The Gift of Discernment, “to recognize”, “to interpret” and “to choose”

The Spirit speaks and acts through the happenings in the life of each person, which in themselves are inexplicit or ambiguous, insofar as they are open to different interpretations. Discernment is required to reveal their meaning and to make a decision.

The three verbs in Evangelii gaudium, 51, used to describe discernment, namely, “to recognize,” “to interpret” and “to choose”, can be of assistance in mapping out a suitable itinerary for individuals or groups and communities, fully aware that, in practice, the boundaries in the different phases are never clearly delineated.


Above all, “recognizing” concerns how life’s happenings, the people one meets, and the words one hears or reads affect the interior life, namely, the various “desires, feelings and emotions” (Amoris laetitia, 143) and their diverse expressions: sadness, gloom, fulfilment, fear, joy, peace, a feeling of emptiness, tenderness, anger, hope, apathy, etc.

A person feels attracted or pushed in a variety of directions, without enough clarity to take action, a time of ups and downs and, in some cases, a real internal struggle. “Recognizing” requires making this emotional richness emerge and ascertaining these feelings without making a judgment. It also requires capturing the “flavour” that remains, that is, the consonance or dissonance between what is experienced and what is in the depths of the heart.

The stage of “recognizing” focuses on the ability to listen and on one’s feelings and emotions, without avoiding the arduous effort of silence, a critical step in personal growth, particularly for young people who are experiencing with greater pressure the intensity of various desires and cannot remain frightened by them, and thereby, renouncing even the great advances to which they are drawn.


“Recognizing” what has been tried is not enough. The next step is “interpreting”, in other words, to understand what the Spirit is calling the person to do through what the Spirit stirs up in each one. Oftentimes, a person stops to recount an experience, noting that the experience made a “deep impression.” Greater difficulty is encountered in understanding the origin and meaning of the desires and emotions one experiences and verifying whether they lead in a constructive direction or whether they lead to withdrawing into oneself.

This interpretative stage is very sensitive, requiring patience, vigilance and even a certain knowledge. A person needs to be capable of taking into consideration the effects of social and psychological conditioning, which even requires the involvement of one’s intellectual faculties, without falling into the trap of constructing abstract theories about what would be good or nice to do.

The work of interpretation is carried out in an internal dialogue with the Lord, fully engaging a person’s abilities. The assistance of an experienced person in listening to the Spirit, however, is a valuable support that the Church offers, a support which would be unwise to disregard.


Once all the desires and emotions are recognized and interpreted, the next step in making a decision is an exercise of authentic human freedom and personal responsibility, which, of course, is always connected to a concrete situation and therefore limited. The choice is subjected, then, to the blind force of impulse, to which a certain contemporary relativism ends up by assigning as ultimate criterion, norms imprisoning a person in continual change. At the same time, a person is freed from subjection to forces outside oneself, namely heteronomy. All of this requires coherency with one’s life.

A decision needs to be proven by facts to see whether it is a right decision. A choice cannot remain imprisoned in an interiority which is likely to remain virtual or unrealistic — a real danger accentuated in contemporary culture — but is called to be translated into action, to take flesh, to embark on a path, accepting the risk of a confrontation with the reality which caused the desires and emotions.

Other desires and emotions will arise in this stage; “recognizing” and “interpreting” them will allow the possibility of seeing whether the decision is good or whether it is advisable to re- evaluate it. Consequently, “going out” is important, even with the fear of making a mistake, which, as previously seen, can be crippling.

From. Synod of Bishops on “Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment”,
Preparatory Document. 

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