Posted on April 19, 2020 15:08 Article Rating

Compassionate Listening- An Act to Bring God's Mercy

Today, April 19:  Divine Mercy Sunday!  Blessings to you, our dear friend, St. Faustina!   I would like to share about the value and importance of being present to someone with mental illness (MI). We embody the Mercy of God when we offer ministry to those with mental illness. The image to the right is the faces from our Icon Merciful Mother of the Mentally Ill (MMOMI). What better is to view Our Lord Jesus and His Blessed Mother Mary and model ourselves after them as our act of Compassion and Mercy? We must be a compassionate listening presence to our brothers and sisters. This is why I quote a pastoral letter and mention the following in the 2020 newsletter: Every human being is psychologically wounded by the effects of original sin: Not one of us is entirely free from periods of anxiety, emotional distress or troubling thoughts. This awareness should dispel attitudes of stigmatization and marginalization. Recognizing that the experience of serious and chronic MI is unique and should not be trivialized.  Ministry to those with MI is one of “Presence”.  Yes! Being present with one another. Many years I have offered spiritual groups and support to patients on the psychiatric unit where I am the hospital chaplain. There needs to be a spirit of welcome and not a spirit of shunning... I would add compassionately listening. (see 2020 newsetter: Reflections from Ministering to those with MI).

Jesus and Mary We Trust in You!

God Bless! Tim Duff

Deacon Tom Lambert, whom I cite in the newsletter, has been in touch with me personally. He has expounded on this theme of "compassionate listening" under his title: "Holy Listening". See below:

HOLY LISTENING by Deacon Tom Lambert, Archdiocese of Chicago

Holy listening, that is, listening in the context of the healing presence of God, means hearing what a person tells us and letting their story unfold at their pace. It affirms a person’s dignity and value. Their story is a sacred story. We respond and react to their story in a non-judgmental way with an unconditional love for the person. Holy listening allows and encourages people to relate their experiences in a supportive atmosphere that leads to comfort and healing. Holy listening brings one to a richer understanding of God’s unconditional love for us through our acceptance of one another. It leads to a mutuality of understanding that allows the person who is ministering to another to begin to see that they are being ministered to as well. This supportive process leads to solidarity and mutuality that enriches faith and hope. The listener also becomes the learner and both journey the path together to wholeness and holiness. We are not leading or following each other we are walking side by side. 

Such mutuality of understanding creates an environment that gives a person “permission” to tell their story, which they may otherwise feel too uncomfortable or too embarrassed or too stigmatized to tell. It’s about creating a safe place for people to share their story.

When someone comes to share their story of joy or pain it is a very intimate conversation. We should not intrude on their story except for clarifications. Gradually the trust level is built and the conversations deepen.

People come to us searching for answers, finding the why in suffering, what did I do wrong, is God punishing me, does God listen to me?  We know illness does not come from God, and God loves us unconditionally. However it can take time for us to come to a better understanding of that. Healing takes time so we do not rush. We allow the healing process to unfold.

Listening with a sense of sacredness for the person’s life makes the sharing a Holy experience,  God’s healing presence. It is their story. It allows for healing and over time trust to build.


First - We are accompanying people and are not counselors. We are not mental health professionals who treat the symptoms of mental illness just as we are not oncologists who discuss remedies for a person with cancer. We are spiritual friends and companions who journey in faith with those who are in need or suffering and often isolated by their illness. Praying with and for people with mental illnesses and their families is very important. How do we know God loves us ? In a very tangible way it is when we show our love for one another.

Second - When interacting with people with a mental illness we need to recognize that each person has dignity, each person has gifts, each person has a unique relationship with God.

Sometimes we are helping the person discover or bring to light the gifts they have. People w/MI live in a society that often looks down on them, or make them feel inadequate, yet I have discovered what people with mental illness can teach us about life and what gifts they have is amazing.

Third - We need to recognize in ourselves any preconceived negative images and prejudices we may have toward people with mental illnesses. Acknowledging this to ourselves will improve the ability to communicate with the person with the mental illness.

Fourth - It is natural to want to problem solve, but listening is not problem solving. Holy listening should be supportive and affirming. Many people have poor images of themselves again due to stigma. We have an opportunity to reaffirm their goodness and their dignity.

Fifth - People with mental illness should not be defined by the disease they have but by the person they are. When we start labeling people as a disease, we see them as problems rather than a person. It is important to separate the illness and symptoms from the person.

Sixth - Each illness carries with it symptoms that may affect how people interact with us and we with them. The intensity and severity of the illness impacts one’s ability to communicate. Mental illness can affect a person’s ability to think sequentially, to manage emotions or mood swings, and to be in relationship with others. Medications can present the same communication hurdles.

Understanding the symptoms of the particular mental illness of the person will help us to better communicate, minister, advocate, and pray with people with mental illness. For example, someone with depression may seem uninterested or distant. That is a symptom to be recognized but not indicative of the person they are outside the illness. A person with schizophrenia may hear voices or experience hallucinations which are very real to them and is their reality. It is important not to deny that they are experiencing those symptoms and that you are willing to learn more about what they are going through. A person who has a panic disorder may be uncomfortable in Church or at meetings so it is important to be sensitive to the person’s need for space or need to get up and move around.

Seventh - Boundaries are an important part of listening. Setting limits on how often and how long one can meet will lead to more productive meetings. As family and friends we need to care for ourselves if we are to be effective caregivers for one anther. We need to care for ourselves in order to be caregivers.

As we listen to a person’s story, an individual may begin to name specific needs – shelter, medical help, food, transportation, counseling, clothing, financial assistance. A companion could become quickly exhausted and overwhelmed trying to meet all of a person’s needs. But we are companions not providers of services. Our role as companions is to support a person in finding resources in the community and building an ongoing circle of care.

Eighth - Journaling is important tool both for the person who has the mental illness and the person who is companioning that person. Journaling gives us a sense of where we have been and where we are going. That way we can build on what has been discussed.

Ninth - Understand that Holy Listening is a process that takes time. We have to be committed for the long haul as mental illnesses are often chronic and persistent.

Tenth - Always have a sense of Hope that is rooted in Christ message to us all. The joy of life is knowing we are loved by God and one another. We are a people of the resurrection, the joyful expression of the outcome of Christ’s suffering. Rather than being imprisoned by suffering we can know true joy when we use our suffering to help others. The experience we have helping others can lighten the load others are experiencing.   

Source: Deacon Tom Lamberts personal notes: 

Deacon Tom Lambert of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish, 708 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago, has done outreach around the topic of mental illness for many years, on both the local and national levels. (Karen Callaway/ Chicago Catholic)

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