Tending to the Heart

How to listen with a fragile heart that is full of concern

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RaabIn January, at the conclusion of the Christmas season, a pastor’s heart that has held confessional secrets in Advent and that has preached the beauty of the Incarnation needs care and attention. Tending a pastor’s heart requires meticulous patience. Our pastoral hearts may border on empty as we flip the calendar to another year. We need a few moments to catch our breath and realize the grace that pumps wildly in our hearts.

Years ago, as a young priest, I experienced Christmas Day as the loneliest day of the year. When Masses were completed, and when I had spent my voice and heart preaching the incarnate love of Jesus Christ, I locked the doors of the church at 1 p.m. and wondered what to do next. It took me years to surrender to such a day and season as Christmas, especially in my ministry among people in poverty where no person possessed what they desired at Christmas. Only over the course of years did I discover love in the folds of God’s heart and in the beauty of my vocation. I admit, however, Christmas was not easy. I felt the Incarnation was for everyone but me.

On Jan. 1, we celebrate Mary, the Mother of God. In Luke 2:16-21, Mary pondered the mystery of her vocation and the love of Jesus in her heart. She invites us to ponder the loneliness of our people, the ill health of our parishioners and the grief of people who have confided in us. She helps us mend our outpouring of care for our people. She took the suffering and the beauty of Jesus to heart, and she helps us do the same. I have found over the years much comfort in Mary’s heart of care and consolation. She is a source of grace for us who listen attentively to the needs of our people.

We need Mary to help us heal. Mary’s pondering heart takes us a lifetime to understand. Her care for us is not ultrapious or old fashioned. At Christmas, we hear about the obstacles to family life. Forbidden truths blurt themselves out to loved ones, the grief of cancer diagnosis or the change of a career path of a college student home for break. For a pastor, Christmas is a wild time, untamable and surprising, as the secret lives of our people are told to us.

Mary’s heart helps us approach our people with care. We cannot be strident or judgmental in the Christmas season, for people seek us out because they cannot bear the news of a daughter’s abortion or the pending divorce of a son just a year after marriage. They approach us because life is difficult when a teen has been in an auto accident or a husband’s mother-in-law is now living with dementia. Providing sharp answers is not our job. Listening with love is worth more than gold. Mary caresses our hearts. She also holds our people’s hearts in God’s healing.

At Christmas, many families articulate their divisive opinions and political stances. Sometimes, love causes riffs, hurts and disappointments. As pastors, we must also be careful not to come down sharply with answers that divide loved ones or members of families. Listening is an art form that needs care, thoughtfulness and prudence, most especially during the Christmas season. Christmas is not the time for rigidity in sessions where personal anguish is admitted and discussed. The heart of a pastor must be tempered by love, openness and warmth. Sin must be moderated with mercy and hope. The hardness of a pastor’s heart must be soothed by the tenderness of our Mother’s imagination.

A few years ago, I learned that a valve in my heart is deformed, most likely since birth. With this new awareness, I have done much spiritual work to find out what is in my own heart. I have drawn closer to the love of Jesus Christ. I listen more attentively. I speak more deliberately. Now, Christmas resides in me with a new beauty and love, and I am not worried about how I am going to spend Christmas Day. I know that when people confide in me, I have much more to offer them. Of course, I get tired and distracted. However, I am here to listen with a fragile heart that is full of concern. Mary’s “yes” gives me hope all during the year. I don’t have answers, but I can walk with people into realizing that the Incarnation lies deep within them, and that love is truly a gift of God.

FATHER RONALD PATRICK RAAB, CSC, is the former pastor of Sacred Heart Church, Colorado Springs, Colorado.

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