A two-fold approach to listening to survivors

4 mins read
Bishop McElroy
San Diego Bishop Robert W. McElroy chats with attendees arriving for a public gathering Oct. 1, 2018, at Our Mother of Confidence Parish Hall in San Diego. Bishop McElroy conducted one of several sessions to the public about the issue of clergy sexual abuse. (OSV News photo/David Maung)

What does it mean to listen to survivors of abuse? It’s something that the Church repeatedly and emphatically calls us to do. But the call to listen is in danger of becoming an empty slogan if we do not take the time to stop and think about what, exactly, this listening involves. To help us, we can look to two places: the science of trauma and Pope Francis’ spirituality of accompaniment. Together, science and spirituality can deepen and inform our ministry of listening to survivors.

I first began thinking about this topic when I stopped to reflect on my experience of talking about past trauma, and how it fit — or did not fit — with my understanding of the call to listen to survivors.

When I heard the words ‘listen to survivors of abuse,’ I tended to imagine a formal, structured process: somebody working through a neat, clean-cut narrative from beginning to end, and somebody else simply receiving it. But then it occurred to me that I had never done such a thing myself, and for many years would have been incapable of doing so.

This is not to say such conversations never happen; far from it. But I knew that it was possible to struggle for many years to talk about trauma directly, and then only find direct words for it with the help of others. I know very many good, trustworthy, loving listeners, but their role in my life has not been just to listen to the words I had to say. Instead, they have had to help me discover those words in the first place.

Understanding trauma through neuroscience

Am I abnormal? Neuroscience suggests that — in this area, at least — I am not. Traumatic memories differ from non-traumatic memories because of how they are formed within the brain, in ways that have repercussions for how they can be retrieved and spoken about.

Memory-making is a team effort: one part of the brain, the amygdala, processes the emotional effect of the event and its perceived threat level without reference to time or situational context; another, the hippocampus, regulates this work by introducing meaning, context and a sense of time and place to the emotional imprints.

But trauma — the experience of having our psychological and physical coping mechanisms stretched beyond their capacity — disrupts this normal memory-making process. As a result, memories of trauma are often fragmented, disjointed and composed primarily of physical and emotional sensations that are difficult to contextualize or understand.

Integrating these memories into the story of ourselves is a gradual, often arduous process. It usually takes place in the context of a relationship with a medical or counseling professional, spiritual director or spouse. The process will not necessarily begin by confronting the past directly; instead, it might begin by talking about the emotional difficulties and physical triggers experienced in the present, and gradually building the courage and confidence to go backward from there.

In short, most survivors will have a lot of work to do before they are at the stage where they can speak out loud what has happened to them — and it will be work that, in the vast majority of cases, will only happen in the context of a relationship characterized by love, patient understanding and trust.

Spirituality of accompaniment

What does this mean for us as Catholics, called not only to psychological healing but to the heights of holiness? We can “baptize” these lessons of neuroscience, and put them at the service of Christian discipleship with the help of Pope Francis and his spirituality of accompaniment.

From the very beginning of his pontificate, Pope Francis has emphasized the importance of walking alongside others, in all the mess and confusion of human experience, in order to guide them slowly and gently toward Christ. In his 2013 apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, the Holy Father described this as the “art of accompaniment” — an art which calls for “prudence, understanding, patience and docility to the Spirit,” and which goes hand-in-hand with “the art of listening, which is more than simply hearing.”

Then, in a general audience last year, the pope reminded us that “one does not go to the Lord by oneself,” which is why it is “essential to be part of a journeying community” of accompaniers.

In between these times, the 2020 Directory for Catechesis introduced the pope’s spirituality of accompaniment into its description of evangelization and catechesis. It reminded catechists, and all who work in parish ministry, that “the accompaniment of a person on a journey of growth and conversion is necessarily marked by gradualness, in that the act of believing implies a progressive discovery of the mystery of God.” To that, we can add the discovery of the mystery of the human person made in God’s image.

In his spirituality of accompaniment, Pope Francis emphasizes the importance of long-term personal relationships in which our interactions are not merely functional and didactic but marked by patient loving-kindness. For me, this perfectly describes the kind of relationships in which trauma can be processed and — eventually — spoken of.

Listening as a gradual, mutual process

Nowadays, when I think of “listening to survivors,” I imagine a slow, gradual and, above all, mutual process, uncovering a story of suffering that was once wholly beyond words. It is a process that I, and others I know, have experienced personally, and which our modern scientific understanding of trauma tells us is the normal way by which stories of abuse are brought to light. It is the art of accompaniment, which the Holy Father has called us to make an essential part of our Christian discipleship.

We can answer the Church’s call to listen to survivors by learning this art of accompaniment, informed by the science of trauma. That way, we will understand that the first stage of listening will probably involve no words at all, but instead simply the building of a relationship for its own sake. And we will remember the reason why we listen: not to prove a point, inform a policy or tick a box, but to lead others into deeper communion with Christ.

Sister Carino Hodder

Sister Carino Hodder is a Dominican Sister of St. Joseph based in the Portsmouth Diocese, UK.