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Discernment in Parish Ministry  
Donna Steffen, SC  
   

The word "discernment" has become a common word in Church parlance. When faced with a decision, I hear people say, "I need to discern that." What prompted people to begin using discernment language? I sense the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) has an impact in this regard. The RCIA was promulgated in 1988, and in recent years, discernment has become an integral part of the RCIA process in many parishes. The RCIA presumes an initial conversion before celebrating the Rite of Acceptance into the Order of Catechumens (RCIA, 42), and a conversion both in mind and action before celebrating the Rite of Election (RCIA, 120). Conversion is much more than simple attendance at sessions. As catechumens and candidates engage in this process with their real life experience, God converts their hearts. After working with the RCIA for awhile, initiation ministers also find that each of the people who desires Baptism or full communion with the Roman Catholic Church comes with very different life experience. The practice of discerning readiness and appropriate timing for individual catechumens and candidates to celebrate the rites has become more and more prominent. And so, the word "discernment" and its practice have begun spreading through our parish communities.

This practice of discernment with newcomers leads the entire parish community to a larger awareness of discernment. Discerning with catechumens and candidates presumes that discernment is part of the ongoing way of the life of the entire community. The RCIA has been a catalyst for parishes to deepen how they do what they do, in areas of worship, committee meetings, adult formation, service to the poor, and sacramental preparation, as well as our relationship with one another.

The impetus for discerning how we are to live, and what choices we are to make, arises from our Baptism. We are the community of the baptized. We have all died and risen with Christ in the waters of Baptism. Our lives belong to God in Christ. Thus, we desire to live in harmony with God's ways. We often wholeheartedly profess our baptismal promises. Yet the challenge is in translating them into both our personal daily life and the ongoing life of the parish community. The process of discernment helps this movement happen. This article will first explore what discernment is and then some possibilities for integrating discernment dynamics into parish life.

A Gift of the Holy Spirit
Discernment is not a new idea. Discernment is one of the gifts of the Spirit referred to in Paul's list of spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 12:10). The word "discernment" means to discriminate between or to sift through. In brief, discernment is the process of sifting through what is happening inside of us, including beliefs, thoughts, feelings, and desires. And then, further sifting through these to know what is part of God's life, and what is not, what leads us to God, and what does not, what brings about God's reign in the world, and what does not. Discernment invites us to take a step back, to reflect on what is happening, whether within oneself, another individual, or the community, to hear the various spirits that are operating, and to listen for God's way. Then, when God's way becomes clear, we can take the appropriate action. In the Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius of Loyola gives rules for discernment and how the various spirits operate. He notes that paying attention to one's affect or feelings is a necessary part of discernment. The fruits of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22) are present when the discerned outcome is aligned with God's Spirit.

The process of discernment requires reflective listening. Listening is not easy. It requires work. We need to listen both to ourselves, and to others. Listening involves taking some time to reflect on a given action or reaction, to become aware of and sift through what is going on inside ourselves. In a particular situation, what are our beliefs and feelings, and why do we think or feel this? We may have a firm opinion about something. Yet what is underneath this? Is there anger about something that has happened? If we are angry, why? Generally, when there is anger, other feelings are present beneath the anger. Perhaps one felt hurt, overlooked, misjudged, or an injustice has occurred. These feelings are more tender and vulnerable than anger. Part of the process of discernment involves a willingness to open ourselves to all that is being experienced inside of us, which sometimes includes painful feelings. Discernment requires taking this reflective time. Yet, until we are able to name all that is underneath the opinion we are holding, we are not able to be open to hear a contrary perspective from another person. When we separate out these beliefs and feelings, we are able to sit with them in God's presence. When we open to these feelings and give them space, they can begin to shift. We gain clarity about what is essential. We become willing to let go of pride or stubbornness. God graces us to be open and listen for the common good. As we practice listening to ourselves more carefully, then we are also able to engage in the practice of listening to others. The way of listening to oneself and to others is similar.

This listening to ourselves and others presupposes that we truly believe that we are temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19). God lives within us and so speaks within us. We believe in an incarnational God who took on flesh in Jesus Christ, and continues to act in and through our human lives today. When we listen deeply within ourselves, and ask for God's grace, God's voice is heard. The place of knowing God's voice, and what action to take, is within oneself. As we are told in Deuteronomy 30:14 regarding God's command or design for us, "it is something very near to you, already in your mouths and in your hearts." We simply need some quiet time to sift through beliefs, feelings, and attachments, and an openness and desire to hear what God is saying.

