Preoccupations led to important gaps

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Discernment requires deep listening of the praying kind: what was described as a Plenary discernment process seemed very managed, writes Clara Geoghegan of her own experience. Photo Unsplash

A plenary focus on governance at the expense of discipleship is short-sighted

I was both excited and perplexed when the Bishops called us into a process of discernment in the lead up to the Plenary Council.

Excited because I have been working with discernment in the context of discerning charisms and discerning lay vocation for 20 years through the Siena Institute.
Perplexed, because, with the exception of Jesuit circles, discernment was not a common concept for regular pew Catholics. It was a new concept for most of the 8,000 or so people who have come through the Called and Gifted Workshops since 2004.

One young person commenting on social media wrote:

“Discernment was a new concept for me but luckily, thanks to my work in a Jesuit school, I had been introduced to it before I stepped into the very first sessions in the lead up to the Plenary Council”.

I wondered how, without any formation, the majority of the faithful would engage in the discernment process.

My submission to the Plenary Council expressed those misgivings. My participation in one of those discernment processes, confirmed them. At the first “discernment” event there was a group working the room.

They were spreading themselves across the small groups introducing topics such as the Third Rite of Penance, the readmission of married priests to ministry, and the ordination of women.

The process disengaged most of the original 160 participants and the submission – submitted, supposedly, on behalf of the group – was prepared by a handful of vested individuals.

The Fifth Plenary Council of the Catholic Church in Australia has drawn to a close. However, as part of the universal Church we are on a journey towards Synodality. The Church in Australia has become a pioneer in this territory.

Through the Plenary, we have entered this path ahead of most churches. We will be observed by others as we implement the outcomes of the Council and continue on the synodal path.

Discernment requires that we set aside our ego so that we can make room to receive the Holy Spirit and to then speak that wisdom into the world.”

Experience is the best teacher and this experience has provided much to learn from.
I often say that there is no crisis of vocations, but that there is a crisis of discernment. Every baptism confers a vocation, but most of the baptised are not given the tools for that discernment. Nor, indeed, the awareness that this is something they ought to do.

The emergence of “discernment” in the regular discourse of the Church is a good thing. How do we improve that experience and form the baptised in our community so that discernment becomes a “habit” for all?

Discernment is an openness to God’s word, a receptivity – like the Fiat of Mary: Be it done unto me according to your word (Luke 1:38). It is about cultivating a fertile place in the soul where the word of God can take root. A place which recognises the stirrings of the Holy Spirit.

Discernment requires that we set aside our ego so that we can make room to receive the Holy Spirit and to then speak that wisdom into the world. It requires that “He must increase; I must decrease” (John 3:30).

Discernment is about the ability to balance paradoxes. It is fluid and open-ended. It expects surprises. The way God works was captured beautifully by Australia’s own poetic genius, Les Murray, in his poem Poetry and Religion. He writes:

Full religion is the large poem in loving repetition; like any poem, it must be inexhaustible and complete with turns where we ask Now why did the poet do that?

The paradox of “inexhaustible and complete” functions with openness to surprises and new meanings. It captures the essence of God. And the Church. And love.

Les Murray embodied the predisposition for discernment. If you met him you would have been conscious about his unselfconsciousness. There was no ego in Les. And he penned some of the most profound theological words I have encountered about vocation – especially the expression of the priestly vocation of all the baptised.

“This quasi-priestly work of poetry is Christ, for me; it’s His life as I can live it by my efforts – or to put it another way, it is my Christ-nature made real and effective in the world”

(Letter to John Barnie). It did not come without sacrifice. The father of five gave up his day job to write and embraced “Divine Providence which has so far never let us down.”

Discernment requires deep listening and deep trust nurtured by deep prayer. Deep prayer comes from an ever deepening intimacy with Jesus. On the last day of the Plenary Council, I had a God-incidence. I have been reading a book on Healing, by Mary Healy. The wisdom, held by the Church, is that the gifts of the Holy Spirit grow in efficacy as faith grows.

That day I read:

How do we grow in intimacy with Jesus? We read his word daily, especially the Gospels. St Ignatius of Antioch … wrote: “I take refuge in the Gospel as the flesh of Christ.” The Gospels are the “flesh” of Christ because they allow us to touch him in a very real way – we get to know his ways, his love, his voice … we are freed from all kinds of hidden misconceptions that we have picked up from a fallen world.

Discernment should steer us away from those misconceptions. This is what informs the sensus fidelium. The sensus fidelium is not a poll, nor is it acquired through academic study. Its origin and validity comes from intimacy with Christ. It is often given to the little ones in the kingdom rather than the learned.

The Church, its scriptures, traditions, liturgy, magisterium, is always the background informing our discernment. We are particularly challenged to pay attention to those teachings which make us uncomfortable. An easy rule of thumb for recognising the Holy Spirit is to pursue those promptings which we often ignore because they do not make sense to our usual way of doing things.

Discernment is not about me or you. It is about how the Holy Spirit wants to work through each of us – in our Church, in our families, in our workplaces, in our social gatherings, in our society, so that we can transform the cultures and societies in which we live to reflect the kingdom of God. It is about dying to self, so that we may have life in abundance.

And again from Healy: “To see the Lord’s power requires listening to him, choosing to be obedient, taking risks and trusting that he will lead us.”

In terms of discerning the agenda for the Plenary Council, the observation has been made more than once that the preoccupation of the proceedings have been with governance.
At a time when the Church is universally calling for more intentional and missionary discipleship, this appears to have been short-sighted.

This was also observed by the Australian Cardijn Institute, concerned that there has been no attention given to the Lay Apostolate. It was also the subject of an article by Bruce Duncan CsSR in Eureka Street (and republished in The Catholic Weekly), ‘Plenary Council fails to embrace Pope Francis’s wider social vision.’

“If the Church remains closed in on itself, self-referential, it grows old. And between a Church that goes into the streets and gets into an accident and a church that is sick with self-referentiality, I have no doubts in preferring the former” wrote Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, just before he became Pope Francis.