Since the beginning of his pontificate, Pope Francis has gone out of his way to push the concept of “discernment” – a much-beloved process in Jesuit spirituality – as key to the spiritual life, yet according to one expert, while the term is used often, not many people actually know what this means.
“For me to discern means to decide in the sense of taking on one’s own responsibility, that which we cannot or should not leave to others,” Jesuit Father Miguel Yañez told Crux.
“In life, we are continually discerning, perhaps without realizing that we are ‘making a discernment,’” Yañez said. “It’s just that we are not always attentive to the extent of the decisions we make, which then have further consequences in our personal life or that of others.”
Every person’s life consists of the relationships they have, he said, so knowing how one’s own actions impact social and interpersonal relationships, especially family relationships, and knowing how to make good decisions is not only good but essential.
Yañez, director of the Diploma in Family Ministry offered by the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, is on the roster of speakers for a two-day virtual forum on “Discernment in the Family Sphere,” which is being organized by the Vatican department for Laity, Family, and Life as part of the wider year of “Amoris Laetitia Family,” based on Pope Francis’s 2016 exhortation on the family bearing the same name.
The document is a product of the 2014-2015 Synod of Bishops on the Family, which among other things, touched on sensitive issues such as the need to be more welcoming to individuals with same-sex attraction and the reception of the sacraments by Catholics who are divorced and remarried without an annulment.
Other speakers for the April 23-24 event include American Cardinal Kevin Farrell, head of the Laity, Family, and Life office, and Jesuit Father Nuno da Silva Goncalves, who is rector of the Gregorian University, among others.
While discernment is a common word in Catholic parlance, Yañez said he believes there is a lack of it when it comes to “responsibly making decisions on family life.”
“Oftentimes things are let go, problems or conflicts are not faced, solutions are postponed…There is a spread of laziness that leads to withdrawing in one’s own comfort and, in this way, distance grows, and relationships weaken, especially in couples,” he said.
This is also true when it comes to children, as parents are not always attentive, meaning children and teens grow up without the closeness and accompaniment “that allows them to feel reassured without affecting their freedom too much.”
When it comes to difficult, challenging, or unexpected situations that come up in family life, Yañez said discernment is key to getting through these moments and ending up in a better place, but in order for this to happen, he said, “there must be a fluid communication between everyone, but above all between the couple.”
“This allows them to deal daily with what each one is living” and the decisions that family members make, he said, adding that having these conversations helps strengthen the relationship of the couple with each other, and their children.
For this to happen, the ability to listen and an abundance of patience are needed if family members want to accompany one another in the ways they need it, he said.
For general discernment, but especially for sticky issues that are hard to navigate alone, it is helpful for couples to involve their pastor along the way, Yañez said.
“In life we must learn what is good and what is bad, otherwise we will be in permanent confusion, and for this we need moral norms,” which he said can be learned from following the Ten Commandments and reading scripture.
However, since no one is perfect, Yañez said, no one will ever be able to follow these norms without making mistakes along the way.
“In concrete life there will always be grays, and it is from these grays that we must ask ourselves what is good there and how could progress be made for good in that particular situation, even if it was not according to what the norms prescribe,” he said.
Yañez stressed the importance of remembering that no matter what mistakes have been made, “Jesus never abandons anyone and calls everyone to friendship.”
“Undoubtedly, the accompaniment of someone more experienced can help us to proceed better,” he said, noting that the Church’s monastic tradition emphasizes how important it is for people with less experience to seek advice from someone who has more.
The process is different for everyone, he said, but insisted that in each case it begins with setting aside time to get in touch with one’s “inner self,” and making an effort to pray and read the Gospels.
Doing these things, he said, “makes us available for a better listening to others, to the reality in which we live, to the challenges that come from living together every day.”
However, even with a solid prayer life, Yañez said it’s not good to “start from zero.” Rather, a good place to begin, he said, is “to review the decisions already made and ask what the reasons were, and the results. We can learn from our own experience, and based on this, deal with others.”
Yañez said he believes the year for Amoris Laetitia is a prime opportunity for the Church to help teach families what it means to discern, and suggested that local dioceses and parishes develop training courses on discernment for families, making families themselves “subjects and not simply objects of evangelization.”