It is quite clear that our 48th General Chapter offers all the Pious Schools many areas of reflection and is called to provoke – if we allow it – new dynamisms of life and mission. I believe that one of the aspects on which we are called to fix our attention is the need to take care of and improve everything related to discernment and decision-making (at the personal, community and institutional level). There is no doubt that we will move better along paths of synodality if we recognize that we still have much to learn about what discernment (spiritual, vocational, apostolic, etc.) entails in our lives.

It is on this subject that I want to share with you this simple reflection, framed in the proposal that Paul makes to the Ephesians (Eph 5:17) in which he synthesizes in a very clear way the objective of Christian discernment: to try to understand what the Lord wants.

The first thing I want to say is that we need to be aware of the need to open a process of reflection on the dynamisms of discernment. We do not know everything about this subject, nor everything we do and decide we carry it out from well-cared for and shared processes. I remember that on one of the occasions when the members of the Union of General Superiors were able to meet Pope Francis, he reminded us that the Synod on Youth was a Synod on Youth, Faith and Vocational Discernment. And he added this phrase, which was very clear to us: “I want to introduce discernment more strongly into the life of the Church.”[1] We are facing a fundamental observation of the Pope, which we too can and must assume: we need to introduce the theme of discernment more forcefully into the life of the Pious Schools.

There are many reasons why I believe we are facing a key need. But I shall confine myself to only three.

To make the first explicit, I will be inspired by the narrative contained in chapter 15 of the book of the Acts of the Apostles. The evangelical proposal was making its way into unknown contexts, and many questions and challenges arose. The apostles did not resolve the discussion of circumcision with a decree, but listened to the novelty that emerged from these “new spaces of life of faith.” They deliberated, listened and finally decided that the community had to open itself to a new way of understanding, welcoming and transmitting the fullness of salvation offered by God in Christ. It was a profound process of listening to the Holy Spirit[2].

The same thing is happening to us today. We are moving through many new terrains, and new challenges are emerging that affect the responses that we must give as Piarists to the children and young people of today, to the societies in which we are present, to the sensibilities of young religious who want to give the best of themselves for better Pious Schools. We need discernment processes to create new structures, community styles, and mission options.

The second reason I want to look at to explain the importance of the subject is the strong ecclesial and Piarist call to synodality. There is no synodality possible without community discernment. Synodality is based – and provokes it – on our ability to discern in common.  It is for this reason that I believe that one of the most necessary tasks we have to undertake is to learn to discern in common.

There is a third reason to consider. It does not hurt to be self-critical of some of the weaknesses we see in our own processes. Perhaps it may be good that, as brothers, we try to name these weaknesses. I can say that when we dialogue freely and honestly about these our weaknesses related to our discernment and decision-making processes, we are very capable of recognizing those aspects in which we must work the most. Among them: deciding without sufficient prayer dynamics; confusing discernment with decisiveness; difficulty in provoking attentive listening to everyone; attempts to disrespectfully influence the thinking of others; search for my idea or my proposal to “succeed”, without understanding that what it is about is to find a shared answer; pressure circles; poor respect for the truth; decide or vote from criteria alien to the good of the Order, such as friendship, origin, culture, age or any other non-central feature in the matter on which we have to decide. Talking, proposing, expressing my ideas is always necessary, but always from a sincere desire for dialogue, listening and shared search.

These three reasons: the novelty of the times, the proposal of synodality and our own needs for improvement, are more than enough to make us aware that we have a lot of work ahead.  My wish is to suggest some avenues of progress in everything related to community discernment. I would like to propose five points for reflection.

1-There is no discernment possible without a growing life of prayer, without a careful spirituality, without an availability to be able to enter deeply into our own soul and discover in it the will of God. The depth and honesty of the spiritual life of each of usdecisively increases our capacity for discernment, personal or communal. This is accurately expressed in the narration of the parable of the prodigal son, when it is said that “entering into himself” (Lk 15:17), he found the answer. When the young man in the parable decides to enter his deepest center, he discovers there the only thing he had not been able to waste: the unconditional love of his father, which he had experienced since he was a child. Let us not deceive ourselves: superficial life leads to superficial discernments (if this word can be used at all). The careful spiritual life brings us closer to the possibility of doing things right. And this is a task we all need to consider, just as the Order needs to consider how it can help us.

