Catholicism Columns Opinion Thomas Reese: Signs of the Times

Pope Francis teaches discernment for coping with spiritual battles

Pope Francis listens to his message being delivered in several languages during his weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square, at the Vatican, on March 21, 2018. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

(RNS) — Spirituality, whether Christian or Muslim, frequently uses the language of battle, so it is not surprising that Pope Francis promotes the Christian equivalent of a spiritual jihad. Many in the West think jihad only means warfare, whereas it can also mean the spiritual struggle within oneself against sin. In the final chapter of “Gaudete et Exsultate” (“Rejoice and Be Glad”), Francis uses similar language when he writes that “the Christian life is a constant battle.” For him, this battle is not just against the world and our human weakness but also against the devil himself.

(In earlier columns, I discussed chapters 1, 2, 3 and 4.)

For Francis, the devil is not a mythical figure but real. “It is precisely the conviction that this malign power is present in our midst that enables us to understand how evil can at times have so much destructive force,” he writes. “We should not think of the devil as a myth, a representation, a symbol, a figure of speech or an idea. This mistake would lead us to let down our guard, to grow careless and end up more vulnerable.”

Francis is not talking about diabolic possession. Rather, he believes the devil “poisons us with the venom of hatred, desolation, envy and vice. When we let down our guard, he takes advantage of it to destroy our lives, our families and our communities.”

In this spiritual combat, Christians have weapons given by the Lord, writes Francis: “faith-filled prayer, meditation on the word of God, the celebration of Mass, Eucharistic adoration, sacramental Reconciliation, works of charity, community life, missionary outreach.”

In short, he argues, “the cultivation of all that is good, progress in the spiritual life and growth in love are the best counterbalance to evil.”

The Christian struggle, according to Francis, is not just against sin but also against lethargy, where the spiritual life gradually turns lukewarm and “everything then appears acceptable: deception, slander, egotism and other subtle forms of self-centeredness.”

For this reason, Francis writes, we need to “know if something comes from the Holy Spirit or if it stems from the spirit of the world or the spirit of the devil.” This lead Francis to his favorite topic: discernment, a gift we must pray for and develop “through prayer, reflection, reading and good counsel.”

For Francis, discernment is reflection and prayer that leads to decisions in keeping with God’s plan for us.

“Without the wisdom of discernment, we can easily become prey to every passing trend,” he writes. Are we chasing after novelty or are we resistant to change? Christ wants his followers to be free, and in order to be truly free, Francis explains, “he asks us to examine what is within us — our desires, anxieties, fears and questions — and what takes place all around us — ‘the signs of the times’ — and thus to recognize the paths that lead to complete freedom.”

Francis believes that discernment is not just for extraordinary, life-changing decisions. “We need it at all times,” he teaches, “lest we fail to heed the promptings of his grace and disregard his invitation to grow.”

“Often discernment is exercised in small and apparently irrelevant things,” Francis continues, “since greatness of spirit is manifested in simple everyday realities. It involves striving untrammeled for all that is great, better and more beautiful, while at the same time being concerned for the little things, for each day’s responsibilities and commitments.”

Francis acknowledges the importance of psychological and sociological insights in decision-making. But discernment is more than that. It is a grace nourished in prayer. “It seeks a glimpse of that unique and mysterious plan that God has for each of us, which takes shape amid so many varied situations and limitations,” he writes. “It involves more than my temporal well-being, my satisfaction at having accomplished something useful, or even my desire for peace of mind.”

For a Christian, according to Francis, discernment “has to do with the meaning of my life before the Father who knows and loves me, with the real purpose of my life, which nobody knows better than he.”

This is why Francis calls discernment a gift and argues that we must therefore be willing to listen to the Lord and others. “Only if we are prepared to listen,” writes Francis, “do we have the freedom to set aside our own partial or insufficient ideas, our usual habits and ways of seeing things.”

Discernment requires obedience to the gospel and the church teaching, but, “It is not a matter of applying rules or repeating what was done in the past,” he advises, “since the same solutions are not valid in all circumstances and what was useful in one context may not prove so in another.” In fact, “the discernment of spirits liberates us from rigidity, which has no place before the perennial ‘today’ of the risen Lord,” according to Francis.

Discernment also requires understanding God’s patience and timetable. Citing the Gospels, Francis notes that “God does not pour down fire upon those who are unfaithful (cf. Luke 9:54), or allow the zealous to uproot the tares growing among the wheat (cf. Matthew 13:29).” Discernment also requires generosity, understanding that it is more blessed to give than receive. Discernment, like all of Christianity, must embrace the full gospel, including the cross.

In this spiritual battle, we are not alone. “We need, though, to ask the Holy Spirit to liberate us and to expel the fear that makes us ban him from certain parts of our lives,” Francis concludes. “God asks everything of us, yet he also gives everything to us.” The God of Francis “does not want to enter our lives to cripple or diminish them, but to bring them to fulfillment.”

