On the Road to Damascus: What Every Catholic Needs to Know about Basic Discernment

With so much in the world that can cause us to be dazed and disgruntled, it is sometimes hard to know where to turn to find answers to life’s toughest questions. Making matters worse, though, is when you genuinely turn to your parish for answers and all you find are programs that too often mirror the self-guided, self-help pabulum that fill the shelves of bookstores nationwide.

Discernment is the Key

As the Church winds down the Pauline Year, what we should be left with is a commitment to the expansion of valid discernment methods that will assist the human person in (1) determining the will of God in his or her life and (2) renewing his or her life of faith. Done well and under the auspices of faithful bishops, priests and deacons, the discernment process at its core finds the human person placing his mind in his heart before God in open, loyal and loving worship.

The Basis for Valid Methods

Much has been done over the last ten years to incorporate methods of discernment in selecting members of parish pastoral councils and school boards, but more people need to know about the methods that have assisted popes, patriarchs and priests for two millennia. Here’s what you need to know to get started.


To start, take time to re-read St. Paul’s conversion in chapter nine of the Acts of the Apostles. This story helps us to know that God can and does cause immediate change “like a sudden flash of lightning”. It is important because it helps us recognize the difference between our impatient demands for a quick-fix solution and being open enough to allow God to point us down a road not previously considered. The story is also helpful because it provides the encouragement that we can read the signs of true conversion. In Paul’s case, the community witnessed his silence first then heard him immediately proclaim Jesus as the Messiah.

Next, re-read chapter one of the Acts of the Apostles, particularly verses 12-26 . After returning to Jerusalem the apostles (the leaders) gathered together with the community. You will also notice that they had devoted themselves to prayer and that Peter recounted the story of Judas. He explained that one who was with them from the beginning needed to be chosen to take Judas’ place as one of the twelve. Notice that it was the first among them who instructed the group and pay attention to how all of them prayed for God’s guidance in order to ensure the proper person was chosen. In other words, the community listened to the call of the Holy Spirit and not to their own desires. (Keep in mind that many other passages can be used here: perhaps the ones about the gifts of the Holy Spirit, perhaps on Christ’s selection of the apostles, perhaps even on Mary’s "yes" to become the handmaiden of the Lord.)


There are those among you who might be a bit squeamish when hearing words like "discernment", "community" and "spirit". If so, it might help you to know that the process described in Acts is essentially what a conclave of the College of Cardinals follows in order to select a Pope. If you are still not convinced, read what it says in paragraph two of the Church’s 1965 Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity .

No part of the structure of a living body is merely passive but has a share in the functions as well as life of the body: so, too, in the body of Christ, which is the Church, "the whole body…in keeping with the proper activity of each part, derives its increase from its own internal development" (Eph. 4:16).

Also, take a look at number 204 of the Code of Canon Law last revised in 1983.

The Christian faithful are those who, inasmuch as they have been incorporated into Christ through Baptism, have been constituted as the people of God; for this reason, since they have become sharers in Christ’s priestly, prophetic and royal office in their own manner, they are called to exercise the mission which God has entrusted to the Church to fulfill in the world, in accord with the condition proper to each one.

And, finally, read paragraph 58 of Pope John Paul II’s 1988 Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Christifideles Laici .

The fundamental objective of the formation of the lay faithful is an ever-clearer discovery of one’s vocation and the ever-greater willingness to live it so as to fulfill one’s mission. God calls me and sends me forth as a laborer in His vineyard. He calls me and sends me forth to work for the coming of His Kingdom in history. This personal vocation and mission defines the dignity and the responsibility of each member of the lay faithful and makes up the focal point of the whole work of formation, whose purpose is the joyous and grateful recognition of this dignity and the faithful and generous living-out of this responsibility.

The tradition is clear: each of us is responsible for participating in and learning from a valid process of discernment. Why? The lay faithful must understand their roles in Christ’s kingdom.

The Process

The basis of a valid discernment — in the context of determining a person’s ministry or potential role in a parish — stems from a series of disciplined steps. Namely, (1) the leadership of a diocese or parish is present, (2) it must be done in community (normally in a parish setting), (3) prayer must form its center, (4) explanations about the process and its basis in Holy Scripture and Holy Tradition must be proclaimed, (5) since unity and continuity are important, the community must look to choose from among those who regularly bear witness to the Truth, (6) participants must be willing to abandon pre-conceptions and to acknowledge that God alone knows our hearts, (7) a balloting process must be conducted (more than once if necessary), and then (8) the community must be willing to show support for what has been determined.

If this process is to be used by one person discerning what God is calling him to, then the process is altered accordingly. For example, the person would need to seek the assistance of a spiritual director, priest, deacon or nun; to be able to clearly state the question or decision being considered, engage in ongoing prayer and silence; and perform some kind of penance or service in order to cleanse the heart of its natural self-centeredness. Of course, at some point the person would have to make a decision and act.

Whether it is for an individual or group, discernment is a commitment to determining what God is leading one to and an invaluable process that goes far beyond a self-guided tour through the psyche.

The Challenge for Our Time

With so many questions in the world today, we need to make sure our parishes avoid the temptation of either (1) relying on handouts with fill-in-the-blank action plans (which tend to have a deflating effect since the one who desires real change wants more than a guide to time management and better organization) or (2) dismissing the quest for metanoia with the standard encouragement to "follow the urging of the Holy Spirit" (which also has a deflating effect for someone who acknowledges they don’t know how to "listen" to the Holy Spirit).

Now, don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of parishes doing good work to help people find answers to the tough questions. But I pray for more. I pray that wide swaths of people can utilize this holy process of discernment to be moved through life by the Wisdom and Spirit of our Most Holy Trinity.

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  • terrygeorge

    i believe that discernment and wisdom are in very short supply in our Lord’s Church today, at many different levels. one indispensable source of guidance is the wisdom books of the bible. i wish that they were more wholly and regularly a part of the cycle of readings.