Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger
Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger
A good friend of mine brought to my attention that on Sunday, June 5, the Solemnity of Pentecost, our Holy Father Pope Francis offered a homiletic catechesis on discernment. Having taken to a wheelchair of late, as a result of chronic knee pain, one can only imagine how many thoughts must be going on in his mind about his own plans and his pastoral role as a world leader in addressing all the other crises going on in the world. Not to mention any number of rumors and speculation about his own health.

The word “crisis” actually was borrowed from the Latin, which in turn came from the Greek root meaning “discrimination or decision,” hence, an important turning point for action. Not infrequently, a person seeking my counsel at an important moment of decision in their life, will ask me about taking time to “discern” the correct course of action. It might be a member of the clergy whom I have asked to accept a new position, but it could be anyone who is dealing with an emotionally difficult period in a relationship or assignment, a career opportunity, an investment or a health-related matter, either personal or involving another. How does one decide what is the right course of action? What goes into the process of discernment?

St. Ignatius of Loyola offers some sound advice through his Spiritual Exercises from which Pope Francis has clearly drawn throughout his life, being a member of the Society of Jesus, which St. Ignatius founded. On Pentecost Sunday, he offered advice on how to distinguish the voice of the Holy Spirit from “the voice of the spirit of evil,” which is what, after all, true discernment is all about. Contrary to many popular applications of the process, it is not so much about “getting my act together” or “following my heart,” as it is listening to what the Holy Spirit is saying to me about where I should go.

Those of us who have been participating in the synodal process will readily recognize this practice which Pope Francis has invited the Church to undergo throughout the world. When we come together we are placing ourselves at the disposal of God and one another so that we can be open to where the Holy Spirit is leading us together because, after all, we are God’s Church, not our own club or movement. The Holy Spirit is available to all of us and each of us at every moment, every crossroads of our lives and “suggests to us the best path to follow,” our Holy Father said.

It is common for a person faced with a difficult decision to be seeking affirmation or consolation for a path already chosen — to pray, as it were, that God will “be reasonable” and see things the way I would like to go. The Holy Spirit, however, said Pope Francis, “will never tell you that on your journey everything is going just fine. … No, he corrects you; he makes you weep for your sins; he pushes you to change, to fight against your lies and deceptions, even when that calls for hard work, interior struggle and sacrifice.” 

This is remarkably direct spiritual medicine that he offers, a far cry from “feel good” theology that many seek from their favorite preacher. It is a very sobering reminder to us who seek a more welcoming church community that this not be confused with finding a church that agrees with everything we are thinking because it is the role of the Holy Spirit to lead, guide and correct us.

“Whereas the evil spirit, on the contrary, pushes you to always do what you think and you find pleasing. He makes you think that you have the right to use your freedom any way you want. Then, once you are left feeling empty inside — it is bad, this feeling of emptiness inside, many of us have felt it — and when you are left feeling empty inside, he blames you, becomes the accuser, and throws you down, destroys you.”

Yes, it is true. Like any real friend, the Holy Spirit will always come to us in our need, and never abandon us. Friends always meet friends where they are, but true friends never leave us where we are. “The Holy Spirit, correcting you along the way, never leaves you lying on the ground, never. He takes you by the hand, comforts you and constantly encourages you,” he continued. This is doubtless what our Holy Father means when he speaks so repeatedly of “accompaniment.”

Pope Francis underlined that feelings of “bitterness, pessimism and negativity” never come from the Holy Spirit, but come from the spirit of evil, which “stokes impatience and self-pity … complaints and criticism, the tendency to blame others for all our problems.”

“The Holy Spirit on the other hand urges us never to lose heart and always to start over again. … Get up! How? By jumping right in, without waiting for someone else. And by spreading hope and joy, not complaints; never envying others, never — envy is the door through which the evil spirit enters — but the Holy Spirit ... leads you to rejoice in the successes of others,” he said.

The Holy Spirit, we can see from this, is quite “practical” and “wants us to concentrate on the here and now, because the time and place in which we find ourselves are themselves grace-filled.”

“The spirit of evil, however, would pull us away from the here and now, and put us somewhere else. Often he anchors us to the past: to our regrets, our nostalgia, our disappointments. Or else he points us to the future, fueling our fears, illusions and false hopes. But not the Holy Spirit. The Spirit leads us to love, here and now,” the Pope said.

Pope Francis speaks of the Holy Spirit who “rejuvenates the Church” and teaches the Church “to be an open house without walls of division.” Those divisions may well be attitudes from the past that haunt us in the present and blind our vision of what we may become, locking us down too deeply in the narrowness of our own prejudices and desires.

“Brothers and sisters, let us sit at the school of the Holy Spirit, so that he can teach us all things. Let us invoke him each day, so that he can remind us to make God’s gaze upon us our starting point, to make decisions by listening to his voice, and to journey together as Church, docile to him and open to the world,” he concludes in a prayerful way. And, I might add, is this not the way to begin all our prayer — letting God look at us and listening to what God has to say to us, personally and together? Amidst so much noise and chaos in the world, this is a great spiritual tonic for peace.