As a result, discernment, according to Francis, “is not a solipsistic self-analysis or a form of egotistical introspection, but an authentic process of leaving ourselves behind in order to approach the mystery of God, who helps us to carry out the mission to which he has called us, for the good of our brothers and sisters.”

(The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.)

About the author

Thomas Reese

The Rev. Thomas J. Reese, a Jesuit priest, is a Senior Analyst at RNS. Previously he was a columnist at the National Catholic Reporter (2015-17) and an associate editor (1978-85) and editor in chief (1998-2005) at America magazine. He was also a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University (1985-98 & 2006-15) where he wrote Archbishop, A Flock of Shepherds, and Inside the Vatican. Earlier he worked as a lobbyist for tax reform. He has a doctorate in political science from the University of California Berkeley. He entered the Jesuits in 1962 and was ordained a priest in 1974 after receiving a M.Div from the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley.

28 Comments

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  • Others would say that discernment begins with an honest assessment of that which is objectively, verifiably, and undeniably true. These days, with Donald Trump setting the tone as president, there seems to be some confusion about what is objectively, verifiably and undeniably true. For example, when the emperor tells us he’s wearing the most beautiful, the costliest, the rarest, the finest orange clothes in the world when in fact our eyes tell us he’s clearly wearing nothing at all, there’s a problem. Houston, we have a problem. Maybe Pope Francis can help us with that, although I doubt very seriously that prayer is the answer. Turning off Fox “News,” however, might be a good start.

  • Discernment is more than mere interior reflection, it’s praying, that is having a conversation with God.

    And it’s not just that…it should also involve praying with content from the Church’s teaching (Scripture, formal teaching, etc.), these provide “criteria” if you will, objective, external criteria, not just our own moppy selfish, excuse making thoughts.

    Discernment may also mean consulting others who themlelves have received substantial formation and who are in clear possession of knolwedge about criteria of moral actions.

    The conscience is a part of the intellect, it’s not our feelings about this or that moral matter. It’s “CRITERIA”, intellectual content externally received and internally weighed.

    Discernment is the opposite of a feeling fest.

  • “For this reason, Francis writes, we need to “know if something comes from the Holy Spirit or if it stems from the spirit of the world or the spirit of the devil.” This lead Francis to his favorite topic: discernment, a gift we must pray for and develop “through prayer, reflection, reading and good counsel.””

    I believe Francis and Rev. Reese conveyed this point without the trappings of hubris.
    You, not so much. Your verbiage carries the scent of heavily scripted televangelism laced with Jim & Tammy Faye Bakker cosmetics.

  • I’ll let you wallow in the vagueness and dullness of both jesuits.

    Hubris? You’ve been trolling the internet too long.

  • Noope. I recognize tautology when I hear and read it.
    I also read quite a bit of non-fiction and am into legal case studies suggested by my conservative classmates who are lawyers in several fields.
    So, try again Torquemada.

  • Another poster with more vocab to show than intellect to use properly.

    Vanity is the vice of placing one’s security in what others think of them.

  • You’ve just pointed out you own ignorance Torquemada. Break out your sanbenito and assume the position.

  • I never could understand the Navy’s opinion of themselves when they were driving me to sandy places. Goofy, fat, talkative.

  • Hope that he can discern and clarify the conflation of patriarchal gender ideology and current doctrines supportive of the patriarchal priesthood.

  • Didn’t read it all so perhaps it’s my fault, but is this guy ever going to direct his teaching/comments on how to become a Christian and follow Jesus?

  • Hell, I’ve been waiting for Christians themselves to follow their Jesus for decades.

  • If Jesus’ followers refuse to respect and obey his teachings, why should I? 

    If Jesus’ teachings don’t have the power to change his followers for the better, what value can they have? 

    To be clear: It’s impossible for outside observers of Christianity to understand the religion, without watching how its followers speak and behave. What a religion’s followers do with a religion, makes its content and value clear. For you to tell people the things a religion’s followers do with it, is not relevant to evaluate it, is so absurd as to be laughable. 

    Christians are their religion, and Christianity is them. The two are inseparable. That’s just how it is. 

  • That’s merely your opinion, an effort to gas light as a way pad your recruitment numbers.

  • They are just as much sinners as you are Psi – the only difference is, the are forgiven.

  • Re: “They are just as much sinners as you are Psi – the only difference is, the are forgiven.” 

    Ah, I get it! So Christians can profess to follow their precious Jesus, but then run around refusing to obey any of his teachings, then when called out for their vociferous refusal to obey them, say, “Oh well, I’m just a sinner, but I’m forgiven!” and that’s the end of it? 

    No freaking way will that laughable bilge ever work on me. I’m nowhere near stupid enough to fall for that. Anyone who actually values Jesus would want to behave in ways he specified and would work hard to follow his teachings at every opportunity. They wouldn’t ignore them, and when asked, cook up rationales (like yours, i.e. “Boo hoo, I’m just a sinner, it’s too hard for me, boo hoo hoo”) for why they don’t need to obey them. 

