Pope

Priests need to work on their ability to discern, says Pope Francis

"In life not all is black on white or white on black. No! The shades of gray prevail in life. We must teach them to discern in this gray area.”

Priests need to work on their ability to discern, says Pope Francis

Antoine Mekary/ALETEIA

Discernment is a key word in the sections of “Amoris Laetitia” that deal with welcoming and guiding wounded and “irregular” families. It is precisely this discernment that “priests are really in need of” today, during their formation. Francis said this in a conversation he had with a group of 28 Polish Jesuits in Krakow on the afternoon of July 30. A summary of the conversation, which lasted around 40 minutes, was transcribed by Antonio Spadaro, the director of Italian Jesuit periodical La Civiltà Cattolica, and is published in the latest issue of the periodical.

“I ask you to work with seminarians,” the Pope told the group of Jesuits. “Above all, give them what you have received from the Exercises: the wisdom of discernment. The Church today needs to grow in the ability of spiritual discernment. Some priestly formation programs run the risk of educating in the light of overly clear and distinct ideas, and therefore acting within limits and criteria that are rigidly defined a priori, disregarding concrete situations: ‘you must do this, you must not do this.’ Then, when the seminarians become priests, they find themselves in difficulty when they have to offer guidance to so many young people and adults. Because many ask: ‘can you do this or can you not?’ That’s all. And many people leave the confessional disappointed. Not because the priest is bad, but because the priest doesn’t have the ability to discern situations, to accompany them in authentic discernment. They don’t have the required formation.”

“Today the Church needs to grow in discernment, in the ability to discern,” Francis went on to say. “And priests above all really need this for their ministry. This is why we need to teach it to seminarians and priests during their formation: the faithful will regularly  confide in them. Spiritual direction is not solely a priestly charism, but also lay, it is true. I repeat, however, that this needs to be taught above all to priests, helping them in the light of the Exercises in the dynamic of pastoral discernment, which respects the law but knows how to look beyond. This is an important task for the Society.”

Francis then remarked that he was particularly struck by the thoughts of Fr. Hugo Rahner: He “thought clearly and wrote clearly! Hugo said that the Jesuit must be a man with a nose for the supernatural, that is, he must be a man gifted with a sense of the divine and of the diabolical relative to the events of human life and history. The Jesuit must therefore be capable of discerning both in the field of God and in the field of the devil. This is why in the Exercises St Ignatius asks to be introduced both to the intentions of the Lord of life and to those of the enemy of human nature and to his lies.”

“What he has written is bold, it is truly bold, but discernment is precisely this! We need to form future priests not by teaching them general and abstract ideas, which are clear and distinct, but about this keen discernment of spirits so that they can help people in their concrete life. We need to truly understand this: in life not all is black on white or white on black. No! The shades of gray prevail in life. We must teach them to discern in this gray area.”

In another part of the conversation the pope talked about the questions put to him by many young people during World Youth Day, when he sat down with them. “Today at lunch they asked some questions….They even asked me how I go to confession! They have no discretion. They ask direct questions. And you always need to respond to a young person with the truth. One young man asked me: ‘How do you confess?’ And I began to talk about myself. He said to me: ‘In my country there were scandals involving priests and we do not have the courage to go to confession with these priests who have been mixed up in these scandals. I cannot do it.’ You see: they tell you the truth, at times they reprimand you…”

“Young people speak directly,” Bergoglio told his Jesuit confrères. “They want the truth or at least a straight response: ‘I don’t know how to answer you.’ You never find subterfuges with young people. So with prayer. They asked me: ‘How do you pray?’ If you answer with a theory they remain disappointed. Young people are generous. But the work with them also requires patience, a lot of patience. One of them asked me today: ‘What should I say to a friend who does not believe in God so that they can become a believer?’ Here, you see that at times young people need ‘recipes.’ Then you must be ready to correct this attitude that requires recipes and ready answers. I answered: ‘See that the last thing that you must do is to say something. Begin by doing something. Then he or she will ask you to explain how you live and why.’ Here, you must be direct, direct with the truth.”