As a newly ordained priest in Japan I lived in a parish with a Columban colleague who was the pastor. On weekdays I attended language school, while at weekends I helped out in small ways with various parish activities. Major limitations in listening and speaking Japanese meant that I could not celebrate Mass in public, participate in meetings, or lead catechetical programs. Indeed, I frequently experienced communication problems in everyday conversation.
My evenings were usually spent, therefore, learning new vocabulary, listening to audio cassettes and practicing writing a different script. However, from time to time the pastor would knock on my bedroom door to ask me to assist with something or other that he himself could not do because of other commitments.
On a number of occasions his request to me was to meet with someone who had walked in off the street and wanted to consult with a priest about a personal or family problem. Such persons were not Christian, but since there was no one else to whom they could unburden their heart, they came to the church in the hope of fi nding a listening ear and guidance about how to go forward with their life.
I dreaded meeting such persons as I could not imagine how I could be of any help to them. However while we sipped green tea together, I tried to show interest in their story by my posture, and strained my ears in the hope that I would understand a few phrases. Despite such efforts, I was able to comprehend only a tiny fraction of their story. During moments of silence I simply nodded, or repeated a phrase that I had understood, or used a common expression, such as, ‘How terrible!’ I felt very inadequate and embarrassed.
The other person, however, seemed not to notice my defi ciency, but was content to simply share their story without any interruption or question. As they spoke, and sometimes cried, I noticed their posture became more relaxed and their facial expression gradually brightened. When they stood up to leave they thanked me profusely for my hospitality, for taking the time to listen, and for helping them fi nd a way forward through their diffi culties. Such gratitude made me feel like a fraud!
Later, when my ability to communicate in Japanese improved I had similar encounters. I was then able to ask questions and offer advice. However, I noticed that I was no longer listening so attentively and that I talked too much. I realized that rather than allowing the person to fi nd their own answers, I tried to provide them with my solutions. In short, I had become a lot less effective in my ministry!