Over a hundred years ago, a small group of Irish priests working in China decided they needed to listen to what God wanted them to do. I think it is amazing that they would expect God to speak to them. How can you listen to someone unless they speak to you? These men had the desire to live according to what God wanted and must have known from past experience that, if they prayed and listened to God, they would be able to discover God’s wish for them. We call this the process of discernment.
They came together and decided they would make a novena. They set aside nine days of prayer during which they asked God to help them decide whether they would go back to Ireland and set up the Columban Mission Society. By the end of the nine days, they must have been fairly convinced that God was calling them to do precisely this. To confirm their thinking, one man suggested they ‘cut the Bible’. This was a custom in his family when faced with such decisions. They opened the Bible and Joshua 1:6 read, “Be strong and stand firm.”
We can learn a lot from this experience. Notice that there is no mention of Ireland in the text from Joshua! There was no clear directive from God, but these words touched something within their hearts, within their spirits, at that time. It was the Spirit of God within them that spoke through the experience of reading that verse. We’ve all had that experience. We can be reading the Gospel or hear it being read at Mass, and a few words touch us strongly. We may have heard that verse many times before, but passed over it. On that specific day, however, it has an impact on us. God is speaking to us through our experience of the text.
If we are not paying attention to the response within ourselves, we will miss what God is trying to communicate to us. We need to listen to our own responses in order to listen to what God wants to say to us. Maybe God wants to tell us that we are loved. Maybe God is gifting us with encouragement at this difficult time, or we are being urged to reach out to someone else. God’s desire is to reach out in love to every person and everything. The Spirit of God has been poured into our hearts, so we have the same desire. We have the same mission.
God speaks to us in many, many ways. We believe that the Spirit of God is leading the Church. We believe that Jesus is the Good Shepherd who guides his flock. We have many images that speak of the whole Church, the local community, or a group of Christians gathered together as being under the guidance and protection of God. When we look to the New Testament and especially in the Acts of the Apostles, we see how the Spirit leads Christian communities in mission. Here, God is not just speaking to an individual or a small group; the whole community is listening to what the Spirit has to say. As the Spirit is working through every individual, it is important to listen to what each person has to say. What the quietest person in the room says may be exactly what the group needs to hear.
If we read how the early Christians gathered in Jerusalem for the first synod, we can see how they listened to God. In the letter they sent to the Christians in Antioch, they say, “It has been decided by the Holy Spirit and by ourselves…” Obviously, the people in the synod discussed the issue. They thought about it. They reflected on their experiences and tried to address the issue of what Jewish practices the new Christian converts from non-Jewish religions should follow. In other words, the people in the synod had to use their normal, God-given talents of thinking, remembering, and debating, along with inspiration from the Holy Spirit to come to their conclusions.
It is the same for us as individuals and as members of the Church. We want to be able to say, “It has been decided by the Holy Spirit and by us…” We can only do this by listening deeply to what other people are saying. We also have to listen deeply to what is happening within ourselves and to what we believe the Spirit is saying. Listening is critical to mission.
Fr Trevor Trotter
Regional Director of Oceania
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