Pope Francis urges Jesuits to teach discernment to diocesan clergy

Pope Francis
Pope Francis

Since his early years as Pope, Francis has tried to visit Jesuit communities during most of his journeys abroad.  As these meetings are considered private, the Vatican doesn’t usually release a transcript of the event. During World Youth Day 2016, Pope Francis made a surprise private visit to a Jesuit seminary in Krakow. Although the Vatican did not publish details about the meeting on the 30th of July, Father Antonio Spadaro SJ, a Jesuit who travels as part of the Pontifical entourage, received permission from Francis to publish his words in the Italian Jesuit Journal ‘Civiltà Cattolica’.  

The transcript is part of a Q&A session he had with the Jesuits of Krakow, where he discussed the nature of a Jesuit, the youth of today and the high importance of discernment in everyday life. According to the transcript, the pope asked the Jesuits to begin an outreach to diocesan seminaries and diocesan priests, sharing with them the prayerful and careful art of discernment as taught by St Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits. He felt that some seminaries are not teaching the skills priests need when facing difficult situations brought to them by those seeking guidance.

“Some programs of priestly formation run the risk of educating in the light of overly clear and distinct ideas, and therefore to act within limits and criteria that are rigidly defined in advance and that set aside concrete situations: this must be done,” the pope said during the meeting. He felt that priests who weren’t taught the “wisdom of discernment” during their formation years, later “find themselves in difficulty in accompanying the life of so many young people and adults.”

“We need to truly understand this: in life not all is black on white or white on black,” he said. “The shades of grey prevail in life. We must them teach to discern in this grey area.”

Pope Francis felt that even though laypeople can be called to provide spiritual direction, priests are better suited to the role. However, he said also that “many people leave the confessional disappointed. Not because the priest is bad, but because the priest doesn’t have the ability to discern situations, to accompany them in authentic discernment,” the Pope said. “They don’t have the needed formation.”

Pope Francis referenced the 20th century Jesuit Father Hugo Rahner when he described how a Jesuit must be a man “with the nose for the supernatural, that is, he must be a man gifted with a sense of the divine and of the diabolical relative to the events of human life and history.”

“The Jesuit must therefore be capable of discerning both in the field of God and in the field of the devil,” Francis said.

In terms of his reaction to the events of World Youth Day, he said that the youth “have no shame” when it comes to asking direct questions. A young person, Francis says, expects a truthful response. Yet, he said, the young also have a flaw: sometimes they want a “recipe” to do something, such as what to tell their friends about believing in God, as one of the kids asked him at lunch.

Fr Salvador Pie-Ninot, a Spanish professor of ecclesiology, wrote in the Vatican newspaper on the 24th August that the Pope referred to the need for discernment 35 times in the exhortation.