(In) sensitivity to suffering

When Mgr Keenan of Mississauga, Ontario, extolled the “good done” done in residential schools in Canada, a huge outcry followed. His homily’s timing show­ed insensitivity at a particular moment in Canada: the discovery of massive burial sites with unmarked graves of hundreds of children from residential schools that received First Nations children in the 1900s.

Since then, Mgr Keenen has resigned his post as pastor, and the Toronto archdiocese has apologised for the “pain caused by his recent remarks”. More than the content of the comments, it was the relative ill-timing of the remarks at a time of raw anger and grief that rankled.

Lest we think this story is far from our shores, we also need to remember that Malta too has its small sad slice of this sordid story. Between 1950 and 1965, 310 children were sent from Malta to Australia in similar residential structures: some of the children recount harrowing experiences of extreme forms of labour and all kinds of abuse. Governments are on record apologising for the suffering caused to this generation of children. Last week’s article in this section by Fr Alfred Micallef about this subject amply covered the need for acknowledgement and repentance.

Listening is not only about hearing content, but also about keeping ears to the ground for context, nuance, subtlety, and complexity.

For this to happen, a deep sense of empathy and sensitivity is needed. In the Archdiocese of Malta this year marks the first step in a four-year pastoral plan with the theme for this year being ‘A Church that listens’. Here is a clear invitation to truly listen to the pain and suffering being expressed in cases being dug up from the graves of our past systemic failures. Listening is not only about hearing content, but also about keeping ears to the ground for context, nuance, subtlety, and complexity. The plan quotes the Pope’s Evangelii Gaudium: “We need to practise the art of listening, which is more than simply hearing. Listening, in communication, is an openness of heart which makes possible that closeness without which genuine spiritual encounter cannot occur.” (EG 171).

When does a will to educate become oppressive? As Christians with a message, we tend to jump to the answers before we hear the questions. One of the hardest things to do is to sit in someone’s woundedness without saying a word. It’s easy to be in­sensitive, intolerant and downright offensive. Locally we have had our own incendiary Te Deums and other intransigent interventions showing anything but sensitivity to nuance and context.

This does not mean abdicating the truths we hold dear in our faith, or simple kowtowing to extreme forms of political correctness. The Pope has led the way in this, never shying away from addressing pressing concerns in the world without being insensitive or dismissive. Whether by sending a personal note to a Jesuit priest working with the LGBTQ community or arguing for the value of life without being incongruently militant, he strikes a delicate balance bet­ween the Gospel imperatives and a sensitivity to the present. When listening is done well, there is a better chance for reconciliation, dialogue and journeying to happen.

The article first appeared in Times of Malta on Sunday, July 4, 2021.