The word "discernment" has become a common word in Church
parlance. When faced with a decision, I hear people say, "I need
to discern that." What prompted people to begin using discernment
language? I sense the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults
(RCIA) has an impact in this regard. The RCIA was promulgated
in 1988, and in recent years, discernment has become an integral
part of the RCIA process in many parishes. The RCIA presumes
an initial conversion before celebrating the Rite of Acceptance
into the Order of Catechumens (RCIA, 42), and a conversion
both in mind and action before celebrating the Rite of Election
(RCIA, 120). Conversion is much more than simple attendance
at sessions. As catechumens and candidates engage in this process
with their real life experience, God converts their hearts.
After working with the RCIA for awhile, initiation ministers
also find that each of the people who desires Baptism or full
communion with the Roman Catholic Church comes with very
different life experience. The practice of discerning readiness
and appropriate timing for individual catechumens and candidates
to celebrate the rites has become more and more prominent.
And so, the word "discernment" and its practice have
begun spreading through our parish communities.
This practice of discernment with newcomers leads the
entire parish community to a larger awareness of discernment.
Discerning with catechumens and candidates presumes that discernment
is part of the ongoing way of the life of the entire community.
The RCIA has been a catalyst for parishes to deepen how
they do what they do, in areas of worship, committee meetings,
adult formation, service to the poor, and sacramental preparation,
as well as our relationship with one another.
The impetus for discerning how we are to live, and what
choices we are to make, arises from our Baptism. We are the
community of the baptized. We have all died and risen with
Christ in the waters of Baptism. Our lives belong to God in
Christ. Thus, we desire to live in harmony with God's ways. We
often wholeheartedly profess our baptismal promises. Yet the
challenge is in translating them into both our personal daily life
and the ongoing life of the parish community. The process of
discernment helps this movement happen. This article will first
explore what discernment is and then some possibilities for integrating
discernment dynamics into parish life.
Discernment is not a new idea. Discernment is one of the gifts of
the Spirit referred to in Paul's list of spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians
12:10). The word "discernment" means to discriminate between
or to sift through. In brief, discernment is the process of sifting
through what is happening inside of us, including beliefs,
thoughts, feelings, and desires. And then, further sifting through
these to know what is part of God's life, and what is not, what
leads us to God, and what does not, what brings about God's
reign in the world, and what does not. Discernment invites us to
take a step back, to reflect on what is happening, whether within
oneself, another individual, or the community, to hear the various
spirits that are operating, and to listen for God's way. Then,
when God's way becomes clear, we can take the appropriate
action. In the Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius of Loyola gives rules
for discernment and how the various spirits operate. He notes
that paying attention to one's affect or feelings is a necessary part
of discernment. The fruits of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, patience,
kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control
(Galatians 5:22) are present when the discerned outcome is
aligned with God's Spirit.
The process of discernment requires reflective listening.
Listening is not easy. It requires work. We need to listen both to
ourselves, and to others. Listening involves taking some time to
reflect on a given action or reaction, to become aware of and sift
through what is going on inside ourselves. In a particular situation,
what are our beliefs and feelings, and why do we think or
feel this? We may have a firm opinion about something. Yet what
is underneath this? Is there anger about something that has happened?
If we are angry, why? Generally, when there is anger,
other feelings are present beneath the anger. Perhaps one felt
hurt, overlooked, misjudged, or an injustice has occurred. These
feelings are more tender and vulnerable than anger. Part of the
process of discernment involves a willingness to open ourselves
to all that is being experienced inside of us, which sometimes
includes painful feelings. Discernment requires taking this
reflective time. Yet, until we are able to name all that is underneath
the opinion we are holding, we are not able to be open
to hear a contrary perspective from another person. When we
separate out these beliefs and feelings, we
are able to sit with them in God's presence.
When we open to these feelings and
give them space, they can begin to shift.
We gain clarity about what is essential.
