A long-standing theme in the Church’s spiritual tradition, “discernment” has been given even greater prominence since the beginning of Pope Francis’ pontificate, that is, in the last ten years. It is not surprising, therefore, that between August 31, 2022, and January 4, 2023, his weekly catechesis during the Wednesday general audiences was dedicated to this topic on 14 different occasions. In simple yet profound language, Pope Francis presents St. Ignatius of Loyola as an example of spiritual wisdom and draws on his teaching to recall and explain the principles, elements and practice of spiritual discernment. Reading the 14 catecheses provides an effective guide to discernment, which is certainly indispensable for those who want to examine their lives and take the initiative, making choices that flow from a personal relationship with the Lord.
Although it is recognized from the very first catechesis that discernment is an exercise of intelligence and expertise, the vocabulary used belongs mainly to that of the emotions. Suffice it to say that in the catechesis as a whole, the word “heart” appears as many as 80 times, “desire” or “desires” 38 times, and “affect” or “affections” 19 times. Thus, it can be seen at once that the spiritual reading of one’s life, which is essential for any discernment process, is an exercise of intelligence and expertise based on reading one’s emotions, that is, listening to one’s heart. At the same time, a true discernment process is inseparable from the desire to seek and fulfill God’s will, knowing that God only wants the good of God’s children. In the words of Pope Francis, “In all of these, a life project is realized, and our relationship with God is firmly established,” in the knowledge that adult decisions are personal and cannot be delegated to others. Such an appeal to personal conscience does not exclude – indeed, for a Christian it requires – a dialogical process, whereby “in a good and correct decision there is an encounter between God’s will and our will; there is an encounter between the present path and the eternal.”
Arriving at a right decision, even if it follows the fatigue of the search, “rewards you with joy,” the pope says, adding, “we have to decide all the time, according to the reality that comes. God invites us to evaluate and choose: He created us free and wants us to exercise our freedom,” while reminding us that we are creatures, that we are not the criterion of good and evil, and that personal choices always have consequences for us, for others and for the world. Fundamentally, discernment always asks a question about love: what choice is “a sign of greater love, of greater maturity in love,” words in which we can identify the echo of the magis of the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises’ “Principle and Foundation,” which exhorts us to desire and choose “only that which most effectively brings us to the end for which we were created.”