The Need for Empathy
Ministry is rooted in being present with those who are suffering
Perhaps one of the most essential qualities of diaconal ministry is the gift of empathy. In its most basic sense, empathy concerns the ability to recognize and enter into the experience of another. The term is grounded in the Greek prefix “em” meaning “in” and the word “pathos” meaning “suffering.” This implies a deep personal sharing in another’s hardship, such that the one who empathizes is experiencing, in a certain sense, the hardship of the other. Empathy creates a bond between the two, as the person who is empathetic accompanies the sufferer as he carries his cross, reminding him that he is not alone and that someone cares. It is, in this respect, nothing less than an act of love.
The object of authentic empathy is not so much the suffering of the other, but the other himself. Empathy, at its core, is an interpersonal reality. In this regard, by being empathetic, we accompany the sufferer through his suffering. This may seem, in a world dominated by positive action, to be feeble and ineffective. To sit by a hospital bed or to spend time with someone with mental illness or simply to visit a person who has lost a loved one may seem rather futile considering the sickness, illness or loss. However, a comforting presence, one that takes on the suffering of the other by just being there and listening quietly, brings a consolation that enables the sufferer not only to endure, but to rise above the hardship and experience its redemptive value.
Jesus is the perfect model of empathy. By virtue of his incarnation, he enters into the human condition with all of its suffering. Not content to be a bystander dispassionately removed from human pathos, he takes on humanity’s suffering through his passion, death and resurrection.
While the fullness of God’s grace subsists in the Catholic Church (see Lumen Gentium, No. 8), the finite Church cannot contain the infinite nature of God’s grace. We see this in the many examples of the noble atheist whose selfless altruism inspires others. Nonetheless, it often is the case that love of man, without the corresponding love of God, renders the noble atheist incapable of sourcing his love beyond himself. True, his love ultimately is a limited participation in divine love, but it is rooted in a God he does not know, and so he cannot draw from him, be inspired by him or be strengthened in him.
However, when a deacon roots his ministry in the love of Christ the Servant, he understands empathy in light of the Paschal Mystery and its personal promise of salvation. This not only allows for a wider perspective, but it understands empathy from Calvary to the empty tomb. It understands that, often, empathy is more about being at the foot of the cross with the one who suffers awaiting the Resurrection rather than doing something. This being with the sufferer is not the absence of ministry but, many times, the very best kind of ministry.
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All effective ministry is based on empathy. A ministry that lacks empathy not only is radically incapable of seeing the crucified Christ in the sufferer, but likewise radically incapable of witnessing the resurrected Christ to that same sufferer. Here, the minister will fail to bring hope to a soul in desperate need of the healing love of Jesus Christ. Beyond this, when we share in the sufferings of others, they reveal to us their desires, and because of this we can respond to their specific needs — not what we think their needs happen to be.
DEACON DOMINIC CERRATO, Ph.D., is editor of Deacon Digest and the director of diaconal formation for the Diocese of Joliet, Illinois. He is founder of Diaconal Ministries, where he gives national presentations and retreats to deacons and diaconal candidates. Follow him on Facebook to continue the conversation.