The Discerning Pope

John August Swanson, “Festival of Lights”

Francis’ recent interview is replete with language of discernment, which is not so surprising from a Jesuit pope.  Often discernment is described as a strategy for decision making, and indeed discernment is at the service of the choices we make for both communion and mission.  Yet the Spiritual Exercises goes further to cultivate a spirituality of discernment in which attentiveness to God becomes a virtuous habit, and thus a way of encountering the world with our eyes open. 

To discern is to see.  It involves making distinctions.  At age eleven I was prescribed glasses for my near-sightedness.  Stepping outside, for the first time I was able to see clearly the individual leaves on the trees.  I never knew I was supposed to be able to distinguish them—physically I lacked the ability to see with distinction.  In a similar way, the virtue of discernment builds up our ability to see the manifold ways God is at work in the world.  Discernment is seeing with distinction, a capacity to distinguish God’s grace expressed within the “joys and hopes, grief and anguish of the people of our time” so that we might learn to see with God’s vision and to act for God’s purpose (Gaudium et spes 1). 

Francis’ interview showcases strong ways of thinking about discernment, though his words also point us to areas that may call for the pope’s further discernment as well as our own.

Discerning Ourselves.  Francis’ self-description at the interview’s outset is striking:

“ . . . I am a sinner.  This is the most accurate definition.  It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre.  I am a sinner.”

Francis expounds on this through Caravaggio’s “The Calling of St. Matthew”:

“That’s me. I feel like him.  Like Matthew . . . . Here, this is me, a sinner on whom the Lord has turned his gaze.”

Francis sees himself as a sinner, “whom the Lord has looked upon” with mercy.  How we see ourselves matters—it connects quickly with how we view both God and others, what salvation means, how our communities should function, and what we are called to do.  In the synoptic gospels, Jesus asks the disciples “Who do you say that I am?” and their answers are more telling about themselves than about Jesus.  In this interview, Francis’ self-description as a sinner shown divine mercy tells us about his image of God and the lens through which he views the world.  His words are in the present tense.  They invoke not only his memory of past forgiveness but also his present consciousness of the need for mercy.  He helps us read the gospel as a present counsel on our need to receive and give mercy, asking us to view our own lives in light of tales of mercy:  the good Samaritan, the widow of Nain, the prodigal son, the Syrophoenician woman, Zaccheus, and the woman accused of adultery.  Describing himself as a sinner is not self-annhilation, but is rather a self-realization that is only made possible in the light of God’s mercy.

Discernment Happens in Context.  Francis draws on St. Ignatius:  “great principles must be embodied in the circumstances of place, time, and people.”  That incarnation is a messy mystey.  Francis indicates,

“The wisdom of discernment redeems the necessary ambiguity of life and helps us find the most appropriate means, which do not always coincide with what looks great and strong.”

Discernment does not preclude uncertainty—in fact, the uncertain ground of life’s frontiers and margins are particular contexts for discernment.  Discernment is not a way of taming the frontier, to use Francis’ image, but is rather how we live on the frontier of a historical faith.  Discernment is not abstracted from human experience, but instead engages it in order to encounter God.  Our human self-understanding changes, which means discernment involves our ability to reflect with “genius” rather than with “decadence,” allowing us to see “multiform” expressions of truth.  Further, without abnegating the church’s moral teachings, Francis insists that personal context must be discerned as well.  The proclamation of God’s love and mercy is made by a church that is “both mother and shepherdess”:  pastors must know the hearts of their people, and the moral life flows from the reception of God’s mercy in our personal context.  With this hermeneutic of mercy, Francis encourages evangelization based in discernments that are both personal and intimate.

Not Occupying a Place but Continuing a Process.  The virtue of discernment is frustrated when our view of the world is distorted by optimism or despair.  Francis describes optimism as a psychological attitude, and distinguishes it from hope, itself a virtue given by God.  We may well look around us and see no reason to be optimistic; in distinction, hope calls us forward to the horizon in which we see God’s promises fulfilled.  Keeping sight of the horizon gives us fresh eyes for discerning God’s work today, so that we may be co-laborers laying eschatological foundations.  In contrast, despair  “crystallizes” us, preventing us from joining in the processes of history, forcing the church to march in place in a defensive consolidation of power.  Instead, Francis says:

“We must initiate processes rather than occupy spaces.  God manifests himself in time and is present in the processes of history.  This gives priority to actions that give birth to new historical dynamics.”

Discernment in the Church.  Francis’ interview emphasizes the importance he places upon consultation.  As a young Jesuit provincial he acted in authoritarian and rapidly decisive ways that “led me to have serious problems and to be accused of being an ultraconservative . . . . It was my authoritarian way of making decisions that created problems.”   In contrast, today Francis believes in “real, not ceremonial consultation.”  Authentic consultation is not the entirety of discernment—but it is a constitutive part.  We must “discern the encounter” with God that allows us to make decisions:

“God has saved a people.  There is no full identity without belonging to a people . . . . God enters into this dynamic, this participation in the web of human relationships.”

Discernment in the church is not simply a matter of producing a compendium of magisterial texts, though the church’s pastors are certainly part of the totality of the people of God.  To think without the church, whether one is a pope or a neophyte, means one has failed to hear the voice of God mediated through the people of God.

What About Structures?  Francis seems to think that new ecclesial structures flow from changed attitudes.  He indicates early in the interview that through discernment, he determined some of the tasks he thought to undertake first have been pushed back.  Later he comments:

“The structural and organizational reforms are secondary—that is, they come afterward.  The first reform must be the attitude.”

Certainly that shift in the posture and tone of the papacy is one to which many have responded.  Francis seems concerned to set the standard for what it means to be a pastor:

“The minsters of the Gospel must be people who can warm the hearts of the people, who walk through the dark night with them, who know how to dialogue and to descend themselves into their people’s night, into the darkness, but without getting lost.  The bishops, particularly, must be able to support the movements of God among their people with patience, so that no one is left behind. But they must also be able to accompany the flock that has a flair for finding new paths.”

Francis has a certain insight here:  in the midst of the people of God’s pilgrimage we come to discern new movements and paths that suggest the ways church structures ought to be reformed.  On the other hand, the structures themselves shape our ability to discern: they can obscure our view or enhance our vision.  The Jesuits have such a strong tradition of discernment, not only because of the Spiritual Exercises, but also because the society’s Constitutions and Norms promote structures of discernment, such as the manifestation of conscience Jesuits make to their superiors to aid communal discernment.  Structures should serve the church, it is true; we may have to ask, however, whether structural reform is also necessary in order to see God’s activity more clearly.

What About Women?  Francis is notably concrete in the interview.  He pushes us to think about the need to discern in context, to take account of the person who stands before us, to discern through encounter, and to find manifold expressions of truth.  Yet when he speaks of women, the pope suddenly becomes quite abstract:  he refers to a “female machismo that lumps all feminist reflection together, and to “the woman,” as if all women can be neatly categorized, an assumption that is reinforced by his citation of “the feminine genius,” a phrase that betrays the belief that women behave and think in one, normative, feminine fashion.  While Francis acknowledges that women are “asking deep questions that must be addressed” as well as the need to “think about the specific place of women also in those places where the authority of the church is exercised” it seems more discernment based on the diverse contexts and experiences of women is needed.  This is a disappointing lacuna, as Francis has engaged in pastoral outreach to women who often find themselves on the margins, including single mothers and prostitutes.  Pastoral discernment is necessary to stand with women on the frontier, to move the church out of the “laboratory” and into a “journey [of] faith” that recognizes women fully as people of God.