by Annemarie Paulin-Campbell

The words of Pope Francis in his Apostolic Exhortation, Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love), are rooted in a dynamic understanding of the continuous action of God in the world through the Holy Spirit. Pope Francis, as a Jesuit, is deeply formed in the spirituality of St Ignatius and that influence is very much evident in the world-view that is reflected in the text of the document.

An Ignatian way of seeing the world is “an optimistic vision of a world shot through with Divine Love.” It sees God as intimately involved with us and the concrete situations of our lives and as labouring with us precisely in those concrete realities to bring about the reign of God. Francis reminds us of the words in Familialis Consotio that: “we do well to focus on concrete realities, since, “the call and demands of the Spirit resound in human history,” and says that “if we fail to listen to reality, we cannot understand the needs of the present or the movements of the Spirit.” God’s relationship with us as humanity, as church, and as individuals is not static. God is constantly seeking to reveal God’s self to us precisely in the experiences and realities of our lives. It is within this context that we understand discernment. “Spiritual discernment seeks to recognise the presence of God’s Spirit in our human and cultural reality; the seed of his presence already sown in events, in attitudes, in desires and in the profound struggles in our hearts and in social, cultural and spiritual contexts.” God is to be found in all of our human experience.

Reading the document and in particular the sixth and eighth chapters which deal with “Some Pastoral Perspectives” and “Guiding, Discerning and integrating weakness,” there are words which stand out: dynamic, discerning, dialogue, and developmental. Francis seems to be inviting us to enter into a journey with people.

Instead of a static, black and white, rule-bound approach, Francis (while continuing to clearly affirm the ideals the Church holds up for us), recognises something very significant about process. If we abandon or judge negatively those who are either not emotionally or spiritually ready, or for whom there are external circumstances which make a full following of the ideal impossible, then we are not following the mission of Christ. We are called to recognise where grace is already at work in a given situation, to affirm that and continue to accompany people where they are. God works with us in a dynamic way. Francis writes that “by thinking that everything is black and white, we sometimes close of the way of grace and growth and discourage paths of sanctification which give glory to God.”

In his Spiritual Exercises, St Ignatius encourages us to be more ready to put a positive interpretation on what the retreatant is saying than a negative one. This seems to be the attitude of generous listening that Francis encourages. We are to listen out for the fruits of the Spirit. Even if a situation is still far from the ideal, we need to recognise that the Spirit is already at work in that person’s life and ally ourselves with those elements where God may be seen to be at work in the current reality.  

“Accompaniment” is a word that Francis uses often in relation to the response of the church in particular to those who find themselves in difficult situations.  To accompany someone is to walk alongside them, to be present to them where they find themselves and to encourage and support them as they seek to better understand and live God’s desires for them. To accompany someone requires listening deeply to them and assisting them in discovering God’s leading at a given time.

This word accompaniment resonates with the tradition of spiritual direction in the church, an ancient ministry of accompanying individuals on their spiritual journey, still available today, which is more needed than ever in a context which is ever more complex and challenging.

The words of the Exhortation implicitly hold a very significant challenge to those who are priests or in any pastoral role in the church to be discerning, prayerful people able to help the person or couple to discern. The importance of discernment suggests that we must teach processes of Christian discernment more widely and at far greater depth.  Ignatian spirituality has a wealth of wisdom in relation both to the discernment of spirits and to discerning the will of God in a given concrete situation. It holds that through prayer and the careful sifting and weighing both of the facts of the situation and the interior movements in the person’s heart that we can come to some sense of God’s desires in a particular situation.

Discernment emerges in the dialogue with God, in a living relationship. In order to be able to discern well, and to help others to discern, we need to live discerning lives. This necessitates a tuning in to God and a seeking of God in all the events and experiences of our lives. The Ignatian prayer of the Consciousness Examen is a daily sifting with God through the events and experiences of our lives, seeking to become increasingly attentive to God’s leading. As we reflect with God on our experience we are looking for those places where we sense or encounter a greater sense of faith, hope and love and a deep peace. Sometimes these may be challenging experiences but there is a sense of a movement toward God. These may be called “moments of spiritual consolation.”  We also notice the opposite: moments where we feel a lack of peace and a diminishment of faith, hope and love which we call time of spiritual desolation. Noticing these different pulls within us is a way of becoming sensitised to God’s leading in our lives. We want to choose more those situations which seem to lead us to a greater sense of faith, hope and love. This prayer of the Examen of Consciousness (not to be confused with the examination of conscience), is a form of prayer that can easily be taught to anyone desiring a closer relationship with God.

When we use a process of discernment in a particular situation where we are seeking to discover God’s desire for us we sift the deep inner feelings, especially those which emerge as we have heart to heart conversation with God about our situation, and look for those which are leading towards the deepest sense of faith, hope and love. We also have to use our reason and intellect to understand and weigh the complex factors in a particular situation. We also have to reflect on the scriptures and the teaching of the church.  In the case for example of the pastoral care of a divorced and civilly remarried person, the document encourages us to “avoid judgements which do not take into account the complexity of various situations” and “to be attentive by necessity to how people experience distress because of their condition.” There is no one size-fits-all but a need to be attentive to how God is at work in this particular person faced with these particular challenges and circumstances.

Ignatius’s guidelines for discerning God’s will in a particular situation presuppose a desire and an openness to do what God is showing us. Sometimes however we are still trapped by more superficial desires which, to some degree, block our openness. We may only be able to pray for the desire to desire what God desires. Francis seems to be saying that if a person tries to seek God’s will, however tentative and limited their capacity at that time God is at work, and we need to trust the process.  It is all part of that on-going journey towards greater freedom. Francis writes “Let us recall that this discernment is dynamic; it must remain ever open to new stages of growth and to new decisions which can enable the ideal to be more fully reached.” Conscience, Francis says, “can do more than recognise that a given situation does not correspond objectively to the overall demands of the Gospel. It can also recognise with sincerity and honesty what for now is the most generous response which can be given to God, and come to see with a certain moral security that it is what God himself is asking amid the concrete complexity of one’s limits, while yet not fully the objective ideal.”

Francis in emphasising the important role of individual conscience and discernment within specific contexts, is inviting the church as a whole to a greater maturity. It is easier to want black and white answers to every situation and to know in exactly what situation an exception could be made. Here Francis seems to be challenging us to take greater responsibility. We are being called to become people who listen deeply; who listen for the voice of the Holy Spirit in each particular situation.  It also demands that we really take time to accompany people, listening to them, trying to really understand their context, their desires and hopes and their relationship with God.

Amoris Laetitia is both consoling and challenging. It is consoling because it encourages us to recognise that God is already at work in the concrete realities of our lives, taking the initiative and inviting us always to greater freedom and joy.  It is challenging because it demands that we become more discerning persons able to listen deeply for God’s action and invitation in the far from perfect realities of our lives.