A Church of the 21st century

Discernment is not an individual process – it’s achieved by sharing, asking questions, proposing suggestions, and a fundamental exploration of the Faith, writes Jos Moons SJ.

Synodality is the way forward for Church governance, according to Pope Francis. He dreams of the Church as the people of God on a journey, seeking to hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches in our time. The topic features both in the new format of interviews – the famous 2013 interview by Antonio Spadaro shortly after his election and the recent interview by Austen Ivereigh, published as a book by Ivereigh – and in the more classical form of encyclicals, exhortations, homilies and so on.  

For example, in his memorable reflection at the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Bishops’ Synod, Pope Francis stated that ‘from the beginning of my ministry as Bishop of Rome, I sought to enhance the Synod, which is one of the most precious legacies of the Second Vatican Council’. For the Pope, this view of the Church and of Church governance is nothing short of a calling from God. 

Now walking this path of synodality is not a goal in itself; the objective is to follow the Spirit’s promptings. It is therefore crucial to ask how the Spirit’s ‘voice’ can be heard, all the more so as usually a variety of viewpoints claim to result from listening to the Spirit.  


Synodality presupposes that God is still guiding us, not only individually but also as a body, as a people. It is not sufficient to reach back to revelation and tradition, and to apply those, or to talk only about hierarchical leadership; here and now the Holy Spirit guides God’s people. If that holds true, then how is one to ‘know’ where God is leading? How to ‘sense’ the Spirit’s guidance? 

Ignatian discernment of spirits is a helpful source in that undertaking, as its aim is precisely that: to discern God’s voice and guidance by uncovering and evaluating the various possible ‘voices’ or ‘inspirations’. I propose to discuss four foundational aspects of discernment: 1) ‘Indifference’ as the conditio sine qua non that creates space for whatever God may be wishing to communicate; 2) An active and affective faith culture that centres around Christ’s revelation and the Spirit’s inner movements; 3) Grounding our discernment in reality; 4) A dialogical ‘way of proceeding’. 


Firstly, discernment presupposes inner freedom or, in Jesuit jargon, ‘indifference’.  Indifference is the readiness to give up good things that one likes or wherein one finds God,  to contemplate the possibility (or to embrace it) that God may be found also, or more so, in something else. Different from a stoic-like general detachment, indifference concerns every ‘disordered’ attachment that binds one to anything that is not God. 

Importantly, indifference is not about sin in our usual understanding of that term; it is a spiritual rather than a moral category. Thus, indifference could be termed ‘relational ascetism’, for it is because one wishes to preserve or deepen the bond with God that one leaves behind or abstains from something.  

An enlightening text in this regard is the ‘Principle and Foundation’ that forms the basis of the guidelines for meditation in the Spiritual Exercises. Ignatius starts by stipulating that ‘[t]he human person is created to praise, reverence and serve God our Lord, and by doing so save his or her soul’.  

After some explanation, he concludes with a description of the corresponding lifestyle that illustrates what detachment is without using the word: Thus as far as we are concerned, we should not want health more than illness, wealth more than poverty, fame more than disgrace, a long life more than a short one, and similarly for all the rest, but we should desire and choose only what helps us more towards the end for which we are created. 

Concretely speaking, indifference means giving up one’s ‘darlings’: preferences, wishes, convictions, or anything at all. For example, the reorganisation of dioceses and/or parishes seems a relevant issue in the Irish church at this moment. Whoever is sure that my diocese or parish cannot be reordered (or: must be so) lacks indifference. In vain will he or she attempt to sense God’s guidance. 

For a Synodal process one must be open, so that God can actually suggest things. Whoever is too much ‘in the know’ and too certain about what is best, can save herself or himself the effort of engaging in any discernment or synodal process; there is simply no point in looking for God if one already knows. 

A ‘Faith culture’ 

Secondly, as a complement to indifference, discernment presupposes some form of ‘faith culture’. Once ‘darlings’ are out of the way, one’s thinking and feeling should be informed by faith. This entails some form of prayer, familiarity with the gospel and the Church, service, and living Christian virtues such as hope and love.  

To be sure, faith culture is a much broader category than obedience to magisterial teaching or attending the weekly Eucharist; essentially it concerns one’s relationship to God lived at the service of others, which one may do in a variety of ways. For example, while one person likes to pray the rosary or the breviary, another person may prefer silent meditation, or find God in the beauty of nature; all of these qualify as elements of a prayerful faith culture. Similarly, the Eucharistic ‘real presence’ of Christ must be honoured in the needy also, with the category of ‘needy’ varying from refugees on the move to gay Catholics who feel marginalised in church, or simply one’s sick neighbour. 

Such a broadly understood faith culture will yield amongst other fruits a ‘sense’ of or sensitivity for the things of God. When the Second Vatican Council beautifully specified conscience as a place where one personally hears God’s voice – ‘Conscience is the most intimate centre and sanctuary of a person, in which he or she is alone with God whose voice echoes within them’ – it presupposes such a sense 

One can also think of the notion of sensus fidei fidelium: the sense of faith of the faithful that the Spirit works in us.  Largely neglected in magisterial teaching after its rediscovery during the Second Vatican Council, this notion is making somewhat of a comeback in recent years, thanks to the International Theological Commission and Pope Francis. 

Yet this sense not only relates to intellectual and rational notions such as ‘God’s voice that speaks’, it runs deeper and includes what Ignatian jargon calls ‘inner movements’, or, in more simple language, feelings or experience. Discernment of spirits promotes the realm of affectivity as the place where one encounters God.  