    As for your “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven,” I can’t think of a more horrific justification for all the worst sorts of behavior. Christianity is little more than a criminal racket wrapped up in a false cloak of high morals and vaunted spirituality. Your “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven” garbage is proof of that. 

    As for me — I’m no “sinner” because I know there is no such thing as “sin.” It’s just a label that Christians like yourself slap on things they don’t like, in an effort to disparage them when there is no other rational reason to disparage them. I prefer condemning behaviors which happen to be objectively worthy of condemnation, rather than inventing ridiculous metaphysical justifications (e.g. “sin”) for doing so. 

    One last thing: I really don’t freaking care what your deity has “forgiven” or not. His/her/its forgiveness is irrelevant to me. If Christians behave in harmful ways, then — well! — they’ve behaved in harmful ways, and deserve nothing less than to be treated as people who’ve caused harm. Giving them a “pass” because they say their deity has “forgiven” them is something I refuse ever to do … for any reason, or at any time. Period. 

  • You are correct, anyone who follow Jesus would want to behave in ways He specified. That is very true, but, we are still here in the flesh and are going to sin – hopefully not unrepentantly (they wouldn’t be Christian then). That is why Christ paid the penalty for our sin.

  • Re: “… but, we are still here in the flesh and are going to sin …” 

    So, your Jesus doesn’t have the power to make you better people? Really!? What good is it, then, even to be a Christian at all, if you remain just as prone to “sin” even as a Christian? 

    Re: “… we are still here in the flesh and are going to sin – hopefully not unrepentantly (they wouldn’t be Christian then).” 

    Many, many Christians who “sin” are, in fact, very unrepentant. For example, there’s a legislator in Michigan who, a few years ago, used a variety of the old “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven” claim in order to justify his own wrongdoing. But, he’s only one example of many I could cite. 

    You can tell me over and over again that such people aren’t “‘Real’ Christians®,” but really, I don’t care. They say they’re Christians so as far as I know, that’s precisely what they are. If they aren’t Christians according to YOUR definition of the word, then it’s up to YOU to enforce that. Correct them, discipline them, force them to change their ways … or not. It’s really up to you. But, if you don’t respect your own religion enough to police it, then you can’t rationally expect outside observers of it, like me, to respect it, either, or respect you for following it. You just can’t! Telling me just to ignore such people because they’re inconvenient for you is not going to work, any more than “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!” did in The Wizard of Oz

  • Actually He does have the power to make us better people. We won’t be perfected though until Heaven.

  • Re: “Actually He does have the power to make us better people.” 

    No he doesn’t. I’ve seen zero evidence of any such power. 

    Re: “We won’t be perfected though until Heaven.” 

    Aha. I get it! So until you die, and get to “Heaven,” you’re free to do whatever you want, to anyone or anything you want, any time you want, any way you want, and the rest of us are all required to swallow it because your deity supposedly already forgave you. 

    Right? 

    Did I miss anything? I’m pretty sure I didn’t. 

    I can’t think of any way to incentivize horrible behavior than to reassure people that their deity has already forgiven them for everything they ever do. Now you understand why your religion is perhaps the most morally-reprehensible philosophies ever devised. 

  • You see His power every day the air that you breathe, the fact that plants grow, and much much more.

  • Nope. Never seen a speck of your deity’s putative “power.” Never once! 

    I defy you to prove otherwise. If you can’t, then you’ve made an empty claim which I’m free to ignore as the baseless garbage it is. 

    More to the point, though, as I explained to you, your religion’s philosophy incentivizes and even promotes bad behavior. It’s horrific. 

  • (Don’t mind me, just some late reflections, no diss.)
    Another sinless poster? Hmm.

    See, if there’s no such thing as sin, I get to assign MY own free pass for MY stuff, and blow off MY favorite little heartfelt rebellions against God.

    Plus, if there’s no sin, I even get to say that I, not God, am the final authority on what’s really the objective. I ain’t no sinner like you no-good “criminal racket” Christians, I’m all sinless, and I don’t need no Savior either.

    And God (if he exists), better not tell me otherwise — or I might even hafta git mad at Him and tell Him off!!

  • Re: “Another sinless poster? Hmm.” 

    There’s no “hmm” about it, except to understand that the whole concept of “sin” is a contrivance to condemn things that can’t be condemned for rational reasons. I deny that there’s any objective reality behind the concept of “sin,” therefore I am not a “sinner,” the concept itself being inherently absurd. 

    Re: “See, if there’s “no such thing as sin”, I get to assign MY own free pass for MY stuff, and blow off MY favorite heartfelt rebellions against God.” 

    Uh, no. That’s not how morality or ethics work, in the real world, with or without a deity to dictate what is “sin” and therefore forbidden. Try again, this time, rationally and logically. 

    Re: “And God (if he exists), better not tell me otherwise — or I might even hafta get mad at Him and tell Him off!!” 

    If your deity exists, s/he/it knows where to find me and knows how to convey his/her/its wishes to me — if s/he/it wishes to. To date, however, s/he/it obviously hasn’t wished to tell me anything.