Voices from the Field: Practicing Compassion by Listening
Voices from the Field: A Blog Series
Practicing Compassion by Listening
As a priest for the past 42 years, Father Phil Ackerman has spent many of his Sundays facing the congregation, serving as the voice of the parish through prayer, song, and ceremony. Naturally, Ackerman is sought after as a spiritual leader, one who can speak to his community from a position of council and guidance. And through four decades in the Catholic Church, Ackerman has been among communities large and small.
This past year, in June, he made the transition from a relatively small, rural parish to one of the biggest in North Dakota by membership. His voice is perhaps reaching more people than ever. Holy Cross Catholic Church in West Fargo serves 5,500 people, around 1,800 households, according to Ackerman.
In making that change, moving to a larger church during the COVID-19 pandemic, Ackerman has acknowledged the vital importance of embracing the other component of his leadership role: listening. He has seen the conditions of the pandemic split his congregation in more ways than one, with Mass attendance nearly halved and safety measures being met by strong, determined mindsets, among other challenges.
“I want people to feel listened to,” said Ackerman, answering how he has navigated novel and sometimes contentious issues. “The decisions that have to be made and the directions that we take are going to be met both with opposition and with great agreement.
“I find that if people feel that they’ve been heard, or are able to have a dialogue, they may not like the situation, but at least they can make a decision or tolerate it.”
In serving his parish, Ackerman has found resilience in holding onto hope and showing compassion for his staff, congregation, and the community he serves. Before coming to West Fargo in June, Ackerman was in Langdon, N.D., at St. Alphonsus Catholic Church. Just as all other parishes experienced at the time, he said, the period from March until May was a scramble. On March 17, the Bishop of the Diocese of Fargo decreed all in-person worship activities to be cancelled. The Diocese of Fargo consists of 30 North Dakota counties making up the eastern half of the state.
“I just had to think outside the box about how we were going to serve our people,” said Ackerman. “The shutdown time really became a time to regroup and reconsider our ministry and services.”
Services were livestreamed and what had previously been home visits turned into phone calls. Religious education classes for youth were cancelled entirely. By May 10, the diocese allowed doors to open at churches, but were accompanied by recommendations for social distancing and physical interaction. Ackerman immediately saw the line in the sand. “The dynamic of the pandemic has shown me that people have strong opinions,” the pastor said. “One segment says that we should do everything to follow the guidelines and another segment says, ‘No, there’s no need for that.’”
Ackerman says he has continuously followed the guidance of the diocese, which has resulted in alternating pews available for seating and recommended distancing between families. Only recently, at the end of January, were hymnals once again allowed in the church. When one takes time to think about the procedures of a Mass or a church service, it doesn’t take long to realize how COVID-19 has integrally impacted churches. Ackerman went through examples such as singing from hymnals, passing collection baskets, taking communion, and, for him, getting to know a new community.
Though Ackerman is steadfast in his assertion that the pandemic hasn’t tested him on a personal level, moving parishes without being able to properly say goodbye to the Langdon community stung.
“Coming to a parish and getting acquainted during COVID times has been a challenge,” he said. “As you establish relationships, you get to know people and get to know their needs, and so on. That hasn’t been easy.”
And in the time that he’s tried to acquaint himself with West Fargo’s churchgoers, Ackerman has also had to lead Holy Cross through some difficult moments. An example he gave was the confirmation class of 2020. One-hundred children were set to be confirmed in the Catholic Church at Holy Cross, in September. The math quickly defeated the notion of having a “normal” service. Religious education at Holy Cross has typically involved the facilities of neighboring Trinity Catholic Elementary School, which could have provided ample space, but county-level restrictions forbade entry by anyone other than staff, teachers, and students.
“With 100 children in the class, and their families, social distancing in the church wouldn’t be possible,” Ackerman recalled. “So, I decided that we were going to split the class between two services… But even with that, parents were nervous and not happy with the limited amount of spacing. Some parents pulled their kids and said they were going to wait another year.”
Handling the impacts of those and other similar decisions are where Ackerman’s decades of service bear fruit. In earlier years, he might have taken a defensive stance, he said. It’s easy to respond to frustration with listing all of the reasoning and intent behind a strategy, but Ackerman has learned that such a response isn’t helpful.
“I try to hear people out and share in their pain and frustration,” the pastor said. “Trying to be present for them is a better approach than defending against them. I express that I’m concerned about how they feel, and how I wish the situation could be different too.
“I keep saying to people that we’re all challenged by this pandemic, and none of us like it. So, in approaching the discussion that way, we all end up on the same page.”
Despite the prolonged nature of the pandemic, and the financial strain COVID-19 has caused for the church, Ackerman is quick to regard it as a temporary condition. Hope is always in supply for the pastor with a glass half-full. Mentioning that his mother was stricken deaf at the age of six months during the 1918 flu pandemic, Ackerman frames his resiliency by looking at the past, as well as the “new normal” ahead. “From that historical perspective, worse has happened, and somehow people have gotten past huge tragedies and pandemics,” he said. “When I look back at times like that, it gives me a sense of hope that we’re going to get through it.”
He sees the glimmers in some of the conversations he’s had with the Holy Cross congregation. Families are spending more time together, and charitable giving has been higher than in the past, said Ackerman.
When others come to him who are perhaps feeling distressed or dismayed by the litany of changes, cancellations, and circumstances associated with COVID-19, Ackerman talks about carrying the cross and overcoming it, as the Bible describes in the story of Jesus Christ. As followers of Christ, Ackerman and his parish have the option to do the same – to overcome, even though the experience is perhaps overwhelming, painful, and in some cases life-changing. He says that Christianity can be boiled down to one word, and that is “hope.”
“The cross doesn’t defeat us,” said Ackerman, drawing a parallel to the pandemic. “Christ defeated the cross, so we are people of hope. That’s really what keeps our lives in focus – the idea that there is something better ahead of us.”