Talk to me

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.

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About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Catholic Herald columns, Church and Society, Pope Francis. Bookmark the permalink.

31 Responses to Talk to me

  1. Ann says:

    I agree. We ALL should listen to one another, rather than be “talked to” about faith, as I’ve grown in church, I find listening to the homilies gets alitte more difficult, depending on what is being preached about. I find they make me think, which I know thats some of what they are supposed to do, but I find I have questions to which I don’t get an answer, unless I confront the priest, which I wouldn’t do normally. I often imagine a Q&A’s part of mass lol.

  2. Peter D. Wilson says:

    Quentin – how right you are! A major cause of the Chernobyl disaster was the culture of secrecy under which the operating team brought in to run the fateful test did not understand the vulnerability peculiar to that kind of reactor; to admit it would be contrary to policy.

    After a recent deanery pastoral council meeting I commented on the futility of such occasions. Apparently the bishop required pastoral councils at parish and deanery level but would on no account have one for the diocese; consequently upward communication was blocked. I’m not sure that we should have had any constructive suggestions to offer, but it wasn’t even worth trying.

  3. Truthos says:

    As equal children of God I suppose we should all had as much freedom to discuss and make a difference as the next person. I suppose if we are to talk about the church in the context of an organisation it should work as a matrix organisation rather than a strict hierarchal structure where any message from the bottom will slow down and inevitably fizzle out before it gets anywhere near to the top. I know from personal experience that it is hard enough to get a letter past a bishop’s secretary, let alone any further.

    • Vincent says:

      I don’t know that I would go as far as a matrix organisation. St Paul uses the simile of a body, in which the several parts have different functions but in which all are needed and all are interdependent. Some of those parts are necessarily concerned with authority at different levels, others are concerned in witnessing the Christian life in the marketplace etc. So the parts are defined rather by function than by grades of superiority.

      Most businesses contain different functions: board of directors, managing director, executives at various levels, and operatives. Yet such businesses can vary greatly in their degree of communication and shared enterprise.

      Surely the Church should be aiming to be truly excellent in this latter respect.

  4. tyke says:

    There are two ways to inhibit communication. The first is to avoid talking. The second is to never stop. Unfortunately, many companies today take the second approach, using any available internet technology to compound the effect.

    • Quentin says:

      However, would it be possible for a diocese to host a discussion blog to provide an opportunity for subjects to be raised and a good discussion to take place? (Are any dioceses doing this?). The day to day running could well be in the hands of a lay person, but the bishop would need to raise some subjects and provide some messages. Contributors would need to register (perhaps log in) to establish their location in the diocese. They could use noms de blog if they wished.

      While Secondsightblog is not comparable of course, it has shown over several years that Catholics with a wide range of opinions can discuss issues of importance.

      It wouldn’t by any means be the only method of communication, but it could supplement others.

      • tyke says:

        Now there’s an interesting idea, though I don’t see the bishop himself as a moderator.

        The advantages of the blog/forum format is that information is made available rather than being forced on you. The user can go and look at it when they have time (and inclination) rather than being interrupted to react quickly to an e-mail or an instant message.

        As an example of information moving up the hierarchy, our diocese is in the middle of a ‘synodal initiative’… questionnaires were distributed to all Christians from November (just before the Vatican’s synod was announced). Church groups, associations, parishes have been meeting since then and sending back answers either as groups or individuals. These are now in the process of being collated, and will be analyzed and discussed in the next few months.

  5. Claret says:

    Test

  6. Quentin says:

    Posting too quickly?

    Dear Claret

    I am sorry you are experiencing the ‘you are posting too quickly’ problem. I have sent a test contribution, using your login, and it posted immediately.

    One or two others who have had the problem have got around it by using a different browser. Such problems, when they occur elsewhere, appear to be the result of a bug – which may have entered through your modem. This, the Telegraph expert tells me, is rather common.

    Try a free scan from http://www.malwarebytes.org/. It’s a well recommended program and I use the professional version – finding it useful.

    I am in the habit of copying my drafts before posting just in case.

    I am posting this note on the site for the use of others. Let me know how things go, please.

    Quentin

  7. I have had this problem and this is basically a test to see if it persists!

  8. Iona says:

    Just tried a post via Firefox. No good. Got “posting too quickly” message. Now trying Chrome.

    • Quentin says:

      But don’t forget Malwarebytes. See John Candido below. And see my post @ June 14, 8::36. The basic version is free. Your bug (if that is the cause) may still be present, ready to infect another browser. If you don’t wash regularly you start to smell if you don’t use an anti virus program weekly, your computer will start to ‘smell’ too!

      Windows Defender (free) is pretty good, and you can put it on to an automatic schedule. And Malwarebytes supplements this.

  9. Iona says:

    Ha! – and it works!

    That being so, I will try a comment on the subject under discussion.
    Is it reasonable to expect the Church to function like a business organisation? I don’t mean in a cynical “it’s just dysfunctional” way; I mean, after all it is not a business organisation nor indeed a hospital even though one of its functions is the healing of souls, so is it a useful comparison?

