Lent has begun. Now is the acceptable time to turn more intentionally toward the Lord, to be more readily conformed to his image, to listen carefully to His voice, and "harden not our hearts." (Hebrews 3:15 and Psalm 95:8) How might parish/diocesan and Catholic organizational leadership attend to the call of this season of conversion? By practicing discernment in common, a deeply spiritual activity which can be beautifully supported by the Church's Lenten practices. So, practice the prayer form called discernment in common, first around small ideas...to get the feel for it and to be open to its grace. So, how to proceed?
We need to understand, practice and trust a certain set of behaviors called SPIRITUAL EXERCISES.
What are they? Any set program of religious duties, notably the prayers, meditations, and
spiritual reading required of persons following a distinctive rule of life. Also the period of silence and prayerful reflection practiced annually (or more often) in a retreat setting.
Which approach should we use? We’re starting with the Spiritual Exercises by St. Ignatius Loyola, drawn up as a method of arriving at the amendment of one's life and resolving on a determined way of holiness undergird discernment in common. Why? Pope Francis uses them. The Exercises of St. Ignatius were first composed by him in a cave at Manresa, in Spain, after his conversion. They have been recommended by successive popes as a most effective program of spiritual renewal for priests, religious, and the laity. Their underlying principle is their opening statement that "Man (sic) was created to praise, reverence and serve our Creator and Lord, and by this means to save his soul." Given this basic purpose of human existence, the believer is told how to reach his or her destiny by overcoming sinful tendencies and imitating Christ in carrying the Cross on earth in order to be glorified with Christ in the life to come.[i]
Why again are we practicing discernment in common? Because we hold the conviction that God is acting in history and is constantly communicating with human beings as individuals and within Christian communities/organizations, which is our milieu. For this reason, we seek those conditions which allow us to hear the Holy Spirit and be guided by Him. The personal and group disposition to receive and follow the Spirit who communicates with us prevents a false type of discernment in common, which only seeks to clothe in correct Ignatian language decisions that were already made on the basis of the criteria of one’s own group.[ii] Said succinctly: we want to be authentic in practicing what we say we believe: that the Spirit is alive, at work guiding the Church and we are obliged to follow the Spirit's lead.
First, we need to know THE PRECONDITIONS for discernment in common:
1. Every member of the group who will be discerning in common is familiar with the inner emotions/movement once they are under the grace of the Spirit. To listen to inner emotions and at the same time to be able to listen to what others are sharing from their hearts needs practice. This can be a wonderful focus of Lenten prayer and meditation.
2. Freedom and truth: People who are searching for the will of God have to feel free in the group, in the community. They must be able to express their experiences and honest feelings, from their hearts, and be able to relate them to the will of God around the specific issue at hand. Many Lent small groups afford just this kind of practice of creating safe spaces.
3. Each member must come to discernment in common understanding the main reason for the gathering is to find the will of God. To do so, it is imperative that the precise issue/question around which the group is discerning is mutually understood. Is this question clear, precise and commonly understood? [iv] And is our shared purpose to discern God's will, God's way? Again, Lent small group materials often have wonderful examples of precise questions and offer the chance to consider God's will, as revealed in Christ and the Church.
We also need to know and create the CONDITIONS NECESSARY for discernment in commonn to be effective and this is another place Lenten practices are most helpful to discernment in common,for in Lent we focus on such things as:
A relationship with Jesus Christ grounded in prayer, sacraments and works of charity and justice
Coming home/dwelling within the Church for the Church is a living communion with Christ (remember communion is one of the pillars of synodality), evidenced by
a. Engagement with the Scriptures, which the Spirit inspired
b. Reverence for the Tradition coming through the voices of our elders in
c. Obedience/a leaning in toward the Church’s Magisterium as a voice of the
d. Participation in sacramental liturgies where the Spirit puts us in
communion with Christ and one another
e. Prayer, where the Spirit intercedes for us when we do not know what to
pray or how to pray
f. Identifying in self and others the charisms and ministries that build up the
Body of Christ
g. Recognizing the signs of the Spirit at work in apostolic and missionary life
h. Listening to the witness of saints through whom the Lord manifests his
holiness and continues the work for salvation.[iii]
And there you have it…a beginning understanding of discernment in common, and some of the spiritual work that will need to be done to create fertile soil for this practice. Many who participated in the diocesan level listening sessions are asking "What now?" Lay foundations for synodality to take root. Focus on these preconditions and specific conditions necessary for discernment in common.
“What now?” Prepare for discernment in common. Prepare as leadership cohorts, teams, committees, councils, and staffs. Make sure you are practicing living in communion and seeking to more deeply develop a spirituality of communion. [v]
"What now?" Connect with other synod-minded practitioners through the Pentecost Vigil Project.
"What now? Get started laying the foundations. There's plenty of meaningful, Spirit driven work for us all to do so that we might hear the voice of the Spirit. So "What Now?" Get started! Now is the acceptable time.
https://www.catholicculture.org/culture/library/dictionary/index.cfm?id=36596[x] (Footnote is Jeremiah 42 and 43 describing a discernment gone awry) https://www.educatemagis.org/wp-content/uploads/documents/2019/08/2017_09_27_letter_p_general_on_discernment_english_-2.pdf
 Catechism of the Catholic Church 688 https://www.usccb.org/sites/default/files/flipbooks/catechism/
 To learn more about a spirituality of communion: https://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/apost_letters/2001/documents/hf_jp-ii_apl_20010106_novo-millennio-ineunte.html beginning with paragraph 42.