By Robert Legato
Many years ago, I was in school in Belgium. Belgians speak two native languages: Flemish and French. The choice of an official language for an area sometimes hinged on the last election. The city where we lived had just had an election, and street signs were being changed. Thus, Avenue des Allies became Bondgenotenlaan.
As my wife and I settled in, we learned that Belgians took our choice of language quite personally. I was fairly proficient in French, but my wife knew neither language. I was “excused” for speaking French, but a few storekeepers wanted my wife to speak Flemish. Although most knew English, some would rather lose a sale in their establishment than speak anything but Flemish.
Yes, language can be a bridge or a stumbling block.
Years later, I was involved in RCIA in our parish. People inquiring about the Catholic Church come from many different disciplines and backgrounds; thus their language about “God stuff” varied accordingly. I delighted in learning their “language,” and trying to explain the Church’s teachings in that idiom. But these were folks who, generally speaking, were anxious to learn the Catholic language.
I found a whole different challenge in learning to converse as a chaplain with folks who might or might not be receptive to me. During my CPE days in a Catholic hospital in northern Philadelphia, I entered a patient’s room and announced that I was the chaplain. His reply was swift: “So, you’re the chaplain, eh? Well, don’t be giving me any of that God [stuff]!”
It took me but a minute, I am proud to say, to reply: “Okay, then, how about them Phillies?” He laughed, and we got along fine in that and subsequent visits. I learned from his following questions that he was actually quite interested in that God stuff, and I like to think I gave him some comfort in his final hours.
Why, then, did he startle me with his opening salvo? I think it was because he didn’t want to hear my spiel; he wanted to talk in his language.
If there is one lesson I learned early on, it is to LISTEN before attempting to speak. On a few occasions I forgot this principle and have regretted it. I recall one woman who had brought her mother into our hospice. In our early conversation, she indicated her sorrow at losing her mother. Without hesitation, I replied, “God is calling her home.” She turned fully toward me with an angry countenance: “You mean this is God’s doing? God is responsible? Get out!” I did, humbly and sorrowfully.
What had I done wrong? I had not listened to her sorrow and pain. I knew nothing of her relationship to God, or afterlife, or Divine Providence. I assumed that my mention of God would bring her comfort; I mean, the thought that my own mother died and went home to God is very comforting – to me! I’m ashamed to offer that this happened after some ten years in hospice chaplaincy. I knew better. But I just flew past what this good woman was trying to convey in order to share my own view of the situation. Who cares?!
CPE 101: MEET THE PERSON WHERE THEY ARE. Said another way, learn the language they speak! Respect their position, whether it conforms to yours or not!
Recently, a family member discussed her sister’s abject grief over the death of her husband, some weeks ago. Unable to rally, the widow simply lies in her bed, crying copious tears. The sister asked whether she should be “getting over it.” I offered that there is no “should” in such situations; that her sister could only act as she is able. Other family members offered suggestions such as grief support groups (“she’s not into that”). I don’t know what specific suggestions I could offer other than what I did: listen to her, hear her grief.
For it is in listening that we learn what needs to be said.
Oh, and one last thing: pray for the Holy Spirit to guide you. I have entered many a sick-room with no idea of what to say; but in leaving, I have silently thanked God for that guidance.
Robert Legato, BCC, is a retired hospice chaplain in Tuscon, AZ.