Towards a Discerning Church: Responding to the Call of Pope Francis

One of the key imperatives for today’s Church, according to Pope Francis, is ‘to grow in discernment, in the ability to discern’ (Address to Polish Jesuits, July 2016).’ In Evangelii Gaudium(EG) he says: ‘Each Christian and every community must discern the path that the Lord points out’ (20). It is clear that his reforms are motivated by a desire for a more discerning Church, whether at the level of the bishops’ synods, at local level, or in pastoral accompaniment of individual Christians. But, what exactly is discernment? What does it mean to be a discerning Church? On 2 February 2018, the Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord, a group of theologians and pastoral practitioners (laymen and women, religious, and two bishops) met for a day symposium, hosted by The Margaret Beaufort Institute of Theology in Cambridge, to explore these questions.

We identified seven themes in Francis’ approach to discernment: (1) discernment is a gift from the Holy Spirit: ‘[T]here is no greater freedom than that of allowing oneself to be guided by the Holy Spirit, renouncing the attempt to plan and control everything to the last detail, and instead letting him enlighten, guide and direct us, leading us wherever he wills’. (EG, 280); (2)ecclesial discernment: ‘We can also take a step forward in doing good with a good spirit: “thinking with the Church”, as Saint Ignatius says.’ (Francis to the Jesuit General Congregation 36); (3) discernment as being more than applying rules: ‘It is reductive simply to consider whether or not an individual’s actions correspond to a general law or rule, because that is not enough to discern and ensure full fidelity to God in the concrete life of a human being.’ (AL 304); (4) discernment comfortable with complexity: ‘Our faith is challenged to discern how wine can come from water and how wheat can grow in the midst of weeds.’ (EG, 84); (5) gradualness: ‘A small step, in the midst of great human limitations, can be more pleasing to God than a life which appears outwardly in order but moves through the day without confronting great difficulties.’ (EG); (6) goes hand-in-hand with mercy: ‘a pastoral discernment filled with merciful love, which is ever ready to understand, forgive, accompany, hope, and above all integrate.’ (AL, 312); (7) a different kind of knowing: ‘The presence of the Spirit gives Christians a certain connaturality with divine realities, and a wisdom which enables them to grasp those realities intuitively, even when they lack the wherewithal to give them precise expression.’ (EG, 119)

There are difficulties and challenges in the understanding and practise of discernment: it is not clear how spiritual and moral discernments relate to each other; what conditions and training are necessary for a sound discernment; what role the pastor, guide or spiritual director should have in enabling discernment and whether personal discernment always requires an accompanier;  how to deal with the reality of ‘too much freedom’ or ‘too many choices’ and technological and other types of absorptions; and, what needs to be in place at an institutional/ecclesial level in order to foster a culture of discernment in the Church. Francis’ diagnosis regarding the difficulty in encouraging the practice of discernment in the lives of individuals is the neglect of conscience: we ‘find it hard to make room for the consciences of the faithful, who very often respond as best they can to the Gospel amid their limitations and are capable of carrying out their own discernment in complex situations. We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them.’ (AL, 37) So, conscience needs to be brought to the center of the discourse on discernment.

As for the models of discernment, the symposium considered Ignatian, Carmelite, and Quaker traditions. According to these traditions, attention to the use of the senses, especially hearing/listening as well as vision/imagination and attention to emotions (‘reasoning heart’) are key to a sound discernment.  Ultimately, discernment is a deeply personal, contemplative, open-ended and situated process of finding the way forward even in complexity and ambiguity.  It is always sensitive to the leadings of the unseen Spirit.

The symposium looked at the exemplars of discernment such as Mary Ward and Dorothy Day. Both women, thanks to their highly developed capacity for discernment, were able to speak to the rest of the world in a prophetic way.  Ward wasn’t quite thinking with the Church and paid a high price for this but, deeply immersed in God, became an effective reformer. She was able to resist pressure but not people. Day spoke about the evils of war and led peace vigils while the Second Vatican Council discussed the Constitution on the Church in the Modern World ‘Gaudium et Spes’. These examples suggest that authoritative teaching of the Church can’t be reduced to the official statements. Our Wisdom Tradition is much richer than this. At this Kairos moment for the whole Church, we are called to draw from this Tradition, go beyond quick fixes and rule-based approaches. One of the participants suggested that this is the time to empower learners to lead and leaders to learn.

Our symposium didn’t result in agreeing on any particular framework for the discerning Church. One bishop talked about a ‘discerning diocese’. This was a creative and bold proposition which in practice would mean not only empowering individuals to practice discernment but a deliberate reorganisation of practices within the diocese.  At the end of the day there was a unanimous desire to continue the conversation and to broaden it out to more participants. Above all, there was a desire to be at the service of the discerning Church. The Church as polyhedron (Francis’ favourite metaphor), through the genuine practice of discernment, can only become more solid and open, with her many faces, edges and sharp corners shaped by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Written by Dr Anna Abram, Principal of the Margaret Beaufort Institute of Theology.