Santa Clara Faith Formation Conference Envisions a Church of Encounter and Empathy, Joy...

Santa Clara Faith Formation Conference Envisions a Church of Encounter and Empathy, Joy and Renewal

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Photo courtesy of Jen Vazquez

By Joanna Thurmann

A morning of song, story, and prayer invited attendees of Santa Clara Faith Formation Conference at the Santa Clara Convention Center on November 30 to encounter the heart of Pope Francis and the people he holds dearest; the poor and vulnerable.

That encounter continued in a talk by Catholic Relief Services entitled “God Walks With Us: The Catholic Church’s Response to the Refugee Crisis.” Ken Preston of CRS said, “There are 65 million refugees around the world.” This is due in large part to the violence and conflict in the Middle East and Central America.

He stressed the distinction between migrants, who can choose to leave for economic reasons but are not compelled to do so, and refugees, who are forced to flee due to wars, drug violence, famine, climate change, and dire poverty.

These reasons are heightened by the pull factors that destine them for the US. This includes jobs, family reunification, human rights protections, and the pursuit of the American dream. But the toils that await them on the journey are many, from extortion and abuse to human trafficking. And they face many hardships once they arrive. Preston emphasized, “If people make this choice, they are not making it lightly.”

The CRS response to the crisis involves migrant services, development, and peacebuilding. And a number of immersion and educational programs help Catholics foster a sense of solidarity with migrants and refugees. As church, we connect through prayer, learning, giving, and advocacy.

The prerequisite, of course, is a deep sense of empathy for the plight of the suffering. “It is obvious that today’s world is in need of mercy and compassion, and the capacity for empathy,” said Pope Francis in a 2015 interview. Anne Kertz Kernion unfolded exactly what this means in her session on the spirituality and science of compassion. She leveraged her background in engineering, neuroscience, spirituality, and positive psychology.

“Compassion can be cultivated through listening, kindness, and Christian mindfulness. There are concrete habits of highly empathic people,” said Kernion. “We don’t have to be born with it.”

The word compassion comes from Latin roots meaning “to suffer with.” Through our willingness to suffer with another, we become connected.

That is the difference between empathy and sympathy. “Empathy is a choice to connect with something inside of myself that knows that feeling,” explained Kernion. All too often, we rush to the silver lining because suffering and silence are uncomfortable.

Put another way, “empathy is walking a hundred miles in someone else’s shoes. Sympathy is just being sorry that their feet hurt,” clarified Kernion.

To be compassionate, we need the capacity for mindful listening, for sitting with their pain and simply saying, “I am here for you.” Self-compassion is crucial, as well.

The great news is that this compassionate instinct is beneficial to both parties. It has a definitive biological basis and promotes mental health, reduces stress, increases longevity, and improves relationships.

But one thing that compassion does not require is grumpiness. This was the theme of a fourth session called “Becoming a Disciple of Joy and Mercy,” presented by Rev. Dr. Thomas A. Kane, CSP. He cited Pope Francis’s infectious smile, openness, and elation.

“Encountering Jesus is at the core of who we are; this is the source of our joy,” said Kane. “Those who invite him into their lives deepen their hope and enthusiasm.”

Thus, the authentic encounter with the most vulnerable must be met with the most empathy. And that must be sourced from the great joy of our encounter with Jesus. Encounter, empathy, and joy are our path toward church renewal.

Click here to see more photos from the SCFFC.