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On listening to the Holy Spirit

On the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the institution of the Synod of Bishops (17 October 2015) Pope Francis said, “A synodal Church is a Church that listens… It is a mutual listening in which everyone has something to learn. The faithful people, the College of Bishops, the Bishop of Rome: all listening to each other, and all listening to the Holy Spirit, the ‘Spirit of truth’” (Jn 14:17).

CNS photo/courtesy Brian Matthew Whirledge,

It is this idea that was expressed in the way in which the Synod on Synodality was conducted. Rather than meet in tiered seats with individual speakers addressing the meeting, the participants gathered in table settings to allow for conversations. The Letter to the People of God produced at the end of the Synod spoke of having a ‘conversation in the Spirit’.

Questions were posed and each participant is invited to contribute to the conversation. It is meant as a mutual listening, learning from one another.

In the consultation phase leading up to this synod, bishops were encouraged to listen to the contributions of the people. It was a consultation among the People of God and bishops were chiefly to facilitate it and collate the outcomes. Catholics from across the world were invited to offer their insights into the three key themes of communion, participation and mission.

This listening process is understood to be an engagement with the ‘sensus fidei’ (the sense of the faith) of the whole People of God.

Pope Francis has often said that listening is not just listening to words, but rather listening to the person. He said, “Communicating means sharing, and sharing demands listening and acceptance. Listening is much more than simply hearing. Hearing is about receiving information, while listening is about communication, and calls for closeness”.

This is certainly true. When we listen to a person we are conscious not just of the information being communicated but the person who is communicating it. Each person has their own experience. They share out of this experience. What they share is a distillation of many things that have shaped and formed them in both mind and heart.

We listen to people with respect in the knowledge that what they say flows from within them and has meaning and significance for them.

We also know as people offer their insights into a particular matter there may be a serious divergence of views. Each is sincere, but their positions may be quite opposite to each other. How do we then discern what is right?

In the current synodal process which began in 2021 and will include a second synodal meeting in October 2024 the Pope has urged an openness to all that is proposed. He wants the Church to hear the promptings of the Holy Spirit through this process.

The Pope has reminded us that this synodal process is not a parliament. The truth revealed by the Holy Spirit cannot be determined by popular opinion and far less by the manipulation of the process. Nor can the outcome be determined simply by acquiescing to the loudest voices or meeting the needs of those with grievances.

Proper discernment needs an attitude of humility and a spirit of sincere prayer.

St Ignatius of Loyola has made a considerable contribution to the Church in his “Rules for the Discernment of Spirits” found at the end of his book, Spiritual Exercises. He offers much wisdom in understanding the subtle workings not just of the Holy Spirit but also the Evil One. He was aware that a sincere person could be misled in their process of discernment.

He followed this with a companion set of guidance which he entitled “Rules for thinking with the Church”. St Ignatius recognised that in discerning the promptings of the Spirit there is a safety net – the teachings and traditions of the Church. He says, “We must put aside all judgement of our own, and keep the mind ever ready and prompt to obey in all things the true Spouse of Christ our Lord, our holy Mother, the hierarchical Church”.

In the listening process a person, then, grounds him or herself in the faith of the Church. We are reminded that the Holy Spirit does not act independently of the Church and the apostolic faith.

The role of the Holy Spirit is actually to confirm the faith and help the faithful to enter more into the fulness of the faith.

In speaking at the Last Supper of the promise to send the Holy Spirit to assist the Apostles in their mission and ministry, Jesus assured them, “but the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name will teach you everything and remind you of all that I have said to you” (Jn 14:26). In other words, any discernment process authentically involving the Holy Spirit will always confirm the teachings of Jesus and assist us in better understanding them.

Another saint who can assist us in understanding the process of discernment is St Vincent of Lérins. He was a monk who lived in the fifth century and he offers valuable teaching in a treatise known as “Commonitory” on how to distinguish the legitimate growth in understanding of the faith against a false alteration of the authentic Catholic faith.

Confirming that there is development in the faith he makes the important distinction: “Development means that each thing expands to be itself, while alteration means that a thing is changed from one thing into another”. He draws on the analogy of the human body.

“The religion of souls should follow the law of development of bodies. Though bodies develop and unfold their component parts with the passing of the years, they always remain what they were. There is a great difference between the flower of childhood and the maturity of age, but those who become old are the very same people who were once young. Though the condition and appearance of one and the same individual may change, it is one and the same nature, one and the same person.”

This is how we can understand the development of teaching within the Church.

Any new understanding or authentic development of Church teaching can only take place in continuity with the tradition of the Church and Sacred Scripture and not in conflict with or divergence from it.

The work of listening and discernment is indeed to seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit. But to be sure we are actually following the direction of the Holy Spirit and not being deceived by other spirits, this can be and must be tested against the received faith as presented in the Sacred Scriptures and the tradition of the Church, along with the body of teaching documents we refer to as the Magisterial teaching.


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