Picking up papal themes: Discernment and accompaniment

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Mar 16, 2018

Discernment and accompaniment are buzzwords now in Catholic circles, and that’s not surprising. Key themes sounded by each pontificate are picked up quickly throughout the Church as ways of focusing Christian witness in whatever manner the Holy Father believes needs special emphasis. So it was with John Paul II’s focus on the “culture of life” and Benedict XVI’s concern about the “dictatorship of relativism”.

You will find the central ideas from each pontificate, and the phrases that represent them, repeated frequently within the Church throughout the world, especially as individual bishops and episcopal conferences hasten to “correct” the emphasis of their work and teaching to reflect papal leadership. In general, that’s a good thing: Bishops especially should be sensitive to what the Holy Father thinks is most important at any given time, exploring how they can incorporate fresh insights into their own ministry. Following from this, such ideas and emphases will be picked up by seminary professors, priests, deacons, and, ultimately, the laity.

Up to a point, of course. There are also good reasons for choosing not to do this in particular cases, which turn on questions of what, why and how. Paradoxically, these questions require one of Pope Francis’ favorite emphases, namely discernment. Each bishop (and not only bishops, obviously) must ask himself three questions:

  1. What is applicable to the flock under my care? Because the Holy Father particularly values a certain emphasis for the Church as a whole does not mean that this emphasis responds well to the needs of a particular diocese. The local bishop is not only best placed but required by his office to discern the needs of those under his care.
  2. Why am I interested in implementing key concepts articulated by the Pope? In the ranks of the episcopate, as everywhere, there are weather vanes who are eager to point unfailingly toward their boss’s ideas. The Pope is, after all, the key to their ecclesiastical careers. Each local bishop must be both spiritually mature and sufficiently self-aware to discern the reason for his eagerness (or lack thereof) to take up the latest pontifical themes.
  3. How should a new emphasis be implemented? A bishop must (again) discern how to capitalize on a papal insight so that it bears the richest possible fruit. The “culture of death”, “the dictatorship of relativism”, and “discernment and accompaniment” are all very broad topics which must be used carefully to learn, teach, and foster the requisite spiritual growth.

Slipperiness

Many examples of papal insights could be considered, and not all of them come ready-made with precise content. We can see that “culture of life” and “dictatorship of relativism” are descriptions of states of affairs and so depend on a recognition of the objective character of these states. This must be learned, but the expressions are noteworthy in that they are reasonably effective in capturing the essence of what they represent. An earlier insight advanced by Pope Pius XII was his Latin phrase “desiderio ac voto”, which he used in describing how those who are not sacramentally baptized can be joined to the Church by an inchoate yet deep and abiding interior desire. This was an important theological breakthrough, yet it required careful reflection and study. To misunderstand an idea is to discount or abuse it.

With Pope Francis’ emphasis on discernment and accompaniment we face an additional challenge, for unlike many other papal themes and even slogans, “discernment” and “accompaniment” are not states to be understood but processes to be used. The first question then concerns the ends for which they are to be used. Unfortunately, an inability or disinclination to specify these ends is a signal weakness of this pontificate.

This does not mean the concepts lack merit. Indeed, some would argue that the failure to define the proper ends for these processes is itself a strength, in that “ends” are easily confused with “conclusions”. At least one of the reasons for a salutary emphasis on discernment and accompaniment could be the value of getting to know those in spiritual need, listening carefully to them in order to better grasp their needs, and demonstrating love in ways that stimulate openness to Christ in them—rather than letting a hasty “conclusion” or “judgment” impede effective pastoral care.

In this very basic sense, it is as dangerous and damaging for any of us to prescind from discernment and accompaniment as it would be for God to condemn people without understanding them from the inside and seeking to be welcomed into the very fabric of their lives.

Purposes of discernment and accompaniment

Nonetheless, it is a serious category mistake to concentrate on a process without reference to its proper ends, for it is just these that determine the effectiveness of the process itself. One danger is that the process might, perhaps even without our recognizing it, become confused with the goal or end. As an example, let us take a practical question which has already occasioned widespread comment, namely whether or not someone may receive Communion. To examine this question, we must: (a) Know what conditions and dispositions are required for the reception of Communion; (b) Discern whether these dispositions exist and these conditions are met; and, if not, (c) Accompany the person insofar as he or she is willing to accept the guidance of the Church in developing these dispositions and meeting these conditions.

Now let us suppose that what we are to discern and the nature or purpose of our accompaniment are instead undefined. In that case, it would be very easy to assume that what is required for Communion is participation in a process of discernment and accompaniment which provides a person with an opportunity for reflection and growth, but without particular purposes to be accomplished or goals to be met. If this is the case, the process itself is the goal: To enter the process is to achieve success.

A process—especially a human process dependent upon maturity and free will—can be successful or unsuccessful in achieving its proper ends. To go through the process of driver training is not the same thing as becoming a good driver. Rather, there is a test to ascertain whether the goal of the process has been reached, and only then is the license issued. Similarly, to go through the process of a retreat is not the same thing as to experience spiritual growth. While I took the reception of Communion as a practical example of what happens when the process becomes the goal, it is obvious that this applies both practically and metaphysically. Thus, the process of earning a degree in theology is no guarantee of faith successfully seeking understanding.

Let us stick with theology for a moment. It should be obvious to the meanest intelligence that those hired to teach theology in Catholic universities should not be those who have completed the process of going through a graduate theology program but those who have attained the end or goal of this process, which is that their faith might seek understanding with a high degree of knowledge and effectiveness that they can communicate to others. In exactly the same way, those who receive Communion in the Catholic Church should not be those who have gone through a process of preparation and self-examination, but those who have attained the end or goal of this process, which is the understanding and faith commitment to engage fruitfully in the sacramental life of the Church.

If we believe life has purpose, then so must discernment and accompaniment. When we discern, we must know what it is we are looking for. When we accompany, we must know the goal of the journey so that we are able to identify, approve and support only what leads to the goal. Discernment which always leads to blessing is actually a failure to discern. And accompaniment for its own sake is not a blessing at all. It is simply a betrayal in the name of God.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Monserrat - Mar. 17, 2018 3:48 PM ET USA

    Dr. Mirus, To confirm one of your central points, based of my own experience as a former seminarian, I made a 30-day Ignatian retreat to help me discern if I was truly being called to the priesthood. The goal of the discernment was clear. It was a wonderful experience, but I did not receive clarity on a priestly call. A year later I did, and with peace of mind and heart I was able to withdraw from the seminary. The goal was absolutely vital to that process and experience of finding God's will.

  • Posted by: TheJournalist64 - Mar. 16, 2018 6:54 PM ET USA

    This is exactly right. Discernment in the Ignatian tradition is primarily discernment of SPIRITS, that is of whether the spirit of the proposed attitude, idea or action is in accord with the dual law of love, or from an evil source or objective. It's a lot more than just figuring out what to do or say.