When Pope Francis encourages dialogue within the church, it isn’t “just talk.” Rather, he is suggesting dialogue as a part of discernment.
Often people think of discernment as something to do when making a big decision, yet, more fundamentally, discernment is a regular way of encountering God and others so we may perceive the Holy Spirit at work.
By paying attention, we learn how to respond by cooperating with the Spirit to build up God’s kingdom. Discernment in this sense involves daily, spiritual practices of prayer and listening to God, oneself and others.
Pope Francis names two elements as essential for discerning dialogue: “parrhesia” and humility. “Parrhesia” describes a way of speaking: with honesty, frank openness and “the certainty of being loved,” according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (No. 2778).
In the catechism, this refers to the Our Father, and how the Holy Spirit makes it possible for us to pray daringly as God’s children.
“Parrhesia” as way of speaking freely or plainly comes up several times in the New Testament, particularly in the Acts of the Apostles, which recounts early Christians’ bold courage in sharing the Gospel.
Pope Francis has prompted synod participants to speak with “parrhesia,” and so to be unafraid to share their ideas forthrightly, without concern for making their perspectives pleasing to others — including the pope.
His insistence on “parrhesia” implies the necessity of remembering our shared baptism when we dialogue. Through baptism we are each equally members of the body of Christ and part of the people of God in whom the Holy Spirit dwells. For us to hear the Spirit’s call, each voice is needed.
Speaking our understanding of the Spirit’s call within our daily joys and sorrows is difficult. There is a reason most of us need to be encouraged toward boldness.
Perhaps it is helpful to remember that through our baptism we are both called and empowered to share the Gospel and to give a reason for our hope (1 Pt 3:15).
We can remember what the catechism points out: We should speak with “parrhesia” in the confidence of being unconditionally loved by God, and we can pray to God for the courage we need.
Pope Francis has also pointed out that the complement to “parrhesia” is humility, understood as a willingness to listen generously and learn willingly from one another.
Humility has a certain bold openness of its own. It asks us to actively review our own perspectives, to see how others’ expressions of the Holy Spirit’s work may correspond with, expand and challenge our own.
How might we build up bold dialogue and humble listening within the church? We need to become people who habitually, rather than occasionally, listen attentively and speak honestly with others about the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives.
The pope’s own Ignatian spirituality points toward two practices. First, reading Scripture by imaginatively placing ourselves within its stories, and then reflecting on how we respond emotionally and intellectually, can help us see our own lives as part of the story of salvation.
A second way of seeking to better attune ourselves to God’s work is by reflecting regularly on our daily lives to see where we are aware of or are ignoring God’s presence. When we begin to learn from our own lives, we may also begin to look to others’ lives as sources of learning.
Communally we will also need regular times to pray and reflect together as part of discerning dialogue.
This can help to build up the mutual trust that aids “parrhesia” and gives us the opportunity to listen to one another. Small groups in parishes can learn spiritual practices of discernment and dialogue together, while parish staffs and pastoral councils may re-center their meetings around discerning dialogue.
Ultimately, discernment through dialogue is not a strategy, so much as a way of being church.
Discerning dialogue is how Catholics can walk with each other as missionary disciples. The journey won’t be perfect — we will stumble and encounter obstacles both within and beyond ourselves.
Yet the Spirit of God always journeys with us, giving us hope and calling us forward as honest and humble collaborators for God’s kingdom.
— By Amanda C. Osheim Catholic News Service
Amanda C. Osheim is endowed professor of the Breitbach Catholic Thinkers and Leaders Program and associate professor of practical theology at Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa. She is the author of the book “A Ministry of Discernment: The Bishop and the Sense of the Faithful” and “Stepping Toward a Synodal Church” in Theological Studies.