As he concludes the Apostolic Exhortation Christus Vivit, Pope Francis focuses on a theme with which, after more than 60 years in the Society of Jesus, he is quite familiar: discernment.
Jesuit spirituality, based on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola, is rooted in the belief that the followers of Jesus must be astute readers of the “signs of the times” within their own experiences as a way of discerning the call – literally, the vocation – to which God is beckoning each of them on their earthly journey.
Within the context of an Ignatian retreat, it is essential for the retreatant to spend time in quiet prayer listening to that small and quiet voice of God, and to then benefit from the gentle yet steady guidance of a retreat master in what Ignatius calls the “discernment of spirits.”
It is from this Ignatian context that one can begin to understand the Franciscan emphasis on, as the title of the final section of this chapter indicates, “Listening and Accompaniment.” The role of the retreat master or spiritual director is perfectly summarized in those two words, and anyone who has benefitted from a retreat, and in particular a retreat based on the Spiritual Exercises, knows the importance of a guide who both listens and accompanies.
For anyone, retreatant or not, the focus of such discernment is the answering of the great questions of life: Do I know myself? Do I know what brings joy to my heart? What are my strengths? What is my real place in the world?
For Francis, the emphasis given to the question that overrides all of these – Who am I? – essentially serves no ultimate purpose. “So often in life we waste time asking ourselves: ‘Who am I?’ You can keep asking, ‘Who am I?’ for the rest of your lives. But the real question is: ‘For Whom am I?’ Of course, you are for God.”
Without this realization, the Christian life and the message of the Gospel have no meaning.
As an experiment, we can ask ourselves – as I have done with my students in class many times – “What is the greatest commandment?” If the answer that we come up with is: “Love your neighbor as yourself,” then we have missed both the point that Francis makes here and that Jesus made throughout His entire life. To recall that Jesus said that the greatest commandment is to “love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind,” is to discern rightly.
This in no way diminishes the importance of the second commandment – to “love your neighbor as yourself” – but it is essential that the proper order is maintained. As the late Monsignor Robert Smith, moral theologian at Dunwoody Seminary in the Archdiocese of New York, once said in a talk, “God will always send you to your neighbor. There is no guarantee that your neighbor will send you to God.”
For all of us, but especially for young people, this sort of clarity is extremely important. Without it, all of the moral life can quickly lose its true center – which is Christ – and devolve into a personal and social ethic that has been emptied of any sacramental or religious content, or what Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith calls “moralistic therapeutic deism.” This view, which combines the belief that we should be nice to each other, that we should feel good about ourselves, and that God is out there somewhere, is quite popular; but has little, if any, connection to the self-emptying love of Christ on the Cross.
And this is why the role of strong Catholic adults is so essential in the lives of young people. The type of listening and accompanying of which Francis speaks can only come about if those who listen and those who accompany are themselves aware of the right order of things. To follow the Holy Father’s instructions, adults are called to give of their time to listen unconditionally, to help young people to discern the difference between the Good and the evil spirit in their thinking and emotions, and to unearth the truth of who they are really meant to be.
But as the pope states near the very end of the document, “If you are to accompany others on this path, you must be the first to follow it, day in and day out.” Those who listen and accompany cannot give what they do not have, and so it is essential for all Catholics, and not just those who are now discerning the answer to the great questions of life, to look for guidance on their journey.
All who want to answer the ultimate question – For Whom am I? – could look to no better guide, says Francis, than the Blessed Virgin Mary, the one who “in her own youth…confronted her own questions and difficulties.” And how truly fitting it is that this important papal document was promulgated on the Feast of the Annunciation, when the profound Fiat – “Let it be done” – of an obscure young woman changed the world forever.