Towards a discerning Church

Pope Francis has said, ‘Today the Church needs to grow in discernment, in the ability to discern.’ His reforms are motivated by a desire for a more discerning Church, whether at the level of the bishops’ synods, in the local Church, or in the pastoral accompaniment of individual Christians. Above all, he has emphasised that the faithful ‘are capable of carrying out their own discernment in complex situations’.

About sixty people gathered at St Beuno’s Jesuit Spirituality Centre in North Wales this March to discuss what the discerning Church might look like in the twenty-first century. The conference, which was co-sponsored by Campion Hall, Oxford, addressed aspects of this topic ranging from Saint Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises to discernment in the thinking of the early desert saints; from the prehistory of human ethical thinking to the Christian engagement with the contemporary corporate sector and with young adults.

The Bishop of Wrexham, Peter Brignall offered a welcome to participants in a brief address that turned out to foreshadow a core theme of the conference. He outlined the structure of the disciples’ encounter with Jesus on the way to Emmaus. The Lord accompanied them; their hearts were opened; they set out on a journey, right away. Frank Turner SJ, Delegate for the Intellectual Apostolate, reflects on the address: "we know that the Lord accompanies us. We pray, not least in the Spiritual Exercises, for our hearts to be truly open to that presence in the power of God’s Spirit. We recognise that discerned decisions must lead, where appropriate, to action and sustained commitment.” Dr Patrick Goujon SJ

The keynote speakers were Dr Nick Austin SJ, theological ethicist & Master-designate of Campion Hall, Prof Celia Deane-Drummond, theologian & Director of the Laudato Si’ Institute at Oxford University, Dr Cécile Renouard RSA, Professor at the Institute for Research and Education on Negotiation in Europe (IRENE), Dr Patrick Goujon SJ, theologian at the Centre Sèvres Jesuit Faculty of Paris, and Fr Mark Rotsaert SJ, Ignatian scholar and spiritual director.

They addressed the role of imagination and memory in practical wisdom, aspects of Ignatian discernment of spirits, and the importance of a collective social and ecological discernment that can address the structures of society that impede social justice and care for our common home. The particular role of the Ignatian family in fostering a culture of personal, pastoral and communal discernment in the Church was recognized.

Afternoon workshops also ranged widely, looking at the place of decision in discernment, discernment in personal vocation, in diocesan life, and in the accompaniment of refugees. We engaged with another form of ‘prehistory’, in the Old Testament (we found ourselves writing Midrash on the Book of Esther). Finally, a workshop explored the deepest theological grounds of discernment: how St Augustine understood the experience of God.

The Conference participants themselves recognized the need to go beyond talking about the discerning Church, and to engage in the process of becoming, at least in microcosm, the discerning Church, in the communities and institutions to which they returned.