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Do you know what this means?

Updated: Mar 27, 2023

Define your terms. Remember that from science class in about the 7th grade? It’s the idea that we need to all understand what we mean when we are using specific language. Then others have to agree to accept that understanding in the context of our experiment. I so remember thinking at first that this was sort of stupid. Everyone knows what these words mean and what I mean by them. Enter age and experience and more misunderstandings than I can count (see a grimace emoji here!), and I am now an avid proponent of defining terms. So that’s what this blog is about: defining discernment in general and then specifically in the context of a Church learning to become synodal. has two definitions of discernment: “the ability to judge well”, and “(in Christian contexts) “perception in the absence of judgment, with a view to obtaining spiritual guidance and understanding.”[i] Already it is possible to see the confusion that can arise, depending on the definition. Many use discernment in the same way they use determine, decide or distinguish. Some consider discernment and its derivatives to just be ways to describe making a judgment and wanting others to think you somehow worked extra hard at it.

But enter the Christian context, which is ours, and suddenly discernment means to suspend personal judgment in favor of seeking spiritual guidance. And embedded in that definition is the assumption that those who practice discernment know how to seek spiritual guidance and how to sift through many voices to land on those that come from the Holy Spirit. In the Christian context, there is individual discernment and discernment in common. While related, they have differing elements.

Even that seems a little bit nebulous. How else might we understand discernment in the Christian context? And how specifically do we understand it in the Catholic context of the Synod on Synodality and the foundations for a synodal Church? Let’s hear how some others give expression to the term discernment:

“Discernment is a time-honored practice in the Christian tradition. In essence, discernment is a decision-making process that honors the place of God’s will in our lives. It is an interior search that seeks

to align our own will with the will of God in order to learn what God is calling us to.”[ii]

“Discerning something means taking the ideas, the options, and the choices to prayer in order to ask God where and how He is leading you.”[iii]

“Genuine discernment does not happen ‘out of the blue.’ It is not fortune-telling. It is not like a slave following his master’s orders out of fear or blind obedience. It is not magic. Neither is it simply an exercise in logical reasoning. Discernment is the process by which we come to know what is in God’s heart and discover to our amazement that it is what is in our own hearts as well. Discernment is a loving and attentive listening to the One we love more than anyone and anything in the world so that He can unveil for us our deepest desires---the very desires that he planted. Discernment is the wonderful process of letting God dream His dream in us and finding that He has made us co-dreamers with Him.”[iv]

Can we be even a little more specific about what discernment is, drawing from the Ignatian spirituality that undergirds much of the synodal process? According to this specific definition, “discernment involves prayer and weighing facts and feelings about the several good choices which ultimately leads to a choice about what is best for an individual.”[v]

And for the last word, Pope Francis, who says discernment is a reflection and prayer that leads to decisions in keeping with God’s plan for us. (Interested in Pope Francis' catechesis on discernment? Click here.)

Here are some summarizing thoughts about what discernment is:

1. A form of prayer

2. A process (Want to get started? Click here.

3. Seeks God’s will as the central focus.

4. Requires an interior search, that includes facts and feelings

5. Leads to a choice between good options

Here’s what I am coming to appreciate about Christian discernment as I do this work: it is not just a fancy way to say, “I made a decision”. Rather, it is an extended period of prayer in which I am trying to align God’s will and my will so that whatever action I take will be aligned with what God intends. It’s slow most of the time. It’s deliberate. It takes courage, honesty, surrender, and openness. And it needs a roadmap, a guide and eventually, requires a choice. Discernment in common has these same characteristics, but is undertaken by a community that together is seeking to align its work with God’s will. More on this in upcoming blogs. Ready to learn more now? Click here.

So there you have it: we’ve defined what discernment is for those of us on the #synodjourney. It’s foundational to the Church surrendering to the Holy Spirit’s guidance. Stay with us as we explore many more aspects of discernment and so strengthen this pillar of synodality. Up next, “Where does the notion of discernment originate?”

Image courtesy of Ivan Aleksic on Unsplash

[1] “Discernment.” Accessed 12-15-22.

[1] Joe Paprocki, D.Min. “Discernment: Making Inspired Choices.” Loyola Press. Accessed 12-15-22.

[1] “Six Easy Steps to Discernment.” Sacred Heart Catholic Church, Tampa FL. October 15, 2016. Accessed 12-15-22.

[1] Ann Yeong. “What id discernment really?” Archdiocese of Singapore. Accessed 12-15-22.

[1] Rev. Doug Leonhardt, S.J.“What is Ignatian Discernment?”Marquette University. Mission and Ministry.,best%20fit%20for%20an%20individual. Accessed 12/15/22.

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