Growing in Discernment: Aids for Growing in the Ability to Discern

By Diego Fares SJ, 21 April 2024
People in prayer during the Diocese of Parramatta World Youth Day pilgrimage launch at St John XXIII Catholic College, Stanhope Gardens. Image: Diocese of Parramatta


In a private meeting with Polish Jesuits in Krakow, Pope Francis said: “the Church needs to grow in discernment; in her capacity to discern.”[1]  He emphasized the importance of priestly formation and exhorted the Jesuits to work together with seminarians, especially by “giving them what we ourselves received from Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises: the wisdom of discernment.”[2]

But what is discernment? There are a lot of good theoretical definitions of it. Here I simply take it to mean the capacity of our human reason to search for and find the opportune moment and the best means for realizing the good.[3] On a spiritual level, the opportune moment and the best concrete means are those that are pleasing to God. These do not always coincide with what human prudence suggests. In fact, the practical wisdom of the cross is a folly for some and foolishness for others.

The Holy Father speaks in a particular way about our growth in the ability to discern. This means embarking on the hard journey of pastoral conversion. Just as sin and the concrete suffering of every poor person – indeed, of hundreds of millions of poor people – are the proper receptacles of mercy, so the conscience of every person is the proper receptacle of the gift of discernment: the shared conscience of every family and every living, acting person. Helping them to grow in discernment involves patiently and courageously accompanying them on the journey. The focal point is the conscience of every person: the intimate place where everyone assumes responsibility for his or her acts and grows in the capacity to “deliberate” and “discern” how well he or she is proceeding in life.

So what, concretely, is discernment? Above all, it is a process rather than an “algebraic” method of finding a solution. If we keep the Gospel in mind, we see that it is not a sophisticated process. The Lord entrusts to our simple human capacity the discernment of the weather – for example, whether it will rain or not – for we may indeed discern everything, assuring us that it is not possible for us to be unable to discern properly the moment when grace is present (cf. Lk 12:55). In this sense, the spiritual discernment in which we are interested is not merely an intellectual activity reserved for the wise and insightful, but precisely the opposite: it is the capacity of the meek and simple to recognize “the moment of grace” when God is at work.

The New Testament tells us that, besides being a human capacity to act well (i.e. prudently), discernment is one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit (cf. 1 Cor 12:10). To grow in it, we must, above all, ask for it persistently in prayer like King Solomon when he asked God for the gift of wisdom to lead his people (cf. 1 Kings 3:9–12).

Finally, our concept of discernment must also embody the notion of a journey and of God’s plan of salvation. Discernment helps us to mature in our desire for the good[4], although not in a once–and–for–all way like a full and total act of faith, but rather by setting us on the journey of a process consisting of three moments: sensing and recognizing various motivations for acting; ascertaining whether these bring us closer or separate us from the criteria of the Gospel; and our ensuing action.[5]

Insofar as it involves the capacity of allowing us to be conformed to reality, discernment, by its very nature, is always opened to the other, constantly making small adjustments, just as the eye continually adjusts to the light and exterior forms. For this reason, discernment is always incomplete, even though there is a certain closure at every step rightly taken.

Furthermore, discernment is constantly in need of assistance (no one can be prudent in every facet of life) and confirmation. Even though this assistance and confirmation are constitutive conditions, they are not external since they involve a discernment of the other – i.e., reality – so that I can move within that reality; and, in a radical sense, they involve discerning what is pleasing to the Other, namely the Lord our God. Discernment does not surreptitiously lead us into opportunities and difficulties that exist in a neutral reality; rather, they move us along the way of God’s salvific plan, allowing each person to find his or her place of service, the moments of grace to act, the ways to act, and the respective individual charism by which the Spirit works for the common good.

In this journey of growing in the capacity to discern, there are three moments that can be of particular help. The first is the discernment of obstacles that can impede this gift that is so open to the Spirit and fruitful for all. The second is that of consolidating some general criteria that can be helpful to appreciate what is at play when we talk about discernment. The third is the original and effective help brought by the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius for anyone who desires to enter into the process of discernment or accompany others along that journey.

