General Audience of the Pope. Photo: Vatican Media

Three Essential Aspects of Discernment, According to Pope Francis

“The great questions arise when we have already travelled a stretch of the road in life, and it is to that journey that we must return to understand what we are looking for.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Share this Entry

(ZENIT News / Vatican City, 07.09.2022).- This morning’s General Audience was held at 9:00 am in Saint Peter’s Square, where the Holy Father met with groups of pilgrims and faithful from Italy and from all over the world. 

Continuing with the new series of catecheses on Discernment, the Pope focused his meditation on the theme: “An example: Ignatius of Loyola” (Reading: Sirach 6:18-19). 

After summarizing his catechesis in different languages, the Pontiff expressed special greetings  to the faithful present. Then he made an appeal on the occasion of the Feast of the Nativity of the Most Holy Virgin Mary, celebrated on September 8, entrusting all mothers to Her. 


The General Audience ended with the praying of the Pater Noster and the Apostolic Blessing. 

Here is the text of the Pope’s catechesis with phrases and headers in bold added by ZENIT. 

* * *

We are continuing our reflection on discernment –in this time we will speak every Wednesday about spiritual discernment– and for this it can help us to refer to a specific witness. 

One of the most instructive examples is offered to us by Saint Ignatius of Loyola, with a decisive episode of his life. Ignatius is at home convalescing, after injuring a leg in battle. To dispel the boredom, he asks for something to read. He loves tales of chivalry but, unfortunately, only the lives of Saints can be found at home. He acquiesces somewhat reluctantly, but in the course of reading he begins to discover another world, a world that conquers him and seems to compete with that of knights. He is fascinated by the figures of Saint Francis and Saint Dominic, and feels the desire to imitate them. But the world of chivalry also continues to exert its fascination on him. And he feels, within himself, this alternation of thoughts –of chivalry and of Saints– which seem to be equivalent. 

Ignatius, however, also begins to perceive some differences. In his Autobiography –[written] in the third person –he writes thus:  “When he thought of worldly things”– understood as chivalrous things– “it gave him great pleasure but, afterwards, he found himself dry and sad. However, when he thought of journeying to Jerusalem, and of living only on herbs and practicing the austerities that he saw the Saints did, not only was he consoled when he had such thoughts, but he found pleasure not only while thinking of them but also when he ceased to do so, leaving him happy and joyful” (n. 8), leaving him a trace of joy.

In this experience we note two aspects, above all.

1st The aspect of time

The first is time, that is, the thoughts of the world are attractive at the beginning, but then they lose their lustre and leave emptiness and discontent; they leave you that way, empty. Thoughts of God, on the contrary, rouse first a certain resistance –“But I’m not going to read this boring thing about Saints”– however, when they are welcomed, they bring an unknown peace that lasts for a long time. 

2nd The aspect of the end point

Then the other aspect appears: the end point of thoughts. At first the situation doesn’t seem clear. There is a development of discernment: for example, we understand what is good for us, not in an abstract general way, but in our life’s journey. In the rules for discernment, fruit of this fundamental experience, Ignatius lays down an important premise, which helps to understand this process: “In the persons who go from mortal sin to mortal sin, the enemy is commonly used to proposing apparent pleasures to them” –to reassure them that everything is fine– “making them imagine sensual delights and pleasures in order to hold them more and make them grow in their vices and sins. In these persons the good spirit uses the opposite method, pricking them and biting their consciences by the right judgment of reason” (Spiritual Exercises, 314). But this will not do. 

There is a history that precedes one who discerns, a history that is indispensable to know, because discernment is not a sort of oracle, of fatalism, or something from a laboratory, like casting one’s lot on two possibilities. The great questions arise when we have already travelled a stretch of the road in life, and it is to that journey that we must return to understand what we are looking for. If in life we make a little progress, then [we wonder]: “But why am I walking in this direction, what am I looking for?”, and that is where discernment takes place.

When Ignatius found himself wounded in his father’s house, he was not thinking in fact of God or on how he should reform his life, no. He had his first experience of God by listening to his own heart, which presented him with a curious reversal: things that attracted him at first sight left him disillusioned, whereas in others, less dazzling, he found lasting peace. We too have this experience; very often we begin to think about something, and we stay there, and then end up disappointed. Instead, if we carry out a work of charity, do something good and feel some happiness, a good thought comes to us , and happiness comes to us, something of joy, and it is an experience that is entirely our own. He, Ignatius, had his first experience of God by listening to his own heart, which showed him a curious reversal. This is what we must learn: to listen to our own heart, to know what is happening, what decision to make; to make a judgment on a situation, one must listen to one’s own heart. We listen to the television, the radio, the mobile phone; we are experts at listening, but I ask you: do you  know how to listen to your heart? Do you stop to ask: “But how is my heart? Is it satisfied, is it sad, is it searching for something?” To make good decisions, you need to listen to your heart.

This is why Ignatius will go on to suggest reading the lives of the Saints, because they show, in a narrative and comprehensible way, God’s style in the life of people not very different from us, because the Saints were made of flesh and blood like us. Their actions speak to ours, and they help us to understand their meaning. 

In that famous episode of the two feelings that Ignatius had, one when he read about knights and the other when he read about the life of the Saints, we can recognize another important aspect of discernment, which we already mentioned last time.

3rd The Aspect of Apparent Randomness

There is an apparent randomness in the events of life: everything seems to arise from a banal mishap – there were no books about knights, only lives of Saints. A mishap that nonetheless holds a possible turning point. Only after some time does Ignatius realize this, at which point he devotes all his attention to it. Listen carefully: God works through unplannable events that happen by chance: by chance this happened to me, by chance I met this person, by chance I saw this film. It was not planned, but God works through unplannable events, and also through mishaps: “But I was supposed to go for a walk and I had a problem with my foot, I can’t . . . “ Mishap: what is God saying to you? What is life telling you there? We have also seen this in a passage from the Gospel of Matthew: a man ploughing a field accidentally comes across buried treasure. A totally unexpected situation. But what is important is that he recognizes it as the lucky break of his life and decides accordingly: he sells everything and buys that field (cf. 13:44). I will give you a piece of advice: beware of the unexpected. He who says to you: “But I wasn’t expecting this.” Is it life speaking to you, is it the Lord speaking to you, or is it the devil? It’s someone. But there is something to discern: how I react when faced with the unexpected. But I was quiet at home and [suddenly] “Boom!” – my mother-in-law arrives; and how do you react to your mother-in-law? Is it love or something else inside? And you must discern. I am working well in the office, and a companion comes along  to tell me he needs money. How do you react? See what happens when we experience things we are not expecting and there we learn to know our heart, how it reacts. 

Discernment is the aid in recognizing the signals with which the Lord makes Himself known in unexpected, even unpleasant situations, as the leg wound was for Ignatius. A life-changing encounter can arise from them, forever, as in the case of Saint Ignatius. Something can arise that makes you better along the way, or worse, I don’t know, but be careful; the most beautiful thread is given to us by the unexpected: “How do I act in view of this?” May the Lord help us to hear our hearts and see it is He who acts and when it’s not Him and it’s something else. 

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Share this Entry

Redacción zenit

Support ZENIT

If you liked this article, support ZENIT now with a donation