    • milliganp says:

      I work for the church and have seen widespread bullying and intimidation of staff, particularly secretaries and housekeepers in parishes; in this the church has displayed little knowledge of or care for employment law. Surely the church has the duty to be a decent employer?
      Similarly there are lots of “vocations” that are still capable of management. Teachers largely work alone in their individual classrooms but still have standards of behaviour, professional development and supervision. Volunteers in charity shops are subject to some form of organisation and supervision. I can’t see that the church is somehow exempt from the need for organisation, supervision and responsible behaviour.

    • Vincent says:

      I don’t think that we should assume that the Church is not subject to the same general characteristics as any other organisation. Even though we may hope to be personally sanctified through grace, what is being sanctified is our fallen human nature. And, Heaven knows, that’s a difficult task! So the whole Church from pope to people is full of ordinary folk, and liable to behave very much like ordinary folk..

      • tyke says:

        Very much so.
        Much of the administrative work in the Church is identical to any other organisation, commercial, charity or public. The Church must adhere to the principles of social justice in its own house in order to have any right to comment in the wider world without being accused of hypocrisy. And this must involve adhering to commonly accepted business ethics at the very least. (Which is starting to happen with Pope Francis pushing to clean up the financial institutions in the Vatican.)

        Speaking of social justice, I wonder how often the principal of subsidiarity is the cause of dysfunction. A sort of inverse Peter’s Principle : “Responsibility is pushed down towards the grass-roots until it reaches a level where no-one is competent to handle it”. That’s not a criticism of the principle itself but of one way in which it might be applied.

  10. John Candido says:

    I also have the professional version of ‘Malwarebytes’ and I would recommend it to anyone. The Windows browser comes with a free malware protector/scanner called ‘Windows Defender’. I use both daily.

  11. John Candido says:

    The Church must support workers, unions, and the right to strike under certain circumstances, private property, fair wages and just employment laws of the state. The Church must do all it can to minimise or eliminate bullying and/or intimidation for any of their employees. Since Rerum Novarum was promulgated by Pope Leo XIII on the 15th May 1891, there has been a long and distinguished history of social justice support for workers around the world, by the Roman Catholic Church. The very same traditions and concerns are continued by the Catholic Church to the present day.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rerum_Novarum

  12. Claret says:

    What I was trying to post when I was rudely informed I was posting too quickly was that ( back to communications here) at Deanery meetings a copy of the minutes always naturally go to the Bishop. The matter was raised as to why questions that were for the Bishop in the minutes that would clarify certain issues were never answered to which the answer was the bishop won’t answer them. Asked ‘Why not ?’ drew the answer the Bishop won’t answer !

  13. Claret says:

    Just to clarify that the ‘rudely informed’ is in relation to the cyber space ‘posting’ problem and not directed at an individual.
    Thanks for all the advice received on dealing with this problem. Seems OK now however but I am something of a novice in this area. Understanding how a watering can works is about my limit.

    • I have been using and programming computers since the 1950’s – and I haven’t the faintest idea why I was informed that I was posting too quickly!
      I suspect that there is a programming error in the WordPress software.

  14. John Candido says:

    I have had the continuing problem of not being able to receive any other contributor’s posts as an email to my inbox for years. I have complained about this on a number of occasions, all to no avail. WordPress is bloody hopeless! In addition, any post of mine has to start with word. I lose any contribution of mine if I were to start with WordPress because after clicking ‘Post Comment’, my post is lost and I have to start again. I know that I have already said this, but WordPress is bloody hopeless!

    • Quentin says:

      John, are you referring to any Word Press blog, or just to Second Sight?

      My experience has been that when contributors raise a difficulty with me – and this is very rare – the difficulty is almost always a problem at their end.

      I of course always receive emails of new posts, but then I am logged in as Administrator. Such emails always contain the contributor’s email, which is of course confidential.

      Do others receive email copies of those responding to their contribution?

      • Peter D. Wilson says:

        I seem to get the posts generally without trouble, provided that, when requesting notification by e-mail after a comment of my own, I have ticked both boxes.

  15. John Candido says:

    I think that my problems are for any blog using WordPress. Granted that whenever a person complains to you about some technical issue, it is usually found to be at the complainants end. I am at a loss as to what to do about my technical problems with WordPress/SecondSight.

    • I have had no problems with WordPress – when I tick the box to be notified of further comments I get them, no problem.

      The only exception is this business of being informed that I was “posting too quickly”!

      On reflection the following may be the explanation :- I usually compose comments in a text editor and then, when I am satisfied, copy the whole comment, paste it into the ‘response’ area and press the ‘Post Comment’ button, Perhaps it takes the WordPress system a little while to parse through the text and then respond to the ‘Post Comment’ command.

      I’ll see what happens with this comment.

      • No real problem – took quite a while to respond!

      • Quentin says:

        That may be the solution, although I follow your practice. Useful of course because one is likely to have the text in temporary memory if something goes wrong.

        I am given to understand that some blog programs deliberately use a ‘cache’ system to provide a margin of delay in order to foil automatic blogging operations.

        Incidentally, it is sometimes useful to google the problem, citing WordPress. Others may have had, and cured, the same problem.

    • Quentin says:

      Well we certainly con’t do without your comments, so please persist!

      Have you tried using different browsers? I keep Firefox, Chrome and IE ready for swapping. I will also try my wife’s computer and, if necessary, a friend’s computer using a different ISP. This helps me locate the location of the problem.

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