Removing obstacles

The first practical step consists in removing obstacles. It is not so much a matter of merely removing the day–to–day temptations that arise when one embarks on the journey of discernment, but rather of removing more serious temptations, and specifically two that, concretely, can literally cause the journey to evaporate.

The first way is by inordinately “thrusting the discernment process into heaven” or elevating it to the category of a rare and exceptional charism that only perfect people can perform. According to this notion, discernment is reserved only for the elite: monks in the desert or those entering religious life.

Another way the journey can evaporate is by “burying it underground.” The things offered for choice must be “good things,”[6] but there are legalistic positions that subject all particular cases to a general norm with no room for exceptions or attenuating circumstances.

The encyclical Amoris Laetitia clearly counters positions that categorically exclude many circumstances that need to be taken into consideration, showing that one can always “grow in the life of grace and charity, while receiving the Church’s help to this end.”[7]

These first two temptations are to be firmly rejected, for “discernment is incarnate.” Discernment is not merely for the elite; it is a grace given by the Spirit to God’s faithful people as a whole, as we shall see. And since it consists in clarifying the concrete situation in order to reinforce a prudent choice, discernment is the practical pole that, in tension with the theoretical pole, constitutes the essence of every law.

On the other hand, even when the practical case perfectly coincides with the theoretical formulation of a law, there is still need for discernment. What happens in this case is that the process of intellectual deliberation and the consent of the will are shortened: discernment is instantaneous. So it is possible to pass directly to the application of the law as formulated. But when the reality is complex, discerning is not only convenient, it is an obligation: one must take the time necessary to deliberate well on everything in play.[8]

“Growth in discernment” should not be understood as a virtue reserved for people with a special sense of “perspicacity” or for “special cases only.”[9] Rather, it stands at the heart of human action. It has our ongoing activity of judgment at its core: to seek the good as the end of all our actions and to reject evil. We place ourselves at the juncture where, before judging and carrying out what we must do, we take the time to deliberate and weigh the reality in all its complexity.

This mediating step between theory and practice, between the good that is given to us and the good we must do, is what we call “discernment.” To grow in this gift is decisive, especially at the moment when theoretical formulations fall short; whenever we find ourselves in the middle of various and conflicting paradigms and people feel obliged to make decisions that constantly afflict their conscience; whenever, rather than being encouraged to make a possible step along the way of the good, people are burdened with the weight of facing a seemingly all–or–nothing, black–and–white situation.

Everyone must and can grow in discernment. “We also find it hard to 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. We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them” (AL37). The rewards of spiritual maturity far surpass the fleeting anxiety and momentary confusion that arise whenever we feel we cannot limit ourselves to “applying laws” indiscriminately.

The Gospel shows us how Jesus is the Word made flesh who discerns the good in the concrete situations of the lives of sinners. He does this precisely in the style of a servant who neither stifles the smoldering wick nor snaps the bent reed. Jesus discerns not by condemning, but by pardoning with mercy and encouraging everyone to take a step along the way of the good. He discerns without getting caught up in abstract discussions, and even by sometimes overstepping the formal law so that the person may have a new chance that will allow him to fulfill the law in love rather than as a mere duty.

Some criteria that may help us to see the value of discernment

The discernment of spirits has its foundation in the First Letter of John where the Apostle exhorts us to remain in the Lord and to not give credence to any spirit arbitrarily, but rather to “put spirits to the test” (1 John 4:1). The criterion for discerning the truth or falsity of spirits is the Incarnation. As the pope says, “It is so simple: if what I desire or what I think goes along the way of the Incarnation of the Word – of the Lord who “came in the flesh” – then it is from God; but if it is not on that way, then it is not from God.”[10]

1) The first criterion is that spiritual discernment is a practical wisdom that unites contemplation and action. There is no true discernment of God’s will that does not keep in mind the totality of His plan of salvation, and there is no plan of salvation that does not take into account the concrete discernment of those who carry it forward in history. The pope said to theologians: “the theologian … strives to show how the truths of the faith form an organic unity harmoniously articulated. Moreover, it is the theologian’s task to listen attentively and to discern and interpret the various ways of speaking that are characteristic of our time, to know how to judge them in the light of God’s Word so that revealed truth can be understood to the core, be better understood, and better presented in more fitting forms.”[11]