Listening to others requires this same belief and awareness that God is within them and acting in them as well. The challenge is for those gathered on a parish staff, or parishioners at a given meeting, to do this reflective listening together. This requires that we first listen to ourselves, so that we are less attached to our opinion and controlled by the feelings that are part of this opinion. It is best if this self-listening can take place before the meeting. Each person shares what he or she thinks is appropriate. Then, even if we disagree, we want to be curious about another's differing opinion. For example, we might use questions like: "Why do you believe this is important? What are your feelings about this? Are you willing to say why you feel this?" Either the person leading the meeting or another participant then offers a summary of what was stated to allow the person to know he or she has been heard. This reflective statement also provides an opportunity for any clarification that is needed. After each person has had time to share at this level, it is helpful to take some quiet time to try to sense the truth of the situation and what action is needed. In other words, to what is God inviting us? How will a particular action lead us, the parish community, in the ways of God? How will it bring about real life for this parish community? After this reflection time, each person says what he or she is hearing. Dialogue can occur until the group arrives at clarity about what action is needed. This process is not easy. It is often difficult and complicated because feelings are involved.

Sometimes the situations for discernment present themselves in ordinary events. One pastor I was talking with gave a simple example from his ministry. As he was greeting parishioners after Mass on an ordinary Sunday, someone walked by and made an angry statement about the recessional hymn. The pastor just nodded showing that he heard. In reflecting later, the pastor was aware that the words that arose in him were "What do you expect me to do about this?" As he further reflected, he was aware that he felt angry, and underneath this anger felt an expectation placed on him to somehow do something about this hymn (which he liked). Then he realized that maybe it wasn't about the hymn. Maybe there was more to this parishioner's story. Was something going on beyond this hymn that is bringing up anger? Perhaps the parishioner is angry about something in the parish. Or perhaps the anger is about something not connected with the parish at all. What if the pastor had been aware enough in the moment to say to the parishioner, "Would you like to talk about this?" Who knows what grace might have come as a result of this conversation. Nevertheless, this pastor's reflection affords him the opportunity to invite some dialogue when another situation presents itself.

Another facet of listening is facilitating an atmosphere where people are encouraged to listen within themselves. People are often used to taking in information, but not necessarily noticing its impact within themselves. Valuing personal experience and facilitating parishioners in taking note of their experience is a component of living as a discerning parish.

Incorporating Listening among Staff
Listening to experience can be fostered in a variety of ways. First, the pastoral staff can incorporate a listening presence into their way of being together. This is a challenge because listening takes time. I remember when I was a pastoral associate in a large parish our staff days would have a full agenda. Even our weekly meeting never lacked for details that needed attention. Perhaps each staff meeting could begin with some quiet prayer and a "checking in" about how each person comes to the gathering. This process takes time, but can be done with each person having only a couple of minutes to talk. This practice says, "We believe God dwells in you, and you are valuable." Also, with particular decisions that need to be made, a certain time of discernment as described above would be worthwhile. This says, "We value discernment." For a given parish staff retreat day, provide some time for the staff to sit quietly, to reflect on some aspect of God's activity within themselves. Some examples are: what talent or gift do they bring to this staff or this meeting, or how is God inviting them to carry the cross, or what new life is emerging in them at this time? Be sure to include time for sharing. Often at parish staff days we have input from someone outside the staff. This can be helpful. Yet time for the staff to look within and speak from their experience proclaims a different value. And it gives the staff practice in being and doing what they want to create in the parish.

Parishes communicate the value of listening to God within human experience in how the liturgy is celebrated. The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (CSL) states that Christ's presence at Mass is not only in the person of his minister, the eucharistic species, and the word, but Christ is also present when the Church prays and sings in the gathered community (CSL, 7). How do we keep encouraging the Church, the living body of Christ, to know they are Church, the living body of Christ? How do we encourage this body to be listening within to their experience of life and God? Do we provide the appropriate times of silence that the liturgy requires? Silence gives the community some time to internalize their experience and to become aware of their own thought and prayer. I believe the use of symbols in a full way also helps people have this understanding. Does the liturgical music invite participation? Do we have a plan to introduce music that serves the ritual moment and invites and incorporates the gathered community? Homilies are able to assist the community in hearing God within themselves. The use of stories and images can invite people into the experience of the scriptures and the liturgy. One homilist interweaves the Gospel images with his reflections on life's occurrences. This engages the community in bringing their experiences to the moment. Another homilist brings forward a question or two regularly in his homilies. Each homilist has a particular gift and style, yet they might want to reflect on how their use of the homily assists the community to know it is Church. Preparing all ministers so that they know what they are doing helps them do their ministry well, and take on their role as the baptized. Careful attention to the environment says that the gathering of the community is worth the time needed to prepare the space. Catechumens are invited to reflect weekly on how God spoke to them in the Liturgy of the Word. How could we invite the community to consider how they experienced God in the liturgy this day, whether through a reading, music, someone present at the liturgy, or in some other way? God has a way of speaking uniquely to each of us.

A reflective listening process may be included as part of committee and commission meetings, including finance, education, parish pastoral council, St. Vincent de Paul Society, and social action. At times these groups may need to elicit input from the larger parish. Or they might need to consider letters they have received. Again, the meeting's agenda could begin with some prayer including some silence, along with spoken words. A reflective question on the previous Sunday's Gospel might be incorporated, with a few minutes of sharing after the quiet. Listening to oneself and to one another does not just happen. It needs to be encouraged and practiced. Then the specific tasks of the agenda can be attended to with a listening posture, and a discernment process for decisions that need to be made can be facilitated. With discernment, it is necessary to listen as best as possible to all the people involved. How do we listen to the needs and wants of people in the community, without just doing something because someone will be angry if we choose differently? And the voice of the person in opposition may speak some truth that is necessary to hear. Listening well requires taking time to sit and talk with someone who has an opposing viewpoint to hear their concern.