2-Good discernment needs its methodology.  This could be the subject of a book, so I am simply content to mention it. I am referring to very specific things, such as these: that there is clarity in the question we must answer or in the issue that we must decide; that everyone is well informed; that it is clear who and how the decision is made (the superior, the community, etc.) ; that there be space for prayer and community sharing, both of the fruits of prayer and of our ideas; that we be open to the external help we may need to deepen reflection, etc. I believe that in order to advance in synodality, some learning meetings on the processes of discernment would be very useful.

3-This is precisely the third point I want to propose. We can call it “progressive learning”. It is clear that, in some of our communities and, perhaps, in some of our demarcations, we have many deficiencies in everything related to discernment and decision-making. Surely this is true. But it is also true that we can all learn. And the way to learn is by walking. Let us encourage the progressive learning of the dynamics of synodality and discernment. Thus, little by little, learning from mistakes, we will be able to advance along paths more open to the inspirations of the Holy Spirit.

4-The fruit of discernment well done is the “agreement of heart“.  If we have done well,we must not come out of a process of discernment and decision-making or elections feeling that we have lost because what we expected has not come out. Discernment does not seek to isolate the different, but to integrate everyone so that we can all collaborate with pleasure in what we have decided, even if we do not all agree or have the same opinion. We do not live in community or come together to make decisions because we all think the same, but because we all deeply desire to listen to each other, to pray together, to seek God’s will and to “get down to work” to carry out the chosen decision. We have good experiences in which we have taken decisions from different positions, but ones that were honestly spoken, prayed and decided upon.

5-We need to ask ourselves the right questions.  Spiritual, apostolic or institutional discernment, both in the personal and in the community dimension, needs “openness of vision” to understand two essential things: that the issues on which we want to work are truly significant, and that our community is able to detect them, to understand the “signs of life” that emerge and the “novelty of response” that they need. In these months in which we hold the local and demarcation chapters in the whole of the Pious Schools, this “opening of vision” is even more necessary to try to approach the questions that really must be the object of our discernment. I think there are common questions and questions specific to the various situations we live in.

I give some examples of questions that we can ask ourselves: what does the call to synodality mean for us? In what way can we authentically promote the shared mission? what areas should we take more into account so that our young people in formation can grow up in a clearer charismatic identity? how to see and enhance the “life opportunities” that undoubtedly emerge in all the demarcations, also in those that seem to have more difficulties or in which the feeling of discouragement can be more rooted? who is the brother that at this time we can ask to carry out the service of superior, according to our Constitutions? what does it mean for our Province to “walk with young people”? Obviously, we could go on. We are facing an important challenge: we give our chapter processes the possibility of provoking novelty.

I end this fraternal letter with a note related to the spiritual discernment that we are all called to live. Discernment is not just a methodology, or a way of dealing with problems or questions. It is, above all, a dimension of Christian life, a dimension of the fidelity to our vocation, which must always be present in our prayer, in our daily life, in the exercise of our mission. In short, in the increasingly authentic experience of our vocation, in our daily lives.  We do not live in a “bubble of tranquility” that makes things easy for us. That is not how life is. We live – and discern – in the midst of our daily searches, our smallness, our own sins, our weaknesses and our efforts at fidelity. We are what we are, and from that reality of ours, we live and embody our faith and our vocation. From there we must try to be faithful, increasingly faithful, to what God wants from us. That is the life of each of us, of our communities and of our Pious Schools.

If you have never done so, I invite you to watch the film “Of Gods and Men“, in which we contemplate the story of the Cistercian monks of Tibhirine, martyrs in that Algeria they loved so much. It is a story of well-realized spiritual discernment. It is enough for us to read the testimony left by the prior of the community, Christian de Chergé, to realize that, indeed, all of them honestly sought  to be faithful to their own vocation, in a very complex situation, through an honest, sincere and, why not say it, difficult, process of spiritual discernment. It was not so long ago that all of them were beatified by Pope Francis.

I thank you for welcoming these reflections, which I conclude with an invitation: let us not simplify the call to synodality. On the contrary, let us go deeply into what the Holy Spirit is asking of the Church.

Receive a fraternal embrace.

 

Pedro Aguado Sch.P.

Father General

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Pope Francis. Meeting with the USG on November 25, 2016.

[2] Acts 15:28: “We have decided, the Holy Spirit and we, not to impose on you more burdens than are indispensable”.