In the past several weeks, it has become clear that American Catholics have both a new opportunity and responsibility to do something with which they may not have a lot of practice: spiritual discernment.  In the time since the obligation and practice of mass attendance was suspended in March, individual Catholics have relied on their own decision-making process to determine whether and where they would stream the mass, what faith practices they would incorporate into their new daily rhythms, which leadership voices they’d attend to, and much more.  In these last couple of weeks, American Catholics have determined whether and where to attend in-person mass, and this is based on a variety of factors including the safety of the parish process and adherence to guidelines, personal risk factors for the faithful and their families, and their own comfort level. These decisions are being made, millions of them, in real time across our country, with the consideration of the changing landscape and the many choices that are available.

In a quick Facebook survey, I asked Catholic friends whether and how the pandemic time has changed their faith practices.  They replied both to my post and in long private messages, and I was humbled and astounded at the length and range of responses. Some found online mass distracting and unfulfilling.  Some loved it.  Many are uncomfortable with returning physically to church.  Lots of people enjoy the flexibility of hearing homilies and “attending” livestreamed masses from around the country and world.  They chose and are continuing to choose the voices to whom they’ll listen.  Some are slowly returning to in-person mass, but not necessarily where they attended church pre-pandemic, and their decisions are subject to change, based on what they see and hear when they do attend.  Some attend, but don’t receive the Eucharist yet, based on viewing a process that seems unsafe.  Across the board, these faithful friends are praying, listening, and discerning about how best to practice their faith, about where they’ll go, and to whom they’ll listen.  For many cradle Catholics who’ve never flexed their faith-practice discernment muscles, they’re now prayerfully deciding for themselves how best to draw close to God in this time when we all need Him so desperately.

Many of the people who responded to my query expressed strong feelings about the pastoral care they received while everything was locked down tight.  The parishes which provided content, personal connection, and access have won loyal, supportive, and effusive parishioners in this next unsteady chapter.  These parishes started online Bible studies, opened up prayer lines and chains, delivered food, made personal phone calls, quickly pivoted to a range of online offerings, prioritized safety, recommended resources for personal prayer and study, and built community in a time when it was needed the most. Other friends found themselves largely abandoned by their parishes, save the occasional email requesting online giving.  This, too, will make a big difference in how the faithful move forward in the next chapter.

In this season of pandemic, racial injustice, and political chaos, American Catholics have a lot on their plate, and many without the structure and support of parish leadership and community. For the first time in recent history, they must simultaneously discern their faith practices, their own vocational future, and, in our terribly divided nation, Catholics must use their newly built discernment muscles to prayerfully determine the voices they’ll attend to in the news and on social media.

Anyone who’s been paying attention can see the divide.  On any issue, you’ll find prominent Catholic voices including high levels of clergy speaking out with a variety of perspectives on human rights, immigration, abortion, Black Lives Matter, judges, guns, and even the legitimacy of our Pope, or whether to wear a mask in a time of pandemic. These issues have become surprisingly divisive and charged within the ranks of the clergy and by extension, the faithful.  Local and nationally known clergy are openly endorsing candidates against the guidelines of both the Catechism and the IRS.   They’re making their political opinions known on large networks and on social media, often with snarky and uncharitable commentary, and this can be confusing and overwhelming for the faithful.  So, in this chaotic time, how should an American Catholic discern the voices we’ll listen to in this season?  How do we decide?

The good news is that we have months of practice, and everything we need within us to determine the answers to this question.  In these last months in a particular way, we’ve thought about our well-being and the well-being of those around us.  We’ve practiced care for our neighbor in a time of crisis.  We’ve incorporated new prayer practices and study into our routines.  We’re living out the Gospel in our new reality – literally everywhere we go, hopefully loving God and our neighbor with every decision we make. We’ve found a wellspring of wisdom upon which we can rely, because of our God-given minds, the accessibility of Scripture and study resources, and the incredible reality of the Holy Spirit living within us. We know now, more than ever, the still and quiet voice of God as He steers us through rough waters.  As we meet this next challenge of discernment, here are a few guideposts that may be of help as you sift through the ideas, issues, memes, and articles that will most certainly be bombarding you from now through the end of the year.  As I used to teach my kids when they were small, you’re the gatekeeper of your own mind.  Choosing what comes in and what stays out is the biggest job you have.

  • What are these words designed to do? When confronted with a headline or a post, ask yourself if the intent is to educate, comfort, inform, encourage, or challenge?  Or is it designed to make you angry, fearful, or reactive?  What’s the fruit of that particular link or post? Is it concerned with self or neighbor? Does it honor the dignity of every human person? Is it of God? Prayerfully check in with Matthew 7:15-20.
  • Research the source. What’s the history of the website or the author of a given piece?  What’s their goal?  Who funds them?  If a website or network has the word ‘Catholic’ in their title, know this means literally nothing in terms of official church sponsorship of an idea, website, or network, even if they would have you believe differently.  Research the root of a voice or movement before you take in their content.
  • Work on your scriptural literacy. When discerning a particular issue or idea, ask yourself what Jesus would really do in that circumstance, and back that up with examples from His life. Is Jesus inclusive or exclusive?  Peaceful or violent? Self-interested or self-sacrificing? Traditional or revolutionary?  What was His attitude toward authorities, women, people on the margins? What did He mean in John 13:34-35?
  • Pray, pray, pray. Commit to time in silence, lectio divina, fasting, the rosary, and other prayer practices in order to discern the voice of God in this time.  The more time we spend with the Lord in prayer, the more we’ll recognize His kind, just, and merciful voice in this broken world. And make no mistake: we’ll need to hear His quiet voice above all the noise.  Our world is counting on us.

The word discern means to perceive, recognize or distinguish something which may be difficult to take in by sight or other senses.  Discerning takes time, work, and practice.  We’ve gained a good amount of training as we’ve moved through the first months of the pandemic, and this preparation will be key for how we walk forward in faith through the end of this year.  It can be scary or overwhelming to lean on the voice of God within us, but I feel strongly that we were created for such a time as this.  You have everything you need within you to seek and find the voice of Jesus in this hazy time, and as you walk it out, I know one thing for sure: you’re loved, you’re ready, and you’re never, ever walking alone.

Note: if you’re interested in a list of Catholic voices I’d recommend on Twitter or Instagram, please let me know – but don’t take my word for it!  Research and prayerfully determine the voices you’ll follow.

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