2) Another key criterion that is not so obvious or well known is that which Pope Francis calls “the time and the moment.” The Holy Father constantly reminds us that time is from God. Hence there is no “wisdom over time.” “There is in fact no human power that can exercise authority over time. The only possible power with regard to time ‘must be given by the Lord: it is hope.’” “The Christian, to live in the moment without being deceived, must orient himself with prayer and discernment. (For this reason,) Jesus reproves those who do not know how to discern the moment (cf. Mk 13:28–29). … This is what discernment is for: to know true signs, to know the road we must follow in the present moment.”[12]

This is a simple but dense formulation. In saying that there is no “wisdom over time,” intelligence is somehow preserved from falling into the realm of abstraction where it gets bogged down because it wants to over–systematize itself. When it accepts time as a gift, the intellect is able to turn to the contemplation of the mystery of God and to the discernment of the way the Lord wants for us here and now in the present moment. In theology, logic does not exercise an abstract power over time. Theology is the logic of love that acts in history. It is a logic that discovers and puts into action the gift of merciful and gratuitous love that is always surprising, always comprehensible and clear simply as love.

3It is always necessary to keep in mind that for Pope Francis discernment is a grace that the Holy Spirit gives to the People of God as a whole as it is received in the midst of them and oriented toward their salvation. “The People of God as a whole is a people of prophets. Through the gift of the Holy Spirit, members of the Church possess a ‘sense of faith.’ This is a sort of ‘spiritual instinct’ that allows them to ‘sense with the Church’ (sentire cum Ecclesia) and to discern that which is in conformity with the Apostolic faith and the spirit of the Gospel.”[13] Therefore, discernment is part of the very fabric of the faithful People of God in their daily lives.[14]  Underlying the notion is the image of the Father whom it pleased to reveal Himself to little ones (cf. Matt 11:25–26).[15]

4) A final criterion is the struggle against the evil spirit. The only way to avoid equating the discernment of spirits with prudence or merely human discretion – or worse, with deep psychology – is to have a clear idea and experience of faith regarding the action of the devil in the spiritual life. Practically speaking, fear to name the devil explicitly or to personalize that which comes from a “bad spirit” – as the Spiritual Exercises put it – leads to a demonization of persons or human constructs.

In this sense, Saint Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises prove to be a unique aid in the moment of discernment. If we had to find a difference between the Christocentric spirituality of Saint Ignatius and that of other contemporary authors, we could say that in the latter we do not find as much emphasis on the mystery of Satan as we do in Ignatius and the great spiritual tradition that arose in his wake. As a result, the Ignatian way emphasizes that the darkness of the devil’s works make the mystery of Christ all the brighter. In the Exercises, just as all the themes of grace find their unity in the person of Christ, so all the themes of sin find their center in the person of Satan. Satan is the adversary; not in the sense that Christ and Satan are placed on an equal level, but rather that Satan’s action renders Christ’s action more evident (its necessity, its gratuity, its continuity, and so on).

The aid of the Exercises in the process of discernment[16]

Let us look briefly at the originality and the true assistance that Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises bring to anyone desiring to enter into the process of discernment or accompany others along the way.

The Spiritual Exercises are the “Gospel” of Ignatius, his message of Christ, his kerygma.[17] Everything one finds in the Exercises – the themes Ignatius draws from Scripture and the exercises of contemplation and meditation he developed, the order in which he structures them, the practical advice he gives for prayer, the guidelines for discernment, the time he allots for each step, etc. – is a proclamation that aims to provoke those spiritual movements on the basis of which the one undertaking the exercises will make a major decision or radically change his life, placing it at the service of Christ in a concrete way.

If, in a certain sense, the proposal to limit the theme of discernment to Ignatius’ Exercises seems reductive, we must also keep in mind that there are some charisms in the Church that are universal and concrete. These do not exclude other charisms, but condense them as they are complementary. They are graces that the Spirit gives to a holy person for the common good.

