March 14, 2019 — When Ignatius of Loyola and his first nine companions were prevented from fulfilling their wish to go to the Holy Land, because in that year 1539 sea travel was blocked by the threat of war between Venice and the Turks, they wondered how their shared adventure, which had begun in Paris five years earlier, could continue.
They had made themselves available to the Pope and knew that he had plans to disperse them for different missions. In these conditions, how to pursue the spiritual journey that had brought them together?
The companions then decided to meet to discuss their vocation and their way of life (pdf). Should their group be given an official structure to survive the dispersion? And if so, should it become a religious order under the authority of one of them?
The Society of Jesus was born of this initial discernment in common. At the end of a long process of prayer, reflection and conversation, the companions unanimously recognized that the foundation of a religious order, of which Ignatius of Loyola would be the superior, would be the best way to continue to live their consecration to the Lord, in service of the Pope to whom they had dedicated themselves, while remaining united.
This story may seem trivial: members of any group are periodically called upon to make decisions about their future. And creating of a new religious order was by no means an extraordinary thing at the time. The originality of their approach lies not so much in the nature of this decision as in their way of proceeding.
In their attempt to figure out the next steps, the founding fathers of the Society of Jesus were inspired by the dynamics of the Spiritual Exercises, composed by Ignatius of Loyola experienced by all of them. The purpose of the Exercises is to help people recognize their deep aspiration to love and serve God with all their being and to choose freely, under the motion of the Holy Spirit, how to direct their lives accordingly.
The first companions were searching for what would keep them in the greatest service of God. The decision-making process should therefore honour this deep aspiration, so that the option chosen would be its most faithful expression.
The companions paid attention to how the Spirit was leading the group, recognizing, through the sharing of inner movements of consolation and desolation, that a convergence of views and a shared consolation were beginning to manifest themselves when the creation of a religious order was evoked. These communal spiritual movements led them to recognize and welcome this orientation as that of the greatest service, and therefore of the greatest joy!
Discernment in common can therefore be compared to "spiritual exercises for groups", enabling group members to identify and choose in a given context the path of the greatest service of God.
This decision-making method is constructive: it makes it possible to go beyond debate by fostering mutual listening and creativity, leading up to new perspectives. It is also energizing, because it relies on and strengthens all along the way the inner freedom of group members.
Like personal discernment, common discernment is therefore an integral part of the spiritual heritage of the Society of Jesus. The 36th General Congregation reaffirmed its importance as a constitutive dimension of Jesuit identity.
In this perspective, the Province of Canada has created a Service for Discernment in Common to assist Jesuit missions and apostolates, but also other organizations, in conducting their own communal discernment processes. Feel free to contact me for more information!
Director of the Service for Discernment in Common