We become willing to let go of pride or
stubbornness. God graces us to be open
and listen for the common good. As we
practice listening to ourselves more carefully,
then we are also able to engage in
the practice of listening to others. The
way of listening to oneself and to others
This listening to ourselves and
others presupposes that we truly believe
that we are temples of the Holy Spirit
(1 Corinthians 6:19). God lives within us
and so speaks within us. We believe in an
incarnational God who took on flesh in
Jesus Christ, and continues to act in and
through our human lives today. When we
listen deeply within ourselves, and ask for
God's grace, God's voice is heard. The
place of knowing God's voice, and what
action to take, is within oneself. As we
are told in Deuteronomy 30:14 regarding God's command or
design for us, "it is something very near to you, already in your
mouths and in your hearts." We simply need some quiet time to
sift through beliefs, feelings, and attachments, and an openness
and desire to hear what God is saying.
Listening to others requires this same belief and awareness
that God is within them and acting in them as well. The challenge
is for those gathered on a parish staff, or parishioners at a given
meeting, to do this reflective listening together. This requires
that we first listen to ourselves, so that we are less attached to our
opinion and controlled by the feelings that are part of this opinion.
It is best if this self-listening can take place before the meeting.
Each person shares what he or she thinks is appropriate.
Then, even if we disagree, we want to be curious about another's
differing opinion. For example, we might use questions like:
"Why do you believe this is important? What are your feelings
about this? Are you willing to say why you feel this?" Either the
person leading the meeting or another participant then offers a
summary of what was stated to allow the person to know he or
she has been heard. This reflective statement also provides an
opportunity for any clarification that is needed. After each person
has had time to share at this level, it is helpful to take some
quiet time to try to sense the truth of the situation and what
action is needed. In other words, to what is God inviting us?
How will a particular action lead us, the parish community, in
the ways of God? How will it bring about real life for this parish
community? After this reflection time, each person says what he
or she is hearing. Dialogue can occur until the group arrives at
clarity about what action is needed. This process is not easy. It is
often difficult and complicated because feelings are involved.
Sometimes the situations for discernment present themselves
in ordinary events. One pastor I was talking with gave a
simple example from his ministry. As he was greeting parishioners
after Mass on an ordinary Sunday, someone walked by and
made an angry statement about the recessional hymn. The pastor
just nodded showing that he heard. In reflecting later, the
pastor was aware that the words that arose in him were "What
do you expect me to do about this?" As he further reflected, he
was aware that he felt angry, and underneath this anger felt an
expectation placed on him to somehow do something about this
hymn (which he liked). Then he realized that maybe it wasn't
about the hymn. Maybe there was more to this parishioner's
story. Was something going on beyond this hymn that is bringing
up anger? Perhaps the parishioner is angry about something
in the parish. Or perhaps the anger is about something not connected
with the parish at all. What if the pastor had been aware
enough in the moment to say to the parishioner, "Would you like
to talk about this?" Who knows what grace might have come
as a result of this conversation. Nevertheless, this pastor's reflection
affords him the opportunity to invite some dialogue when
another situation presents itself.
Another facet of listening is facilitating an atmosphere
where people are encouraged to listen within themselves. People
are often used to taking in information, but not necessarily
noticing its impact within themselves. Valuing personal experience
and facilitating parishioners in taking note of their experience
is a component of living as a discerning parish.
Listening to experience can be fostered in a variety of ways.
First, the pastoral staff can incorporate a listening presence into
their way of being together. This is a challenge because listening
takes time. I remember when I was a pastoral associate in a large
parish our staff days would have a full agenda. Even our weekly
meeting never lacked for details that needed attention. Perhaps
each staff meeting could begin with some quiet prayer and a
"checking in" about how each person comes to the gathering.
