Why another phase of discernment?

Fr Noel Connolly SSC

Recently I received an email asking why, if we had identified all the themes, we need another phase of discernment.

There are several reasons for having this second discernment stage. Firstly, it takes us time to know what we really want and more importantly what the Holy Spirit wants. Historically, we, the faithful, have not been encouraged to speak up, so I believe the first time we do, we are likely to speak in a shallow, superficial and even angry way. It takes prayer, discernment, reflection, discussion and listening to know our hearts’ deepest desires.

Moreover, it is not just a question of what “we want”. The real question at the heart of our Plenary Council planning process is not ‘What will we do?’ but ‘What is the Holy Spirit leading us to do?’ Unless the Plenary Council processes are Spirit-inspired, they will not be attractive, life-giving or lasting in the end. Pope Francis has reminded us that the church does not grow by proselytising or by argument but by attractiveness. [EG #14] Ultimately, it is only the beauty of God that attracts.

Also, if you read Listen to what the Spirit is saying, the final report on the Listening and Dialogue stage, you will notice that there are many, varied opinions expressed. We will need patient discernment to grasp the voice of the Holy Spirit among the enthusiastic, strongly held but, sometimes contradictory, voices of the people of God. We will also need humility and generous openness to all. In a debating process, it is easy for us to decide who has the sensus fidei and who should be listened to. It is the ones we agree with. Group discernment requires a different process; a commitment to listen attentively and to trust the intentions of others, together with a willingness to share our own experience and insights, and let go of our assumptions or biases. We come to God in and with our brothers and sisters, sharing and listening, not debating and correcting.

Recently I have been thinking about the first Council of the Church, the Council of Jerusalem [Acts 15] At that Council, the Christian community faced a difficult, history-directing decision. They had to decide whether the new Gentile Christians had to, in effect, become Jewish, by being circumcised etc. For the original Jewish Christians this must have been an extremely difficult choice. They felt they were being asked to give up a critical part of the Law, one of their most sacred and foundational practices. Their whole understanding of God, and what he wanted was at stake. However, in Jerusalem they relied on the Holy Spirit and had great respect and openness to manifestations of the Spirit. Even when the Spirit seemed to shatter their sacred traditions, they remained calm, respectful and open. Eventually they decided, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements…..” [Acts 15:28]

We too face difficult decisions. We face culture-changing decisions. We too are divided. We need the Holy Spirit to keep us open, generous and respectful. Only the Spirit can enable this, create unity and respect and conclusions of which we can say, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us….”

Pope Francis, at the beginning of the first synod on the family, asked the bishops to speak with parrhesia, that is, to speak up boldly, even if they thought he did not want to hear what they had to say. However, they were also to listen humbly and always with a heart open to what the Spirit is saying in others. We are trying to encourage this spirit of parrhesia in this second phase. It will take time, speaking, listening and discernment, but we will be a renewed church if we can grow these habits among the people of God, irrespective of the other good things we may achieve at the Plenary Council.

Columban Fr Noel Connolly is a member of the Adult Formation Team with Catholic Mission Australia and is a member of the Facilitation Team for the Plenary Council 2020.

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