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Unleashing the Spirit of communal discernment

Fr Michael Smith SJ, International Education Officer for the Jesuit Refugee Service in Rome, speaks with Pat Coyle of Irish Jesuit Communications about the Ignatian practice of communal discernment or discernment in common. In the interview, the New Zealander explains the dynamic process in a step-by-step approach and looks to the founding of the Jesuits and the dealing of the clerical sexual abuse scandal by the Australian Jesuits as fruitful examples.

Fr Michael first presents the case of individual discernment and tells the story of his parents who embodied this process. They did not word it in Ignatian terms, but through ordinary considerations in their family knew it to be a very similar process.¬†“The processes of discernment are fairly straight forward as a matter of fact”, he says, but “being the sorts of groups that can discern together, that’s a different matter.” He cites many individual preferences that can complicate the discernment and ponders if people are “free enough spiritually” to make decisions.

Regarding General Congregation 36 (the governing body of the Jesuits) in 2016, he says it was decided that there ought to be an “emphasis on discernment in common linked with apostolic planning at all levels of the mission of the Society of Jesus”. Father General Arturo Sosa has written three letters on this, pointing out that Jesuits and colleagues need individual conversion, communal conversion and organisational conversion for discernment in common to be effective. “We are always being called to go further” says Fr Michael, to “open up into new life”.

He refers to former Australian Provincial Mark Raper who took a pastoral rather than a legal approach in dealing with the clerical sexual abuse scandal. This was considered “ground-breaking” in an environment where victims were overlooked due to institutions wanting to protect their reputation. In the Spirit of communal discernment, Fr Michael notes that Fr Arturo Sosa relies on the authority of the General Congregations of the Society rather than on his own authority. Pope Francis is also asking the Church to engage in the same process.