Q: Archbishop J, how do we transform a ‘deliberative assembly’ into a ‘discerning assembly’? Pt 2
A discerning assembly has its own rules. The first rule is that all participants come to the assembly with faith that God’s will in a specific matter brought to the assembly is infinitely better than any of our individual positions.
Second, is that if we listen deeply and allow the Holy Spirit to direct us, collectively, we will hear and discern the will of God.
This transformation to a discerning assembly needs a spirituality and theology of Church, as we saw last week (CN, October 10 issue). In terms of spirituality, the Church is a pilgrim Church, following her Lord in history, through the promptings of the Holy Spirit. The theology leads us to recognise the faithful as having “an instinct for the truth of the gospel”, through the Holy Spirit.
This week, we will explore the toolkit we need for discernment, which is both an art and a skill. As art, it requires the person or the community to be attuned to the Holy Spirit and be accustomed to listening to God’s promptings.
As skill, it requires cultivating ways of listening that invite all participants to put ego aside, to trust each other and God in the process of discernment.
In the article, ‘9 Important Yeses and Noes about Discernment You Need to Know about’, by Tom Shufflebotham SJ, we have some of the essential elements of the discernment process.
He quotes Pope Francis as saying: “I think there is one specially salient message Ignatius can give us: the great value of interiority. I mean by this everything that has to do with the sphere of the heart, of deep intentionality, of decisions made from within.”
He concludes: “The contrary is what Francis labours against: superficiality, obstinacy, impatient hurling of slogans, arrogance, manipulation by strong or voluble characters—all deadly for discernment”.
By interiority he would mean—self-knowledge, purifying the heart, the inner journey, finding one’s centre, the still point. When Pope Francis wants a Synodal Church he is asking for a Church of interiority. That is where we must begin. To bring people together who have an agenda or ideology or pet project, and lack interiority, would be to frustrate the discernment process that can easily end up in a form of manipulation.
The process in a nutshell involves formulating a topic that is worthy, praying for the grace of discernment, noting the movements of the spirits, sharing the experience, and reaching a conclusion.
Not every topic needs a process of discernment. What to serve at a tea party is not a matter for discernment. It requires practical reason. Whether a parish should have alcohol in its harvest may be a matter for discernment. How we form the next generation of young Catholics is definitely a matter that needs discernment.
Before coming to the assembly, each participant needs to commit to pray about the matter for discernment. Here the individuals are asking for the light of the Holy Spirit to show them what the Spirit is speaking to the Church. More importantly, they are also asking for that light to guide the assembly in their deliberation together.
The first rounds of conversation need to be patient and deliberate, allowing each person to speak freely and share what is in his or her heart. These fragments are collected and re-presented to the assembly. The tensions and the shadows are also named. These are matters for discernment also.
At this stage, there should be prayer that asks God’s will to be manifest. Here all participants are invited to a space of “holy indifference to God’s will”. This requires people be willing to let go of their preferred positions, in search of God’s position, and available to be excited and surprised by God.
There should be a conversation about where people are in this process of holy indifference. Without the interiority to let go of individual positions, it will be difficult for the assembly to move forward to discernment. This is the spiritual work that is required.
In the second rounds, with all participants moving towards “holy indifference to God’s will”, there is another round of sharing that allows for a deepening of the process and of the perspective.
Here, the Ignatian discernment of spirits is employed. Was the conversation leading to harmony, synergy and building upon each other’s ideas? Or was it oppositional, egocentric, and destructive—shooting down ideas that shortcut the discernment?
Was the group in a state of “consolation” or “desolation” during the discussion: was there a sense of the Holy Spirit seamlessly moving from one stage to another or was there despair and negative emotions?
What were the spiritual impulses of the group? Did members of the group or the group as a whole move to contrition, gratitude and ultimately compassion? Or did the bad spirit lead in a destructive way?
Was a movement to docility, doing God’s will, humility, and reliance on God, manifested in the group? The ultimate question is which signpost was the group following: was it escaping to Emmaus or on mission to Jerusalem?
After the discernment of the second round of conversation, there should emerge a deeper clarity about the matter. It is my experience that if the group does the work of interiority, a solution emerges that is fundamentally better than anything people came to the assembly with. This is what is brought back to the assembly for a final discussion and agreement.
For a discernment process to be done well, it needs to be cascaded up the Church—from the smaller groups to the parish, to the vicariates, to the Archdiocese.
In this process of discernment, each level will contribute to a deeper listening to God’s will and, thus, to the direction the Church needs to take in crucial matters of pastoral life.
For communal discernment each person needs to pray about the matter and consciously ask for docility to God’s will.
Next time you are in a group discussion, actively listen to others and ask God to lead the group to His will.
1 John 4:1