By Fran Lavelle
Prior to moving to Mississippi in 1999 to serve as the campus minister at Mississippi State, I was a lay missioner with the Glenmary Sisters, headquartered in Owensboro, Kentucky. I was missioned in Providence, Kentucky from 1996-1999.
I recently found out that one of the Glenmary Sisters, Sister Kathleen Mulchrone passed away. She was born in Ireland but came to the States in the 1950s. She served in active ministry as a Glenmary Sister for 61 years and retired in 2019. She was in her 90s.
I was reflecting on my time in Kentucky and in particular the influence Sister Kathleen had on my ministry and my life. During my orientation one of the things the sisters underscored repeatedly was the importance of the ministry of presence. That is that no matter where you are or what you are doing you are called to be present to the people surrounding you and environment you are in. A good Glenmarian always came back from the post office with more than mail. Not only would they be present to the people who were in the post office, but they would pick up the news of the day from postal workers as well. This is especially effective in rural communities. More often than not they would hear of someone in the community who was sick, or someone who lost their job, and good news like the birth of a baby or engagement. The post office is not the only place where a ministry of presence can happen. It happens anywhere and everywhere. It is an intentional disposition. It is the art of listening and hearing what is happening to the people around you. Sister Kathleen was masterful at the ministry of presence.
I remember my days in youth ministry, the most challenging but privileged time during our time together was at the end of the night when the kids voiced their prayer petitions. One can learn a lot about what’s going on in the lives of the people around them when they are present and listen. In his 2016 book, The Name of God Is Mercy, Pope Francis opines, “People are looking for someone to listen to them. Someone willing to grant them time, to listen to their dramas and difficulties. This is what I call the ‘apostolate of the ear,’ and it is important.” What we vocalize in prayer speaks of our hopes and dreams and also our grief and worries.
Listening and presence are greatly missing in the public forum today. More often than not people listen to respond or do not listen at all. We all can recall a time when someone was speaking to us and the whole time, we were having our own conversation in our head about what we needed from the grocery store. In the church, especially today, a lack of intentional listening and presence is deadly. People, especially young people want to be seen, valued and heard. For Jesus, intentional listening and a ministry of presence sum up the whole praxis of accompaniment. We have all heard the saying, “Meet people where they are.” It can be a bit slogan-ish, but in practice is the very place where meaningful ministry begins. How can we help people grow in their faith if we do not understand where they are with their faith?
Amelia Rizor is the coordinator for the Office of Young Adults and Campus Ministry for the diocese. She has put together two men’s basketball teams for a Jackson area young adult basketball league. On the occasion of the two Catholic teams competing against one another Amelia invited Bishop Kopacz and I to attend the game with her. We did. It was loads of fun. But, perhaps the most impactful part of the evening was at the end of the game a player on another team recognized Bishop Kopacz and spoke to him. In that brief encounter he told us that he was not Catholic but had been to Mass on several occasions. He also said that he has been thinking about becoming Catholic. That brief exchange was an example of the ministry of presence and why it’s so important. We cannot be present to others if we remain behind our desks or on our phones. We cannot share the apostolate of the ear if we are not in places where people need to be heard.
This Easter season I encourage you to slow your pace and look around you for opportunities to exercise the ministry of presence and the apostolate of the ear. Take in a local sporting event or go out for coffee after Mass. In listening to the needs of others, you just might discover something about yourself.
(Fran Lavelle is the Director of Faith Formation for the Diocese of Jackson.)