Rite&Reason: Never forget Francis is first Jesuit pope
Concept of spiritual discernment is bedrock of much of current Vatican thinking
Pope Francis: “dogmatic certainty” is the foundation for the much vaunted practice of “discernment” which he has promoted consistently. Photograph: Max Rossi
In the very first interview given after his election, Pope Francis said this: “I have a dogmatic certainty: God is in every person’s life. God is in everyone’s life. Even if the life of a person has been a disaster, even if it is destroyed by vices, drugs or anything else – God is in this person’s life. You can, you must try to seek God in every human life. Although the life of a person is a land full of thorns and weeds, there is always a space in which the good seed can grow. You have to trust God.”
That “dogmatic certainty” is the foundation for the much vaunted practice of “discernment” which Francis, the Jesuit, has promoted consistently as essential to the life of the church in our time.
Discernment will certainly be in the air at the World Meeting of Families which will be launched this evening in cathedrals all over the country and will run in Dublin’s RDS, Croke Park and in the Phoenix Park – as well as at the Marian Shrine in Knock – over the coming days.
Not only is God’s spirit at work all the time in all our lives inviting us to fullness of life but so too is a bad, contrary, spirit which seeks to trip us up, discourage and undermine us. Discernment is the practice of attending to our lived experience in order to be ever more in tune with what the good spirit of God is up to.
Francis’s conviction about this is very personal. In that same first interview he was asked the question, “Who is Jorge Bergoglio?” The pope paused, thought about it and then said: “I am a sinner.”
Mercy of God
He then alluded to a key moment in his youth when he experienced himself as being under the mercy of God. He links it to the Gospel call of Matthew the tax collector which Caravaggio captures very powerfully in his painting The Calling of St Matthew.
“That finger of Jesus, pointing at Matthew. That’s me. I feel like him . . . It is the gesture of Matthew that strikes me: he holds on to his money as if to say, ‘No, not me! No, this money is mine.’ Here, this is me, a sinner on whom the Lord has turned his gaze.”
“Who is Jorge Bergoglio?” The pope paused, thought about it and then said: “I am a sinner.”
I suggest that is how Francis imagines each Christian to be: a sinner on whom the Lord has turned his gaze.
Pope Francis is both the chief shepherd and the first teacher in the Catholic Church. There will be tension between those two roles. He describes himself readily as a “man of the church” who, as pope, can be relied upon to present the church’s teaching as “good news” that is both challenging and saving.
When it comes to the moral teaching Francis emphasises the point made by Pope St John Paul II when he wrote about the “law of gradualness”. The “law of gradualness”, which he distinguished from any “gradualness of the law”, is a recognition that the journey towards holiness is always a work in progress.
In this life none of us, not even the greatest saint, is perfect and free from sin. The Holy Spirit is constantly sowing goodness in the midst of human weakness. God may well be more pleased, the theory goes, when a very serious sinner moves forward and becomes a less serious sinner than when a virtuous person remains in his virtue. This is very close to what Jesus says in Luke 15:7: (“There will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner repenting than over 99 upright people who have no need of repentance.”)
None of us, not even the greatest saint, is perfect and free from sin
The invitation to discernment in our lives even when they fall short of the ideals of the Gospel is not a licence for indifference or complacency. It assumes that God is active in our lives at whatever point of the journey we find ourselves, always calling us forward.
For a Catholic, the practice takes place within the context of the teaching and wisdom of the church through the ages. This is what Francis says about it in his 2016 apostolic exhortation on love in the family Amoris Laetitia: “For this discernment to happen, the following conditions must necessarily be present: humility, discretion and love for the church and her teaching, in a sincere search for God’s will and a desire to make a more perfect response to it.”
Listen out for more references to discernment in the addresses of Pope Francis which he will deliver over the weekend during his historic visit to Ireland.
Bishop Alan McGuckian is, like Pope Francis, a Jesuit and Ireland’s first Jesuit bishop. He was ordained Bishop of Raphoe in August of last year