Some years ago I visited a very successful company, which was a competitor of mine. My object was to talk to the top man to discover what he was getting right. But I had my answer from the commissionaire before I had even entered the lift to the executive floor. Being a few minutes early I had asked this gentlemen about the company, and I received an enthusiastic account of its aims and values; it was identical to the message I was to receive from the top man some minutes later. Commissionaires are usually on the fringes of an organisation, a kind of servant class, but I realised immediately that this was a shared community which thrived on internal communication and respect.
I should not have been surprised. Work has been done, in hospitals for example, showing that internal communication is so often the key to success. In these, the internal communication goes upwards as well as downwards. And it goes sideways — so that different disciplines work together in common cause. The staff stay, and only the patients leave – since they tend to heal quicker in the benign environment.
In my last column, I identified communication as one of the two major factors which have to be got right in order for the Church to develop its culture in tune with Pope Francis’s vision. We should not be surprised that the Church is bad at communication; its history and structure puts it at immediate disadvantage. For most of its existence it has consisted of powerful top layers looking down on a large and uneducated laity. And even its relations with the educated, and thus powerful, have been tense and competitive. Real communication has been pointless or dangerous.
Of course there has been a great deal of downward communication. We should expect that. But upward communication has been distinguished by its absence. Really listening to the body of the Church, and understanding how people feel, and the needs they express, is hazardous. There is a danger that one might have to face up to truths which are best ignored – there is even the possibility of mutiny. At the very least it involves acceptance that the Spirit which bloweth where it listeth may not always confine itself to the mitred head.
Changing the nature of communication in an organisation depends on its leadership; it is unlikely to come from below. And here Francis has started off in the right way. He has been prepared to give informal, perhaps even spontaneous, messages. We are not expected to salute them as settled doctrine but as thoughts on which we are commended to reflect. The light touch sets us free to respond.
Some have suggested that his readiness to pick up a telephone and reply to “inconsequential” members of the laity is no more than a stunt. He can’t reply to every caller. On the contrary, it is a gesture full of meaning. It tells us, loud and clear, that the thoughts of every one are important, and that every one needs to be listened to. Christian concern is best expressed in individual encounter rather than in a general cloud of goodwill.
The survey of opinion on the Church and the family, in preparation for the Synod, provides an historic example. Leaving aside its incompetent drafting (evidence of the Church’s inexperience of consultation), it is a truly hopeful sign. And the response of some hierarchies in summarising the answers complements this. But from the heights of the Vatican down to the parish priest’s listening ear, two-way communication and two-way listening is the essential first factor in building community.
But we must be wary. There are problems to face. Opening the floodgates to communication releases many years of built up frustration. From those who have thought long and hard, to those for whom contention with authority has become a way of life, to those (whose fervent messages often find their way into my mailbox) who are distinctly odd, the new opportunity will be one they seize. It would be a pity if such an initial maelstrom simply confirmed to authority that listening is a dangerous waste of time. Yes, time is spent – and it always will be; listening takes time, and humility – but it is rarely wasted.
Many were, I’m sure, shocked by the widespread disconnection in the matter of the Church’s attitudes towards sexuality and the family, as expressed in the Synod survey responses. They may even feel that the Church has been pushed up against the wall by allowing such views to be publicised, since they cannot now be ignored. But all would be lost if such fears inhibited other areas of investigation. We should remember that, whenever a person knows he has really been listened to, he becomes more open to listening in turn to the response.
There are of course other obstacles to be encountered in enabling Francis’s leadership to be incarnated in permanent change – notably the issue of subsidiarity. I will look at this in my next column. But I have started with communication because, without this, nothing further can happen. In a successful hospital, management, consultants, doctors, nurses, skivvies and patients all need to communicate and listen in order to share the joint enterprise of healing. In a successful Church, pope, Vatican, cardinals, bishops, priests and lay folk all need to communicate and listen in order to share the joint enterprise of salvation. There is no other way.