Francis asks priests to learn that life isn't black and white, but shades of grey

by Joshua J. McElwee

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Pope Francis has asked members of his Jesuit religious order to help young priests recognize that decisions Catholics make in their everyday lives are rarely ethically clear-cut, but rather exist on a spectrum between good and evil.

In a dialogue with Jesuits in Poland during his trip to the country last month, the pontiff asked his confreres to particularly work with seminarians to help them learn "the wisdom of discernment."

"The Church today needs to grow in the ability of spiritual discernment," the pope said in the July 30 meeting with about 30 Jesuits, according to a transcript of the dialogue released for the first time Thursday by the Italian Jesuit magazine Civiltà Cattolica.

"Some priestly formation programs run the risk of educating in the light of overly clear and distinct ideas, and therefore to act within limits and criteria that are rigidly defined ... and that set aside concrete situations," said Francis.

"The seminarians, when they become priests, find themselves in difficulty in accompanying the life of so many young people and adults," he continued.

"We need to form future priests not to general and abstract ideas, which are clear and distinct, but to [the] keen discernment of spirits so that they can help people in their concrete life," said the pontiff.

"We need to truly understand this: in life not all is black on white or white on black," said Francis. "No! The shades of grey prevail in life. We must them teach to discern in this grey area."

The pope met with the Polish Jesuits in a private setting, as he often visits with members of his religious order on trips abroad. The Vatican did not release a transcript of the meeting, but Civiltà Cattolica says it is publishing the dialogue now with Francis' consent.

The pontiff spoke about teaching seminarians the need to recognize shades of grey at the end of the encounter, as an addendum to the meeting as it was concluding. He spoke of discernment in the context of the spiritual exercises taught by 16th century St. Ignatius of Loyola, one of the founders of the Jesuits.

Mentioning 20th century Jesuit Fr. Hugo Rahner, brother of famed theologian Jesuit Fr. Karl Rahner, Francis said Hugo said a Jesuit "must be a man with the nose for the supernatural, that is he must be a man gifted with a sense of the divine and of the diabolical relative to the events of human life and history."

"The Jesuit must therefore be capable of discerning both in the field of God and in the field of the devil," said the pontiff. "This is why in the Exercises St Ignatius asks to be introduced both to the intentions of the Lord of life and to those of the enemy of human nature and to his lies."

"What he has written is bold, it is truly bold, but discernment is precisely this!" said Francis.

The pontiff was also asked in the meeting about the needs of today's young people and how the church can work more effectively with them.

Responding, he spoke about a lunch he had July 30 with several young people in Poland for World Youth Day. Young people, said the pope, "have no discretion. They ask direct questions. And you always need to answer a young person with the truth." 

Francis said one young person told him he does not go to confession because "in my country there were scandals tied to priests and we do not have the courage to go to confession with these priests who have lived these scandals."

"Young people speak directly," said the pope. "If you answer with a theory they remain disappointed."

Francis was also asked about the role of Jesuit universities today. The university, he said, "must be involved with the real life of the church and the nation."

"A particular attention must be always given to the marginalized, to the defense of those who have more need of being protected," the pope continued.

"And this ... is not being a Communist," he said. "It is simply being truly involved with reality. In this case in particular a Jesuit university must be fully involved with reality, expressing the social thought of the Church."

"The free-market thought that removes man and woman from the center and puts money at the center is not ours," he said. "The doctrine of the Church is clear and it must move forward in this sense."

[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.]

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