Some parishes are moving toward a discernment model in their selection of parish pastoral council or other commission members. For example, after candidates are nominated, the nominees gather to discern among themselves who will be the new council members. Having a defined process with a facilitator is desirable. Here is a simple process to consider: After beginning with prayer, describe the process that will be followed, giving suggestions of how to listen to one another. Then each person shares what prompted him or her to say "yes" to the nomination. Each individual might also talk about the gifts he or she brings and how being part of a particular committee or council fits into their life now. Also, people can be invited to name their hopes and dreams for the parish. After everyone speaks, there could be a period of silence and prayer. What are they hearing? What are they feeling? Each person then might say what they are hearing and understanding, and whether they want to continue as a candidate. This kind of sharing, dialogue, and prayer continues until it is clear who the new members of the commission or parish pastoral council will be. A discernment process such as this also sets the tone for how the group will function together on the council or commission.

Discernment during Sacramental Preparation
Listening well to others, valuing their experience and beliefs, will impact the various sacramental preparation processes as well. At times, we get concerned about the details that need to be covered, and about imparting correct theology and historical information. While this is essential, time is also needed to invite people to reflect on their experience. For example, the question "Why do you want to have your baby baptized?" during an infant Baptism preparation may bring out what is inside. Some may respond, "I'm doing this for my parents." Then it would be most helpful to invite them to reflect on any meaning it has for them, personally. What is it they ultimately want for their child? What has been their journey of faith? If it hasn't been important recently, what is their earlier experience? This is not meant to be just a series of questions. Nor is it intended to make them feel guilty or uncomfortable. Rather, it is a way of engaging them in exploring their broader experience. Search for the spark of faith alive in them. If our preparation process focuses on knowledge and details, we miss engaging the real person before us. We miss the opportunity of calling forth the faith of the Church.

Confirmation preparation processes sometimes end up having candidates fulfill all the necessary components, without involving them in their deeper reflection and inviting them to discover their own expression of faith. Confirmation preparation processes may involve sponsors in journeying with the candidate. For Confirmation preparation, some parishes include periodic reflections on the Sunday's word with the sponsor, much like the catechumenal process. Many parishes have a retreat day as part of the preparation, which usually involves the candidates' paying attention to their personal experience. These elements of preparation and formation include with them the opportunity for discernment. We have to make the effort to include discernment as an important component. Often preparation for First Eucharist occurs primarily in a classroom setting, where the teachers are skilled at bringing personal experience into the preparation. The preparation for First Eucharist should also include some dimension of the Sunday liturgy as well. In each of these areas parishes are already doing good and helpful things. Yet we can take a next step in engaging the real life experience of the candidates for the sacraments: children, parents, godparents, and sponsors as is appropriate.

Adult faith formation is another important area to consider in facilitating parishioners in listening to their experience and discerning God's personal invitation to them. Many talks are excellent in content and in how they are presented. Not as many are as fine in providing processes for participants to engage with the material presented. It is well-known that adults learn best when they are able to relate information to their experiences. No matter what time restraint exists, having time for participants to discuss and share what this means for them is important. However, when having a sharing experience, whether one-on-one or in a small group, explicitly naming "ground rules" is valuable. Even parishes with small faith communities know that over time the processes used in the group need to be refreshed. Groups get into habits, with the same patterns of who leads, who dominates, or who just comes to listen. Periodically, it is helpful to have a way to talk about how the individuals feel about how the group is functioning.

On one level, people easily hear what another person says. In another way, as one person is speaking the other is often formulating what he or she wants to say. For example, take someone who shares something simple like their vacation experience. We often don't give ongoing attention to the person with questions like "How was that for you?" or "What stays with you?" or comments like "You sound really excited . . . or refreshed . . . or enlivened. . . ." Instead, we are ready to tell our experience when we visited the same location or where we went or are going on vacation this year. Of, if a person were bringing up a concern, we might be reasoning about our response, or our position versus theirs. Yet listening well is something that can be learned when the dynamics are presented and practiced.

Each parish would register somewhere on a continuum of integrating discernment into its life. Listening to self, others, and God, and valuing human experience where God communicates are the necessary materials of discernment. The examples provided are not meant to be exhaustive. Rather, they are meant to articulate various aspects of life as a discerning parish. Your creativity will suggest other possibilities. What we do in parish life, and how we do it, will foster or detract from being a discerning parish.

Donna Steffen, SC
does spiritual direction, leads retreats in Cincinnati, and conducts workshops on the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. She is the author of Discerning Disciples: Listening for God's Voice in Christian Initiation, published by Liturgy Training Publications.
 
         
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