Listening

Fr. Charles O'Rourke
December 26, 2013

My world view and approach to mission work changed radically during my early years in Korea. Initially I thought I had the answers. I rigidly decided pastoral issues entirely according to the rules of Church law or, let’s say, my understanding of that law. This was before Vatican II so my attitude as regards my style of pastoral ministry was what was customary at that time. Listening was not my strong suit; I scored low on compassion and empathy in that first parish. In our introductory course to the language and culture of Korea there was little emphasis on being sensitive to and adapting to Korean culture. I was not identifying from my heart with the needs and wants of my parishioners.

After four years as assistant priest I was asked to go to an island parish which numbered over 2,000 parishioners. It was 1962, and the second Vatican Council was in session; Pope John XXIII was still alive. However the spirit of the Council had yet to have any impact on my life and work. And yet, despite my rigidity I was happy, and the people with whom I worked were understanding and accepting, probably for two reasons. First, they made allowances for me as a foreigner; second, Koreans have been culturally conditioned by centuries of hierarchical rule.

I was parish priest there for two years and had regular conversations about my approach to ministry with fellow Columban, Jack Roche. Fr. Jack urged me to be more flexible, listen, be less self-centered and go with the flow. At the time I did not change but prayed and thought about the matter constantly.

On leaving the parish I returned to the U.S. for home vacation, which was also a time to continue evaluating my approach to mission. After listening and reflecting on what I learned from Fr. Jack, plus my own experience of working with people, I knew that I had to change and be more flexible and listen to people’s needs, hurts, and sufferings, and celebrate their joyful times. It was only 1965, but the spirit of Vatican II was beginning to touch me. Of course this decision enriched me enormously. It gave me greater peace of mind and, in my heart, I felt happy and liberated. I began to see people as more important than rules and regulations, then [Jesus] said to them, “The sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” (Mk. 2:27)

I began to discover the importance of fostering a good relationship with my parishioners, which also helped me with my relationship with God. Dealing with people in their joys and sufferings helped me recognize the uniqueness of each person. I ceased to be merely a functionary and became one with those among whom I worked. I also learned to administer the Sacraments from the perspective of my parishioners’ needs rather from that of the law – the person trumps the law! I came to a deeper realization of how God loves each individual regardless of race, gender, creed, color or status in society. As a priest, I realized my duty was to facilitate what Christ came to do in our world – be a messenger in deed and word of the Good News of the Reign of God.

I was only 35 years of age when, with a renewed vision of my role as a missionary priest, I took on the task of establishing yet another parish. I set out to be welcoming and many young catechumens came to the parish and were eventually baptized. The church was unfinished so many joined in heavy manual work, leveling, building terrace walls, putting down gravel and concrete. I, too, joined in the work and used the parish vehicle and trailer to cart all the materials we needed. I was brought up on a farm and so was familiar with a variety of manual work and also working with machinery. In fact, I think I reverted to being my natural self and became more closely identified with my fellow parishioners. Working together like that helped us become a more unified and happy community. I was there for four years and then went on to do something similar in a third parish where I was confirmed in my belief that doing things with others and trying to be one with them allowed a lot of good things to happen. In three of the parishes that I worked in we began with 100 to 300 Catholics and within a period of four years the numbers grew to around 500 in the first parish, 1,000 in the second and 2,500 in the third.

In 1985, I was assigned to a Korean parish in Chicago, Illinois. There had been a serious misunderstanding in the parish, causing divisions, so my first task was to win the parishioners’ confidence. Every day for three to four months representatives of parish groups and other angry individuals visited me to speak about their perception of not being treated fairly and of not being represented adequately on the parish council and other administrative groups in the parish.

Day after day I listened, seeking to understand the situation (the details of which I do not feel free to explain here). Other than listen, all I could do was to pray and, believe me, I certainly did. I had never been challenged like this in my life. Then when those visits ceased I noticed that the atmosphere of hostility began to ease, but it took at least one year to become like the family spirit I had known in Korea. So, along with the power of prayer and the experience of being a good listener a lot of healing and reconciliation took place. Subsequently, during the following seven years that I continued to work in that parish, I became aware of God’s Spirit working in the community as it grew and flourished.

For me to listen to those around me meant that I was loving them. It was a way of treating my brothers and sisters with loving care, of offering them support and encouragement. I learned to accept that my wishes or my way might not always be the best way. Listening allowed me to put myself in the shoes of the other person, and so learn to be open and flexible. This in turn meant I contributed to the happiness of the world around me as well as my own, all of which brought peace and happiness into my daily routine.