This process takes time, but can be done with each person having
only a couple of minutes to talk. This practice says, "We
believe God dwells in you, and you are valuable." Also, with particular
decisions that need to be made, a certain time of discernment
as described above would be worthwhile. This says, "We
value discernment." For a given parish staff retreat day, provide
some time for the staff to sit quietly, to reflect on some aspect of
God's activity within themselves. Some examples are: what talent
or gift do they bring to this staff or this meeting, or how is
God inviting them to carry the cross, or what new life is emerging
in them at this time? Be sure to include time for sharing.
Often at parish staff days we have input from someone outside
the staff. This can be helpful. Yet time for the staff to look within
and speak from their experience proclaims a different value.
And it gives the staff practice in being and doing what they want
to create in the parish.
Parishes communicate the value of listening to God within
human experience in how the liturgy is celebrated. The Constitution
on the Sacred Liturgy (CSL) states that Christ's presence at Mass
is not only in the person of his minister, the eucharistic species,
and the word, but Christ is also present when the Church prays
and sings in the gathered community (CSL, 7). How do we keep
encouraging the Church, the living body of Christ, to know they
are Church, the living body of Christ? How do we encourage this
body to be listening within to their experience of life and God?
Do we provide the appropriate times of silence that the liturgy
requires? Silence gives the community some time to internalize
their experience and to become aware of their own thought and
prayer. I believe the use of symbols in a full way also helps people
have this understanding. Does the liturgical music invite
participation? Do we have a plan to introduce music that serves
the ritual moment and invites and incorporates the gathered
community? Homilies are able to assist the community in hearing
God within themselves. The use of stories and images can
invite people into the experience of the scriptures and the liturgy.
One homilist interweaves the Gospel images with his
reflections on life's occurrences. This engages the community in
bringing their experiences to the moment.
Another homilist brings forward a question or two regularly in
his homilies. Each homilist has a particular gift and style, yet
they might want to reflect on how their use of the homily assists
the community to know it is Church. Preparing all ministers so
that they know what they are doing helps them do their ministry
well, and take on their role as the baptized. Careful attention to
the environment says that the gathering of the community is
worth the time needed to prepare the space. Catechumens are
invited to reflect weekly on how God spoke to them in the
Liturgy of the Word. How could we invite the community to
consider how they experienced God in the liturgy this day,
whether through a reading, music, someone present at the liturgy,
or in some other way? God has a way of speaking uniquely
to each of us.
A reflective listening process may be included as part of committee
and commission meetings, including finance, education,
parish pastoral council, St. Vincent de Paul Society, and social
action. At times these groups may need to elicit input from the
larger parish. Or they might need to consider letters they have
received. Again, the meeting's agenda could begin with some
prayer including some silence, along with spoken words. A
reflective question on the previous Sunday's Gospel might be
incorporated, with a few minutes of sharing after the quiet.
Listening to oneself and to one another does not just happen. It
needs to be encouraged and practiced. Then the specific tasks of
the agenda can be attended to with a listening posture, and a
discernment process for decisions that need to be made can be
facilitated. With discernment, it is necessary to listen as best as
possible to all the people involved. How do we listen to the needs
and wants of people in the community, without just doing something
because someone will be angry if we choose differently?
And the voice of the person in opposition may speak some truth
that is necessary to hear. Listening well requires taking time to
sit and talk with someone who has an opposing viewpoint to
hear their concern.
Some parishes are moving toward a discernment model in
their selection of parish pastoral council or other commission
members. For example, after candidates are nominated, the
nominees gather to discern among themselves who will be the
new council members. Having a defined process with a facilitator
is desirable. Here is a simple process to consider: After beginning
with prayer, describe the process that will be followed,
giving suggestions of how to listen to one another. Then each
person shares what prompted him or her to say "yes" to the
nomination. Each individual might also talk about the gifts he
or she brings and how being part of a particular committee or
council fits into their life now. Also, people can be invited to
name their hopes and dreams for the parish. After everyone
speaks, there could be a period of silence and prayer. What are
they hearing? What are they feeling? Each person then might say
what they are hearing and understanding, and whether they
want to continue as a candidate. This kind of sharing, dialogue,
and prayer continues until it is clear who the new members of
the commission or parish pastoral council will be. A discernment
process such as this also sets the tone for how the group
will function together on the council or commission.