Saint Ignatius is a theologian. In his Exercises – and especially in his notion of the discernment of spirits and of arriving at a decision – he works as a theologian: certainly not in the same way scholastic theologians work, whose task, as he himself says, is “more properly to define and clarify,” but rather in the manner of “positive doctors like Saint Jerome, Saint Augustine, Saint Gregory, and others,” “of whom it is more characteristic to move affections to love and serve the Lord our God in all things.”[18] The theology of Saint Ignatius is a theology of discernment that seeks to help people to “love and serve the Lord our God in all things” (Spiritual Exercises363). His theology is not one of ideas, but one that aims to transform lives.

Consequently, just as recourse to the Fathers or to Saint Thomas on speculative questions is not considered one way but a universal way – namely the way of the Catholic tradition – so too, when it comes to discernment, recourse to Saint Ignatius means recourse to the one whom the Church has named the patron of spiritual retreats.[19]  And to practice the exercises is something that the Church recommends as the “the most commendable and fruitful” of methods,[20] not for any particular type of person, but for all Christians.

The flexibility of the Exercises

Characteristic of Ignatius’ Exercises is a flexibility – a “making oneself everything for everyone” – in helping someone desire to follow Jesus Christ a bit more closely, choosing to become a servant of the Lord for the good of the Church and to reform his own life.

Pius XI tapped into this when he recommended the Exercises of Saint Ignatius for their flexibility: for their “admirable adaptation to every social class and the individual circumstances of every individual.” Pope Pius emphasized the theology of the Exercises both in the theoretical sense and the practical sense, “the solidity of their spiritual teaching, free of the dangers and illusions of the pseudo–mystics,” “the organic unity of their parts, the marvelous order of the truths presented for meditation,” as well as their effective ability “to lead people from a liberation from sin to the highest echelons of prayer and the love of God.”[21]

Along the same lines, Pope Francis believes that this kind of formation should be directed “primarily to priests (in order to) help them in the dynamic of pastoral discernment in the light of the Exercises which respect the law but also know how to go beyond the law. This is an important task for the Society,”[22] which must be first in allowing itself to be modeled after the Exercises.[23]

The steps to prepare for discernment

Spiritual discernment is not an individual act of an autonomous subject but a very personal act of the one who makes the decision and makes himself into a servant in the Church for the common good. Before choosing a state of life or reforming one’s life in the way the Lord desires for each, it is necessary to prepare oneself in such a way that whatever is chosen – according to the Gospel – is inserted into the wide frame of the Church’s life and the history of salvation.

Within the framework of the “first week” of the Exercises we find a very fitting preparation for life–discernment. Ignatius has us meditate on sin and the disordered affections that we must put into order so as to choose well and to reform our lives well. The way of situating sin within a more ample structure merits our consideration. In Ignatius’ view, to see our sins objectively and to abhor them, we need to take a prior step and a succeeding step. The prior step consists in recovering and strengthening a positive vision of creation and history itself. The Lord created us good, and his purification will be something tied to the good that is within us and not something that comes from outside. In the “Beginning and Foundation” Ignatius helps us to recover – through praise and adoration – a positive image of creation: “man is created to praise, revere, and serve the Lord our God” (Spiritual Exercises23).

There is also a step that immediately succeeds this conversion: the meditation on sin does not end with a meditation on Hell, but on the call of Christ, our eternal King. This meditation is the hinge that connects the “first week” with the succeeding weeks by presenting the entire life of Christ within the key category of “the call.” Ignatius asks that an entire day be dedicated to this meditation. Without the Lord’s pressing and urgent call – indeed, the salvation of the whole world depends on it – the depth and complexity of sin can make us believe that a very long period of purification is needed before someone can even dare to think of following the Lord on the way of the beatitudes.

Thus we see that within the theological structure of the Exercises, sin is placed between two positive realities: creation and the call of the Redeemer. It is placed within the perspective of a grateful memory and apostolic hope, as Francis always says.

