Some years ago (1996... ) we organized regional retreats in which we
devoted three days to communal discernment. You may remember. The
purpose of this communal discernment was, not so much to reach a
decision, to make a choice, as to listen to each other, in a
prayerful atmosphere, helping each other to serve better. This
exercise was meant to help the groups in their sharing so that all
members “become involved” in each other’s mission. This is
what being an “apostolic community” means, as different from
a “community of apostles”.
more simple model of communal discernment was offered
in the formation courses for group guides. The purpose of this
exercise is learning “how to reach an apostolic decision”, “how
to make a personal or a communal choice”. In a four-day
formation course we dedicated one whole day (from four to five
hours) to this activity. This outline could be more suitable for the
workshop. The main steps are:
1.- Defining the nature of the choice: what kind of decision
we have to make? What are the alternatives?
In one hand, the group needs to know the needs and aspirations of
the people being helped: what are they asking for? What are their
explicit requests and needs? What are, we think, the implicit and
deeper ones? What are their qualities, resources...?
In the other hand, the groups needs to know the situation of the one
who is making the choice (you, me, the group...): what is our
general purpose and plan of action, the steps being followed? Which
are our resources and qualities? What limitations do we have?
The communal discernment can be applied only to positive
alternatives and choices. Withdrawing from a group, giving up a
program, closing down an activity... are negative decisions
and, as such, cannot be the object of communal discernment. You can
try to pray and share about it. No signs from the Lord will be
significant. When a negative decision is considered, the first step
of communal discernment is reformulating the negative nature of the
choice and “finding out the positive elements” involved in the
situation, and in the decision making. For instance: the one who is
about to leave the group may wish to find better ways for fostering
the growth of the person or of the group; instead of closing down a
program we may consider making a better choice between two or three
In the process of defining the nature of the choice the feelings
involved are not excluded. On the contrary, these feelings are
welcome: the feelings of those involved in the apostolic work, as
well as the feelings of those making the communal discernment; even
when they are not part of it.
2.- Indifference, or inner freedom.
Indifference means the inner freedom the Spirit gives us as a result
of an unconditional love towards God our Father and the desire to
serve Him best. In order to make a good communal discernment it is
important to be indifferent regarding each one of the alternatives
This “inner freedom” will be more or less at hand depending on the
amount of feelings involved.
This is a delicate moment in the process of communal discernment.
This is, evidently, a step where prayer is needed. How much, for how
long? It depends on the inner hurts, attachments, fears...
3.- Alternating group sharing and personal reflection and prayer.
The group may need to go over and deeper the first and second steps:
defining the nature of the choice and becoming indifferent. It is
the time to consult “the experts”, to do some extra “homework”, to
find pertinent questions, to clarify the issues, to bring feelings
to the open, to specify the areas of deeper prayer.
4.- Decision making:
there is a moment when the nature of the decision is clear and the
alternatives well defined. If the decision involves only one person,
he/she is given time to reach it.
If the decision involves the whole group and a consensus is reached,
the groups feels the presence of the Spirit. However, most of the
times, there is no full consensus; only main tendencies appear, with
some one prevailing. It is enough because it will allow the whole
group to make a decision. Once the decision is made, hopefully all
the members accept it and make it their own.
5.- The confirmation:
with the passing of time and the outcome of the decision, it is
possible to perceive the Spirit’s confirmation.
Of course, the whole process in done in a “prayerful atmosphere” and
at vital moments of the communal discernment, the need for personal
prayer may arise. The Spirit works through the community, when the
community prays. But, most of all, the Spirit works inside each one
of us. We need to pray along the whole process.