It presupposes that God interacts directly with each human person, that one’s interiority (with its inner movements) is a privileged place to become aware of that interaction, and that, by discerning these movements, one is able to sense what to do. This is not about thinking, but about sensing.  

In that regard it is interesting too that Ignatius concluded his letters full of detailed instructions often with the wish that the addressee may sense – sentir – God’s will. Ultimately it was not about Ignatius’s directions but God’s, and these were not so much known as felt. 

Admittedly, the affective realm is a tricky place where deception looms large. Inner peace about a certain idea can be a reliable sign of God, indicating that this is the right thing to say or do, as much as a deceptive peace of, e.g., laziness or shallowness. Zeal can be bitter and cold, or holy and shaking things up.  

Yet discernment is worth the risk, for what is at stake is God’s very guidance. Moreover, the risk of being deceived is as present in any other aspect of faith culture. For example, one may reach out to homeless people out of charity, out of obligation, or to fill one’s own inner void. 

In short, to know God’s will, we need a faith culture. This includes relating to God, growing in familiarity with the person and the life style of Christ, serving others, and engaging in and with the Church. Furthermore, a faith culture needs to engage with the affective realm; to be able to sense God’s becoming one needs to grow in familiarity with one’s inner movements and to learn to discern. 


While discernment has up to this point been described as a spiritual operation, the concrete aspect is in fact equally important. Discernment cannot be done ‘in general’. Instead, the spiritual process needs ‘incarnation’ into reality by means of a clear focus and down-to-earth facts and figures. 

Focus means that the issue in relation to which we are trying to sense the Spirit’s guidance needs to be specified. To avoid overly general considerations, the issue is best formulated as a question with ‘what’ or ‘how’. For example, ‘with the falling numbers of church attendance, what possible future do we foresee for church buildings?’ Or: how to increase the involvement of lay people or the place of women in the church? Or: what are the most pressing issues to improving the church’s credibility in society? 

In addition, discernment needs information. Without a certain knowledge, one’s discernment is out of touch. For example, a synodal process on the future of church buildings needs information on the number of weekly churchgoers per parish, how that number has developed over the past 50 years, and what sociologists expect for the (near) future.  

Similarly for finances, volunteers, priests, bishops, the structural status of church buildings, and so on. In the same way, a synodal process on homosexuality needs to engage with the academy: psychology, moral theology, exegesis. Further, in both cases information must include the ‘lived religion’ of pastors at the grassroot level as well as testimonies of those concerned. 

Importantly, the spiritual and concrete aspects are complementary and should be integrated. One needs detachment to be able to welcome information with an open mind. Similarly, sensing the Spirit’s guidance happens not after having received information; rather one looks out for the ‘inner movements’ that the information stirs up, and that one subsequently discerns. 

A dialogical ‘way of proceeding’ 

Finally, discernment is not an individual process; it needs the purification brought about by sharing, questions, suggestions, exploration. That may be done in the form of personal conversation or indeed as part of a communitarian process.  

After the example of the ‘Deliberations of Our First Fathers’ on the question if their informal collaboration needed to become something more solid – a question that resulted in the founding of the Society of Jesus – Jesuits have in past decades been experimenting with ‘common discernment’.  While I think it is fair to say that we ourselves are still learning how it works, the following elements are essential both for common discernment and a synodal process: getting to know one another, clear information, praying together, sharing. The process may well repeat itself on the basis of drafts or plans. 

Again, such a dialogical approach needs incarnation, here in the form of method and structure. What is the best way to get to know one another? Informally at a drink or formally, and what about sizeable and diverse groups? What about the actual dialogue; how to share in such groups? And indeed how to share at all – for the ‘soft’ art of sharing must be preferred over ‘tough’ discussion, yet people usually tend to the latter. Further issues include processing input and getting feedback on drafts or plans. 

While I think we very much need professional expertise about this, the elements identified above matter greatly as well. In my own experience, the main hindrance for common discernment has been various kinds of unfreedom, both in myself and my fellow Jesuits. I expect the same for synodal processes. Indeed, what we have witnessed happening in Rome at synods on various ‘hot topics’ suggests as much. 

‘Going with the flow of the Spirit’ 

Jerónimo Nadal once described Ignatius beautifully as someone ‘going with the flow of the Spirit’: ‘He followed the Spirit, who led the way – he did not himself go in front. Thus he was gently being led, not knowing where to’.

The Ignatius portrayed here was not living in Rome, managing a booming and successful new religious order, the Jesuits; this portrait related to his time in Paris, long before the actual founding of the Jesuits. Having left everything without arriving anywhere as yet, he still followed calmly and confidently. 

Such an attitude (that partly owes to hagiographic admiration, no doubt) seems very much what one needs for synodal processes. The synodal pilgrimage need pilgrims: people who take the risk of the journey and, as Abram let go of Haran (read: indifference); people with a pilgrim’s culture (read: faith culture); people who share the journey with fellow pilgrims (read: dialogical way of proceeding). Finally, a pilgrimage needs a focus and some information on the trajectory (read: grounding in reality).  

Ultimately the pilgrim’s attitude is a way of professing the faith. It witnesses to a deep belief that the Church is the people of God on a pilgrimage and to a deep faith in the Spirit’s person and guidance. 

Article taken from the chapter written by Fr Jos Moons SJ: Synodality, the Holy Spirit and Discernment of Spirits which is featured in the book The Synodal Pathway: When Rhetoric Meets Reality. Republished with the editor’s kind permission and available to buy at columbabooks.com.

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