Listening well to others, valuing their experience and beliefs,
will impact the various sacramental preparation processes as
well. At times, we get concerned about the details that need to be
covered, and about imparting correct theology and historical
information. While this is essential, time is also needed to invite
people to reflect on their experience. For example, the question
"Why do you want to have your baby baptized?" during an infant
Baptism preparation may bring out what is inside. Some may
respond, "I'm doing this for my parents." Then it would be most
helpful to invite them to reflect on any meaning it has for them,
personally. What is it they ultimately want for their child? What
has been their journey of faith? If it hasn't been important
recently, what is their earlier experience? This is not meant to be
just a series of questions. Nor is it intended to make them feel
guilty or uncomfortable. Rather, it is a way of engaging them in
exploring their broader experience. Search for the spark of faith
alive in them. If our preparation process focuses on knowledge
and details, we miss engaging the real person before us. We miss
the opportunity of calling forth the faith of the Church.
Confirmation preparation processes sometimes end up
having candidates fulfill all the necessary components, without
involving them in their deeper reflection and inviting them to
discover their own expression of faith. Confirmation preparation
processes may involve sponsors in journeying with the candidate.
For Confirmation preparation, some parishes include
periodic reflections on the Sunday's word with the sponsor,
much like the catechumenal process. Many parishes have a
retreat day as part of the preparation, which usually involves the
candidates' paying attention to their personal experience. These
elements of preparation and formation include with them the
opportunity for discernment. We have to make the effort to
include discernment as an important component. Often preparation
for First Eucharist occurs primarily in a classroom setting,
where the teachers are skilled at bringing personal experience
into the preparation. The preparation for First Eucharist should
also include some dimension of the Sunday liturgy as well. In
each of these areas parishes are already doing good and helpful
things. Yet we can take a next step in engaging the real life experience
of the candidates for the sacraments: children, parents,
godparents, and sponsors as is appropriate.
Adult faith formation is another important area to consider
in facilitating parishioners in listening to their experience
and discerning God's personal invitation to them. Many talks
are excellent in content and in how they are presented. Not as
many are as fine in providing processes for participants to
engage with the material presented. It is well-known that adults
learn best when they are able to relate information to their experiences.
No matter what time restraint exists, having time for
participants to discuss and share what this means for them is
important. However, when having a sharing experience, whether
one-on-one or in a small group, explicitly naming "ground
rules" is valuable. Even parishes with small faith communities
know that over time the processes used in the group need to be
refreshed. Groups get into habits, with the same patterns of who
leads, who dominates, or who just comes to listen. Periodically,
it is helpful to have a way to talk about how the individuals feel
about how the group is functioning.
On one level, people easily hear what another person says.
In another way, as one person is speaking the other is often formulating
what he or she wants to say. For example, take someone
who shares something simple like their vacation experience.
We often don't give ongoing attention to the person with questions
like "How was that for you?" or "What stays with you?" or
comments like "You sound really excited . . . or refreshed . . .
or enlivened. . . ." Instead, we are ready to tell our experience
when we visited the same location or where we went or are going
on vacation this year. Of, if a person were bringing up a concern,
we might be reasoning about our response, or our position versus
theirs. Yet listening well is something that can be learned
when the dynamics are presented and practiced.
Each parish would register somewhere on a continuum of
integrating discernment into its life. Listening to self, others,
and God, and valuing human experience where God communicates
are the necessary materials of discernment. The examples
provided are not meant to be exhaustive. Rather, they are meant
to articulate various aspects of life as a discerning parish. Your
creativity will suggest other possibilities. What we do in parish
life, and how we do it, will foster or detract from being a discerning