In a private meeting with Polish Jesuits in Krakow, Pope Francis said: “the Church needs to grow in discernment; in her capacity to discern.”1 He emphasized the importance of priestly formation and exhorted the Jesuits to work together with seminarians, especially by “giving them what we ourselves received from Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises: the wisdom of discernment.”2
But what is discernment? There are a lot of good theoretical definitions of it. Here I simply take it to mean the capacity of our human reason to search for and find the opportune moment and the best means for realizing the good.3 On a spiritual level, the opportune moment and the best concrete means are those that are pleasing to God. These do not always coincide with what human prudence suggests. In fact, the practical wisdom of the cross is a folly for some and foolishness for others.
The Holy Father speaks in a particular way about our growth in the ability to discern. This means embarking on the hard journey of pastoral conversion. Just as sin and the concrete suffering of every poor person – indeed, of hundreds of millions of poor people – are the proper receptacles of mercy, so the conscience of every person is the proper receptacle of the gift of discernment: the shared conscience of every family and every living, acting person. Helping them to grow in discernment involves patiently and courageously accompanying them on the journey. The focal point is the conscience of every person: the intimate place where everyone assumes responsibility for his or her acts and grows in the capacity to “deliberate” and “discern” how well he or she is proceeding in life.
So what, concretely, is discernment? Above all, it is a process rather than an “algebraic” method of finding a solution. If we keep the Gospel in mind, we see that it is not a sophisticated process. The Lord entrusts to our simple human capacity the discernment of the weather – for example, whether it will rain or not – for we may indeed discern everything, assuring us that it is not possible for us to be unable to discern properly the moment when grace is present (cf. Lk 12:55). In this sense, the spiritual discernment in which we are interested is not merely an intellectual activity reserved for the wise and insightful, but precisely the opposite: it is the capacity of the meek and simple to recognize “the moment of grace” when God is at work.