosophy, culture, and politics, with a particular focus on Roman Catholic and Black/African American traditions. He is the author of The Mysticism of Ordinary Life: Theology, Philosophy, and Feminism (Oxford University Press, 2023); Theology and Race: Black and Womanist Traditions in the United States (Brill, 2018); and Thinking Prayer: Theology and Spirituality amid the Crises of Modernity (University of Notre Dame Press, 2015). He co-edited Anti-Blackness and Christian Ethics (Orbis Books, 2017) and has published more than 30 articles and essays. Before coming to Georgetown, he was on the faculty at Boston College. He holds a Ph.D. and M.T.S. in systematic theology from the University of Notre Dame and a B.A. in philosophy from Colorado College.
I am grateful to Pope Francis for putting a spirituality of listening on the Catholic Church’s global agenda. Although it may not solve all of the problems facing the Church and the world, this spiritual practice is a good place to start. Listening is an act of reverence for the presence of God that may be found in another’s life and experiences. Without listening, the truth of human existence and God’s gracious involvement with it cannot be understood.
The work of attentive togetherness known as “synodality,” which is currently being modeled for the world in a nearly month-long series of spiritual conversations among hundreds of delegates at the Vatican, creates opportunities for mutual listening and the gradual strengthening of trust. The Holy Spirit guides the Church not only through established norms, teachings, and offices but also through the hearts and consciences of the faithful who seek to follow Jesus in diverse contexts. This guidance is felt in an especially strong way when the people of God gather together in prayer, love, and humility. The Synod is about listening to one another so as to become better attuned to the voice of the Holy Spirit.
Some may fear that the synodal process forsakes the value of truth in favor of the goal of simply getting along. They may worry about a slide toward an unthinking relativism, in which no positions really matter because all are presumed valid so long as they can be couched in the language of “experience.”
However, this is not the intention of such gatherings. In his opening homily for the Synod on Synodality, Pope Francis echoed the words that his predecessor Pope John XXIII spoke at the start of the Second Vatican Council: “It is necessary first of all that the church should never depart from the sacred patrimony of truth received from the Fathers. But at the same time she must ever look to the present, to the new conditions and new forms of life introduced into the modern world which have opened new avenues to the Catholic apostolate.”
The Synod’s purpose is not to abandon truth but to pursue it with fresh energy, recognizing that it is both a gift already received and a great mystery still unfolding in new times and circumstances. The unending search for truth—the ever-renewed quest to understand what the Holy Spirit is really saying to the Church at this moment in its history—requires such a process of coming together. The listening spaces fostered by synodality are settings in which true judgments about important moral and spiritual issues have a chance to be heard and to shape collective action.
Many of these true judgments will emerge from situations of deep suffering. Some will come from persons who have been harmed by the Catholic Church. The fact that statements which express such harms can be challenging or controversial does not make them untrue. The fact that they are personal does not make them merely subjective. The fact that they push for social change does not mean they are against God’s will. It is inconsistent to proclaim that Christ is the truth (John 14:6) while refusing to hear and learn from the anguished people about whom he cares most deeply.
Survivors of clergy sexual abuse have devastating experiences and sharp moral judgments that need to be received and acted upon.
Indigenous communities that have suffered the violence of Church-sponsored colonialism, along with the particular horrors of residential schools, have knowledge(s) that the Church and world cannot do without.
Poor families and nations that are waiting for Catholic social teachings about solidarity to materialize as concrete socioeconomic change have important messages to communicate.
Persons who have gone through painful experiences of divorce only to have the reality of their lives not accepted by the Church have lessons to teach about the fragility of human relationships.
Loving same-sex couples have profound things to say about the meanings of divine and human love, as well as about the psychological and spiritual effects of hate and discrimination.
Black persons whose descendants were shackled and sold by Catholic individuals and institutions have wisdom to offer about the enduring effects of slavery.
Women whose gifts have been denied in the name of gender essentialist ideas that do not capture the complexity of human lives and vocations have prophetic words to speak.
Young people who long for a relationship with a loving God but feel pushed out of their religious traditions by reactionary political forces have experiential insights into the root causes of secularization.
This list of examples points to struggles prominent in the North American Church and other contexts. Many more examples of marginalized persons and groups that know whereof they speak exist all over the world. The Catholic Church needs to discern the truth that is in all of these voices, and it needs to be guided by that truth toward a social praxis more in keeping with the infinitely wise and compassionate ways of Christ.
The perspectives that come out of such contexts of suffering are not mere opinions or ideologies. They are windows into the brokenhearted places where the God of Christian faith prefers to dwell. They are indispensable sources for understanding how things appear to the loving gaze of Jesus. The saving truth to which Catholics aspire can only be received through face-to-face, heart-to-heart encounters with such human beings themselves.
Although true judgments may be heard in the Synod, it is admittedly an invitation not so much to judge as to understand. It is an experiment in patience. It asks: What will happen if a communal search for spiritual guidance begins not with top-down declarations but with a nonjudgmental welcome extended toward others’ voices, emotions, hopes, and bodily presence? The spirituality of listening aims at truth, but it journeys toward it by the circuitous route of an almost indiscriminate hospitality.
There are risks in this non-directive method. There are costs to hearing ignorant or violent utterances, which cannot be ruled out in such contexts. There is also the danger of a conversation that becomes such an end in itself that it generates no further action to address the root causes of suffering.
However, the reasons for hope outweigh the reasons for fear. The spirituality of listening is grounded in a theologically warranted belief that the Holy Spirit is active in such spaces, moving hearts and minds with a delicate yet awesome power that is difficult to describe. Although no one can be certain what will result from the current gathering in Rome, some may find encouragement, as I do, in Jesus’ words from the gospel: “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come” (John 16:13 NRSVue).