Synodal spiritual discernment, by Bishop Alexandre Joly

Implement spiritual discernment

The synodal approach in the dioceses consists in undertaking a process of listening, dialogue and community discernment. There is a real challenge in learning to listen, especially to listen to what surprises us, to take the time, to give the other time to listen. But there is also a real challenge in learning and implementing community discernment. Implementing this community discernment well contributes to the prophetic sign that is the Church in synod. Discernment can only be done by letting the Spirit himself forge in us a truly synodal mentality.

spiritual warfare

Let’s not be surprised, there are obstacles and a struggle to achieve this discernment. As reminded the preparatory document §21, there is this additional actor, the antagonist, who comes to bring division. Disciples of Christ, we are confronted with the mystery of the Cross; in the face of this mystery, some go away, the crowds of the Gospel change their mood. The Divider also comes to distill obstacles that take various forms: “religious rigor”, “moral injunction” usually more demanding than that of Jesus, “the seduction of a worldly political wisdom which would be more effective”.

Be led by the Spirit

To overcome these temptations and deviations, a permanent conversion is necessary, in order to arrive at the discernment of spirits, led by the Spirit. Fundamentally, discernment or rather the process of discernment is listening together to the Spirit.

Since it is about a common listening to the Spirit, it is necessary to take the time, to be in a spiritual process and atmosphere that allow openness to sharing and listening. This discernment is only done in prayer, silence, listening to the Word of God. This is how the process of mutual listening becomes an authentic experience of discernment of the voice of the Holy Spirit. For this authentic discernment to take place, we need time to achieve deep reflection and enter into a spirit of mutual trust, common faith, shared purpose. Let us not forget that the end of discernment is not so much a reform of the Church but rather to put our feet on the path that leads to the Church that God calls us to be.

Synod and people of God

Discernment is itself a synodal act, with the three dimensions of communion, participation and mission. The diversity of gifts is placed at the service of the mission of the Church in the world.

God is at work in his Church, in the people he himself has summoned and gathered together. The council reminds us: “The whole body of the faithful, anointed by the Saint, cannot err in matters of belief. They manifest this particular property by the supernatural discernment of the whole people in matters of faith, when, from the bishops down to the last of the lay faithful, they manifest universal agreement in matters of faith and morals” (LG 12). This discernment is not strictly speaking a human work: it is animated by the Holy Spirit and is realized through dialogue between all peoples; this is the approach of the universal synod, as Pope Francis set it up. By implementing discernment, whether at the level of a small group that brings its contribution to the synod, whether at the level of the diocesan synthesis, then the national one, then the work of the Congregation for the Universal Church, it is the Holy Spirit who acts. This is not going all the way: we read the signs of the times in fidelity to the teachings of the Church.

Discernment in the synodal style

Synodal listening is turned towards discernment. We listen with a view to exercising discernment, with a view to learning the art of personal and communal discernment, with a view to exercising this art of personal and communal discernment. We listen to each other, we listen to our tradition of faith, we listen to the signs of the times, and we discern what God is telling us all. Pope Francis translates it thus: “To listen to God so that with him we can hear the cry of his people; listen to his people until we are in harmony with the will to which God calls us” (Discourse for the 50th anniversary of the institution of the Synod of Bishops, October 17, 2015).

Such discernment is not just a one-time act; it is an essential act of our synodal being, and therefore it is a way of life, anchored in Christ, following the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Such discernment helps our communities to face the present time with the Spirit, to enter into the mission that the Spirit gives us.

Discernment is an act of the Spirit, a spiritual act: it is a grace of God which requires our human involvement. Our human involvement is simple: to pray, to reflect, to be mindful of one’s inner disposition, to listen and speak to one another in authentic, meaningful and welcoming ways (Vademecum 2.2).

Implement spiritual discernment

Some keys to achieving spiritual discernment. It is a spiritual discernment, therefore it is the art of interpreting in which direction the desires of the heart lead us, without letting ourselves be seduced by what leads us where we never wanted to go. It therefore implies a reflection that engages both the heart and the head in the decisions to be made, decisions that impact our concrete life, and that allow us to seek and find the will of God. This discernment is an act of faith: we believe that God is at work in the world and that we are called to listen to what the Spirit suggests to us.

Listening is part of the synodal process; discernment is its objective; participation is therefore the path of discernment. This leads to involving other people, including people who have different opinions from ours. Listening to those who have the same opinions as us does not bear any fruit. God often speaks through the voice of those whom we can easily exclude, reject, despise. This requires special effort. Accept that these can lead us to change our way of thinking.

Synthesis is an act of discernment that prepares us for the next step. It is not about reporting common trends and points of convergence; it highlights the points which strike a sensitive chord, which inspire an original point of view, which have an impact on the community, which open up a new horizon, which invite to a conversion, which launch us in a path where we do not control not all. God leans more particularly on the little ones: paying particular attention to the voices of those who are not often heard, integrating the contribution of the smallest, the most fragile, minorities. Discernment requires integrating positive experiences but also difficult experiences in order to reflect the reality of what has been listened to.

The bishop in spiritual discernment

This work of discernment is done with the bishop who has received as a ministry that of being pastor, teacher and in charge of sanctification. The bishop receives a charism of discernment which leads him to be an authentic guardian, interpreter and witness to the faith of the Church. The bishop discerns the most fruitful process for listening to the People of God in his diocese, he allows dialogue. During the process, the bishop listens. It is good for the bishop to meet regularly with the referent. It is he again who convenes the stage of discernment to pray, listen, reflect and discern the synodal way on which the will of God manifests itself and calls the entire diocese. According to the dioceses, he can examine the diocesan synthesis in collaboration with the diocesan referents before it is transmitted to the episcopal conference.

Bishop Alexandre Joly,
bishop of Troyes,
synod coordinator for France

Synodal spiritual discernment, by Bishop Alexandre Joly