This Ignatian structure sheds light on and molds not only the practice of fundamental discernment, but also, for example, the discernment that we make at the end of the day as we examine our conscience. A spiritual examination of conscience is broader than the examination made in preparation for confession. It begins with a clear acknowledgment of graces received throughout the day and it proposes to correct them and to amend one’s life, forming it according to the concrete call the Lord extends to us for his greater glory and for the service of others. When too little time is given to this kind of recognizing and remembering, the discernment of “that which can be improved” loses its evangelical root. Many good intentions fail to be realized, not only as the result of a lack of will but a lack of good judgment; for not having listened well[24] to that something concrete and full of grace to which the Lord calls us.

The beatitudes as a framework for discernment

The discernment to choose a state in life and/or to reform one’s life is not performed merely according to the criteria of human advantages and disadvantages. Rather, it is the choosing of “that which is pleasing to the Father” as Jesus teaches us in the Gospel. Therefore, beyond the broad preparatory framework we have looked at, spiritual discernment requires a more adequate preparation. In the Exercises, Ignatius structures the immediate preparation for making a decision around the contemplation of the entire life of Jesus and a few meditations reserved specifically for this adjustment.

The adjustment to discern well and to make a good decision has a solid anthropological and theological basis. Every prudent action obeys a practical mandate, which is in reality a call, because the good beckons us as an end by making itself desirable. The “contemplation of the eternal King” is helpful to this end in that He calls everyone to find his or her place as servant in the plan for salvation.

The deliberation of the intellect is strengthened when the field is cleared of choices and reduced to two.[25] The intellect is then strengthened and can turn its gaze to its affectivity with no need to quibble over a multitude of external options. Helpful for this is the “meditation on the two banners” that allows for no third option: we either place ourselves beneath the banner of Christ or we stay under the banner of the Devil.

The love of “predilection,” which chooses something concrete, is strengthened when it becomes aware of the temptation to defer the choice of the good or that of not wanting to renounce, since every choice involves a renunciation. The “meditation on the three categories of people” is helpful in this regard, for it helps us to discern if we are really free and therefore in a position to choose well.

If we keep the love for persons as the supreme and absolute value over all other “goods” – and particularly the love for Christ who, poor and humiliated, shines by no other attractive quality than his pure love – then the ability to discern a crucial life decision will be clarified and strengthened. To do this, it would be helpful to carry out the “consideration of the three levels of humility” that mold the heart in its complete adhesion to Christ and reveal whether we feel attraction to Christ, poor and humiliated, more than any other thing when confronted with anything specific that either attracts or repels us.

Hence we can say with certainty that every act of discernment needs to be carried out in the spirit of the beatitudes and that every decision a Christian can make is directed toward growth in the beatitudes.

A good and healthy choice includes confirmation

Whenever something is discerned and chosen in everyday life – at the workplace, for example – a good choice is one that finds confirmation in the ensuing results and by the general manager of the company. Every good human decision finds confirmation, on the one hand, in the ability to confront the negative consequences connected with every decision (personal sacrifice, giving up other choices, opposing ideas and attitudes) and, on the other hand, the capacity to rejoice and delight in the fruitfulness that results from the decision.

Once a choice is made, the Exercises help to confirm it, setting it in the light of Lord’s passion in such a way as to reinforce the reality of it and to help endure the contradictions that come with it. The Exercises offer further contemplation exercises on the resurrection to facilitate this. The ability to harmonize our decision and whatever results from it with the joy and the happiness of the risen Christ make perfect a choice of life–change well made.

Finally, the Exercises offer the help of a confirmation of discernment with a “contemplation to reach the level of love” (Spiritual Exercises 230–237), understood as a search for and discovery of peace in the Lord our God, a typical experience of Ignatian spirituality. This peace is the apex of confirmation because it gives us an experience of the presence of the risen and glorious Lord in all things.

Reproduced with permission from La Civiltà Cattolica.


[1] Pope Francis, “Oggi la Chiesa ha bisogno di crescere nel discernimento,” Civilta Cattolica, vol. 3 (2016), 348–349.

[2] Ibid.348.

