Every now and then the spirit of a movement or an inspiration is transmitted to the world through a single word. The words ‘perestroika’ (restructuring) and ‘glasnost’ (openness) uttered by the last president of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev in the mid-1980s come immediately to mind.
Such things also happen in the Church. Pope St John XXIII spoke about the need for an ‘aggiornamento’ of the Church, and this common Italian word acquired universal significance and led to the Second Vatican Council.
In like manner Pope Francis speaks about the need for ‘discernment’. Like ‘glasnost’ and ‘aggiornamento’ before it, ‘discernment’ implies a whole movement of attitude and thought which challenges us to think differently.
This has taken many by surprise. People are used to debate, to discuss, to argue, and even to vote on issues, but hardly ever to discern about them, not least in the Church. The term needs some explanation.
The Oxford English Dictionary describes ‘discern’ as: “perceive clearly with mind or senses, make out by thought or by gazing, listening, etc.” An enlarged definition could add: to separate, to accurately distinguish one subject from another.
One big difference between debating and discerning is that usually the first is a confrontation between ideas until one wins over the others while the second consists of a common search for the best way.
In discernment, the attention is on an issue, which is examined as objectively as possible. Most of the time, debaters come with fixed ideas about an issue and when someone’s mind is set it is not likely that they will listen to what others have to say. So they simply put their ideas forward forcefully. Given that nobody comprehends an issue fully, this results in all remaining ignorant of some aspects.
Emphasising the object, discernment invites us to take some distance from our ideas and open up to the ideas of others. This is not easy because we let go of our way of seeing things very reluctantly but it is the only way to see all the facets of an issue. With better understanding it is more likely that we would arrive at the best conclusion.
Very often, issues are complex; they are not black and white but the proverbial grey. This is why Pope Francis insists on discernment. Not being used to this, many feel frustrated because they interpret the lack of clarity as a liability that causes confusion. Especially on moral questions, they prefer hard and fast rules.
However, hard and fast rules are not always helpful in responding to complex issues. Rules are general, while we live in particular situations, many of which are not contemplated by the rule. Confessors have always been urged to guide single penitents to apply the rule to their particular situation. This is called the internal forum.
Pope Francis wants the whole Church to become a discerning body, to take some distance from fixed ideas and be open to the Holy Spirit and to each other so that together we find God’s way of moving forward in our ever-changing world. To this end, Pope Francis is promoting the synods. Literally ‘synod’ means ‘walking together’. Pope Francis insists that during a synod all should listen to what everybody else is saying because the Holy Spirit inspires everybody.
This way will lead to convergence because ultimately, the Holy Spirit is one. This is what the Church experienced during Vatican II. Continuing to listen exclusively to oneself blocks the action of the Holy Spirit.
Fr Alfred Micallef is a member of the Society of Jesus.