I am currently the first director of the Service for Discernment in Common of the Canadian Jesuit province. The Service was established in March 2019 to assist Jesuit apostolates and communities, as well as other organizations, with communal discernment processes.
Discernment is a spiritual practice meant to help persons and groups to open up, recognize and make decisions under the motions of the Holy Spirit. God calls persons and organisations alike to work for the greater good, to serve God and others to the best of our God-given abilities. We need navigation tools, not only to orient our energies and wills in this direction, but also to stay the course amidst constantly evolving contexts.
Discernment in common is the practice of discernment at the level of a group, helping the group members through prayer and spiritual conversation, to get a stronger sense of their identity and purpose, to become aware of how God is at work in their corporate history and the contexts in which they operate and to discern where the Spirit might be leading them next.
The Canadian Jesuits have pioneered these practices since the 1980s, notably through the work of John English, sj and George Schemel, sj (an American Jesuit) who adapted the Spiritual Exercices to a corporate setting.
Since each group has specific questions and needs, each process is tailor-made and varies in length and content. The focus might be on a specific decision the group is grappling with or on acquiring a renewed understanding of the group’s mission and ways of operating under changing circumstances.
I am amazed to see how communal discernment processes generally foster a greater sense of communion and a deep spiritual joy among group members. You can sometimes literally see the Spirit at work when in spiritual conversations people gradually open up and learn to become attuned to God’s presence and to one another. I also love the fact that these processes rely on simple and fundamental human activities: praying, reflecting, paying attention to one’s feelings, talking and listening to one another in an authentic, meaningful and just way. There is something of the simplicity and radicality of the Gospel at work in this way of relating to one another.
It is significant to me that communal discernment is a key aspect of the synodality that Pope Francis wishes to promote in the Church. Communal discernment has indeed the potential to reconnect us with our deep calling to communion with God and with one another. In our troubled and polarized times, I believe it can contribute a great deal to reweaving within the Church and beyond a sense of community, creativity and hope.