[3] “The measure and rule of the intellectual virtues is not another virtue, but the thing itself (ipsa res).” T. Aquinas, Summa Theologiae I–II, q. 64, a. 3, ad 2. Aquinas essentially says that growth in discernment does not require the multiplication of abstract reflections but the strengthening of practical judgments that are made about reality. Cf. J. Pieper, Reality and the Good.

[4] “Discernment serves not only to identify ‘good’ and ‘bad’ desires, but to grow in that desire, its education, and its purification.” Cf. A. Spadaro, “Desiderio di Dio e discernimento: il contributo della spiritualita ignaziana,” Civilta Cattolica, 3 (2001), 387–388.

[5] Cf. D. Gil, Discernimiento segun San Ignacio (Rome, 1983), 35.

[6] Saint Ignatius says that the material of choices must be everything that is “indifferent or good in itself with respect to the hierarchical, holy mother Church, and that be neither bad nor in opposition to it.” (Spiritual Exercises170).

[7] “Because of forms of conditioning or mitigating factors, it is possible that in an objective situation of sin – which may not be subjectively culpable, or fully such – a person can be living in God’s grace, can love and can also grow in the life of grace and charity, while receiving the Church’s help to this end. In certain cases, this can include the help of the sacraments.” Amoris Laetitia, 305, and footnote 351.

[8] “When faced with difficult situations and wounded families, it is always necessary to recall this general principle: ‘Pastors must know that, for the sake of truth, they are obliged to exercise careful discernment of situations’ (Familiaris Consortio, 84).” (Amoris Laetitia, 79).

[9] This mindset may come from Aristotle, according to whom gnome, or discernment, is in regard to strange and unusual cases that do not fit in to common principles. Thomas Aquinas, commenting on this passage, says that there is a higher power that judges according to higher principles. It is the power called “discernment (gnome), which precisely means a certain perspicacity of judgment” (Summa Theologiae II–II, q. 51, a. 4, ad 3).

[10] Pope Francis, Homily at Domus Sanctae Marthae, January 7, 2014.

[11] Address to the members of the International Theological Commission, December 6, 2013.

[12] Homily at Domus Sancta Martha, November 26, 2013.

[13] Address to the members of the International Theological Commission, December 6, 2013.

[14] It is the responsibility of theologians “to develop criteria for discerning authentic expressions of the sensus fidelium,” just as it is the Magisterium’s duty “to be attentive to what the Spirit says to the Churches through the authentic manifestations of the sensus fidelium.” Ibid.

[15] Here the Pope cites Benedict XVI in the homily he gave at the Mass with members of the International Theological Commission, December 1, 2009.

[16] Cf. M. A. Fiorito, “Apuntes para una teologia del discernimento de espiritus,” in Ciencia y Fe 19 (1963) 401417; and in Ciencia y Fe 20 (1964) 93–123. Jesuit father M. A. Fiorito (19162005) was a teacher and then close collaborator of Jorge Bergoglio and “was the true spiritual master in the Argentinian Province for more than forty years.” Cf. A. Restrepo, “Presentacion,” in M. A. Fiorito, Buscar y hallar la voluntad de Dios (Buenos Aires: Paulinas, 2000), 11.

[17] Kerygma means   “proclamation”: a proclamation that, thanks to the faith and courage with which it is preached by witness and the density of its Christological content, is capable of creating a salvific event in the heart of the person who hears it with faith.

[18] Cf. Spiritual Exercisesrule 11.

[19] Pius XI, Apostolic Constitution Summorum Pontificum: S. Ignatius de Loyola Caelestis Exercitiorum Spiritualium Patronus declaratur, July 25, 1922.

[20] Cf. Id. Mens Nostra; John Paul II, Angelus, December 16, 1979; Code of Canon Law 246, 5, 770, 1030.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Pope Francis, Oggi la Chiesa, cit., 349.

[23] M. Revuelta Gonzalez, La Compania de Jesus en la Espana contemporanea, vol. 3 (Santander: Sal Terrae, 2008), 305.

[24] In the meditation on the Eternal King, Ignatius has us ask for “grace that I may not be deaf to the call.” Spiritual Exercises91.

[25] Cf. S. Iyengar, The Art of Choosing, Kindle, 2010.


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