Cardinal Blase J. Cupich

‘The Joy of Love’: Dimensions of discernment for disciples

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Rev. Hector Návalo, C.M.F., to pastor of Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish, East 91st Street, effective immediately.

Rev. Francis Xavier Rayappan, S.V.D., to associate pastor of St. Joseph the Worker Parish, Wheeling, effective immediately.

Rev. Sergio Enrique Rivas Tamayo, O.S.B., to associate pastor of St. Agnes of Bohemia Parish, South Central Park Avenue, effective immediately.

Rev. Homero Sanchez Gomez, O.S.A., to associate pastor of St. Rita of Cascia Parish, South Fairfield Avenue, effective immediately.

Rev. Brian Simpson, to administrator of Queen of the Rosary Parish, Elk Grove Village, effective immediately.

Rev. Marek Duran, to director of the Abramowicz Seminary Program at the University of St. Mary of the Lake, while retaining duties on the faculty of the University of St. Mary of the Lake, effective July 1, 2016.

Rev. Collins Nyache, from associate pastor of St. Ailbe Parish, South Harper Avenue, to full-time chaplain at University of Chicago Medical Center, while retaining residence at St. Ailbe Parish, effective July 1, 2016.

Rev. Daniel Cassidy, from resident of St. Ita Parish, West Catalpa Avenue, to resident of Sacred Heart Parish, Winnetka, effective July 1, 2016.

Rev. Andrew Luczak, from pastor of St. Isaac Jogues Parish, Niles, to retire after 46 years of service to the church.

This is the fourth in a series of articles on Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation “The Joy of Love.” To read the other entries in this series of reflections, click here.

“The Joy of Love,” Pope Francis’ response to the 2014 and 2015 synods of bishops, marks a fresh and even revolutionary approach to the church’s teaching on marriage and family life. As I noted earlier, this approach is anchored in the Holy Father’s insight that, as we see throughout Scripture, God has chosen families as the privileged place to reveal himself and his saving action in the world.

Pope Francis hopes to inspire families and married couples to value more fully their experiences as graced experiences — as moments that help us all discern God’s call. Likewise, Francis also uses this insight to urge pastors to view the families they serve not as problems to be solved, but as opportunities to better know God’s will.

Marriage is best understood as “a dynamic path to personal development,” the pope writes. As such, pastors should “make room for the consciences of the faithful, who very often respond as best they can to the Gospel amid their limitations, and are capable of carrying out their own discernment in complex situations.” The Holy Father adds that pastors “have been called to form consciences, not to replace them.”

Conscience, according to the Second Vatican Council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, is the place where God’s “voice echoes in (our) depths” (n. 16). What then is involved in forming our consciences in order to help us hear God’s voice within us?

Of course, I can’t be exhaustive in this space, but consider four decisions all of us must make in the process of forming our consciences.

First, forming a faithful conscience means learning to recognize the integrity or wholeness of our lives. Our lives do not amount to a series of unrelated and unconnected episodes. Rather, our lives form a single and integral sacred journey.

It isn’t always easy to see things this way. Life seems to move faster than ever, to be busier, more scheduled. This tempts us to view our lives as made up of discrete parts. Many people no longer live near their families or those from their childhood years; we are more mobile than ever. This makes it all too easy to lose a sense of connection to the communities that formed us. Those crucial childhood experiences can seem lost to memory, rather than present to us in every moment because they form the foundation on which we build our lives.

This is the age we live in. It is a secular age, known for its hyper-individualism and emphasis on fulfillment in the moment. This undermines our sense of our lives as coherent, sacred and unique stories in which God plays an indispensable role.

So the first thing one must ask in the process of discernment is: How do I think about my life? Do I approach it only in terms of what is happening in this moment or that, or do I view it as a dynamic journey with God and to God, as Scripture teaches?

The biblical narratives of people such as Abraham, Sarah, David and Mary, reveal their own unique journeys with God. In each of their lives, there comes a moment in which they are called to live the examined life. That is the second decision we must make as we practice discernment: Will I take responsibility for my life by working to hear God’s call?

You have heard the term “examination of conscience.” Unfortunately it has too often been portrayed as making a check list of our failures. But this is too simplistic. If we look at the holy men and women in Scripture, we discover a much richer approach to discerning the will of God. It is one marked by an openness to how God is calling each of us in our particular circumstances, not only to correct our sinfulness — which we must do — but also to strike out on new paths with a sense of wonder about our lives.

So an authentic discernment must involve questions such as, “How and when have I experienced God’s grace and call in moments of loss, accomplishment, sinfulness and reconciliation? What have I learned about myself? What good habits and virtues have I acquired in those experiences? What weaknesses have I struggled to overcome on my own because I have not allowed God’s grace to heal them?

But as members of a vast and ancient community of faith, we know that we are not alone in this. So a third decision involves having the humility to accept that we all need help in order to discern God’s will. Without that help, we can all too easily allow ourselves to believe that we have all the answers. We can find assistance in the wisdom that has been handed down to us over the ages, crystallized in the Word of God, proclaimed by the church, and visible in the examples of our brothers and sisters in faith.

We shouldn’t view this wisdom as a list of do’s and don’t’s to be followed unreflectively. Rather we should approach it as a conversation with our forebears in faith. Our ancestors serve as a “cloud of witnesses,” the communion of saints whose lives were purified by a Gospel that fulfills the law and the prophets. These elders challenge us to live an authentic discipleship of Jesus.

Although it is true, as Pope Francis notes in quoting St. Thomas Aquinas, that general rules cannot provide absolutely for all particular situations, they “can never be disregarded or neglected.” The task for us is to enter into a conversation with this wisdom of the Christian tradition, as we discern the will of God in the particular circumstances of our lives.

The fourth decision in forming a faithful conscience has to do with making God’s mercy the basis of our discipleship in Jesus and our relationship with others. Mercy cannot be just an abstract theory or something we aspire to, but something we come to know. It must be evident in the way we live our lives.

God offers his mercy in every moment. It grounds everything we do. It defines our relationship with God and with others. Last week Pope Francis spoke about this in a video message for the Celebration of the Jubilee Year of Mercy in the Americas, which took place in Bogota, Columbia. St. Paul, the pope observes, “does not say: ‘The Lord spoke and told me’ or ‘The Lord showed me or taught me.’ He says: ‘He treated me with mercy.’ For Paul, his relationship with Jesus was sealed by the way he treated him. Far from being an idea, a desire, a theory — much less an ideology — mercy is a concrete way of ‘touching’ weakness, of bonding with others, of drawing closer to others.”

The test for discerning whether our consciences are being formed faithfully is whether our experience of God’s mercy defines our relationship with God and with others. Are we willing to treat people with mercy, as God treats us with mercy? Are we willing to meet people where they are and to love them unconditionally, as God loves us?

As Pope Francis expresses it, this is about “a way of acting that makes us give the best of ourselves so that others can feel ‘treated’ in such a way that they feel that in their lives the last word has not yet been spoken. Treated in such a way that those who feel crushed by the burden of their sins can feel relieved at being given another chance.” This imperative of mercy flows from our knowledge that “mercy is the concrete act by which God seeks to relate to his children.”

In the end, forming a good conscience cannot be reduced to simplistic questions of following a law, doing what others expect or feeling good about myself. Neither can the idea of conscience be reduced to listening to the angel on my right shoulder rather than the devil on the left. It is deeper than that. Conscience involves the orientation of our very being. Do we turn toward God? Do we do so in a way that respects the whole of creation?

At the heart of forming one’s conscience is one’s experience of God, whose name, the Holy Father reminds us, is Mercy.