Reflections by Bishop Joseph Galea-Curmi
1. What is Communal Discernment?
- Personal discernment: seeking God’s will in my life, ie what God is asking of me. God’s will becomes the most important aspect.
- Communal discernment: together we seek God’s will for us. Ideally this takes place after all members have been trained in personal discernment and ask: what is God asking of us as a community?
- What is God asking of us as a Christian community today? This should take priority over all other considerations.
- This requires the conviction that the Spirit of God is present and at work within us – by praying and working together, while listening to one another and giving our contribution freely and lovingly.
- Apostolicam Actuositatem: “Only by the light of faith and by meditation on the word of God can one always and everywhere recognise God in Whom ‘we live, and move, and have our being’ (Acts 17:28), seek His will in every event, see Christ in everyone whether he be a relative or a stranger, and make correct judgments about the true meaning and value of temporal things both in themselves and in their relation to man’s final goal” (n.4)
2. Icon: discernment in the Acts of the Apostles
- Acts 15,1-35: The Council of Jerusalem. A process of discernment on an important matter concerning the direction of the early Church.
- They met together and had long discussions; there was silence among the assembly, they listened.
- A process with a conclusion: We agreed among ourselves… it was apparent to the Holy Spirit and to us…
- The fruit of the Spirit sealed the decision: joy and comfort.
3. Attitudes that facilitate communal discernment
Important attitudes in this communal search for God’s will:
- Trust in God. God wants to show us the way and help us make the right choices.
- Mutual trust.
- Interior freedom. Detachment from prejudice, yearning to prove myself right, and pre-set decisions. We should not engage in meetings with pre-set decisions, totally disregarding what others say.
- True listening. We listen attentively. This does not mean that we agree with was is being said, but that we are ready to evaluate and value it.
- Active participation. Against the culture of ‘let them decide’. Against passiveness.
- Communal spirituality. Acknowledging co-responsibility.
4. Method of communal discernment
- Preparation through prayer (a continuous spirit of prayer) and good attitudes.
- Personal preparation and reflection on the subject in question prior to the meeting.
- The person leading the meeting should lead the process of discernment appropriately and create the right atmosphere for it.
- The subject should be outlined clearly. Presentation of alternatives.
- As far as possible everyone should give their opinion rather than solely those endowed with ‘the gift of the word’.
- A clear distinction between dialogue and debate. When we debate, we already know the conclusion and the only intention is to persuade others to agree with us and attack the arguments of those who oppose us. Dialogue requires a listening attitude, speaking our minds freely to contribute to a final decision. In an atmosphere of dialogue, we do not rebut each other.
- We need to seek the true values of the issue we are discussing.
- Arguments both in favour and against the issue are listed and time is allowed for any clarifications to be made.
- In case of disagreement, more time may be required.
- If necessary, a vote may be taken, however the vote is only indicative and does not establish a majority. Difference between discernment and democracy.
- Everyone is important. A decision may be initiated by just one person.
- Reach a decision. The process should not be too heavy as it may be disheartening.
- Discernment is a continuous process so the process may need to be reviewed at a later stage.
- Distinction between decision-making and decision-taking. It is the shepherd of the community who takes decisions and assumes responsibility throughout this process.
5. What hinders communal discernment
We ought to carry out an exercise of self-examination and assess emotions that may hinder us:
- Individualism – personal or as a group
- Difficult characters
- Pre-set decisions
- Councils that feign communion, soulless mechanisms.
In communal discernment, dialogue does not imply that full agreement will always be reached; unanimous agreement would of course be ideal, however we ought to be aware that in spiritual discernment, the majority is not always the best option, hence the Latin saying: “maior pars non necessario sanior pars.”
Communal discernment within the Church requires that we assume personal responsibility in order to reach a conclusion on what God wants for the community. Every member should participate in this discernment together with others who are seeking the best path or what is most pleasing to God.