1. The Founder's discernment with regard to himself
  2. The Founder's discernment in formation
  3. The Founder's discernment with regard to human conduct
  4. The Founder's discernment in the affairs of his time
  5. Discernment in the Constitutions and Rules of 1982

Because human existence is lived in an atmosphere of ambiguity, we are compelled to deal with discernment. The principle of action, the making of choices or what we call liberty is confused and tangled within us. It follows that, in its spontaneous expressions, human activity is generally disrupted by passions, envy, fear, the grasping for power, security and other inclinations which have an impact on the authenticity and the quality of one’s ethics.

We must note here that the atmosphere of ambiguity in which human activity takes place only becomes understandable in the critical light of one’s conscience judging itself. Daily conduct is often the victim of disguised activity in which the true, less glorious motives are dressed in motives of respectability, moral principles, indeed, noble ideals. The spectators are generally less dupes than the the actors who present themselves thus, but that is another story.

The Pharisees are a good example of what has been said above. They clean the exterior of the cup, are careful about external conduct, follow the rules, but their lives are false and do not bear fruit because they operate in an atmosphere of ambiguity which is tolerated and which develops into a lie.

Jesus gave a good definition of discernment when he said: “The truth shall set you free” [1]. His relationship to the Pharisees, he who “could tell what a man had in him” [2], consisted in offering them the truth; it was an unsurpassable pedagogy of discernment.

All spiritual authors have dealt with discernment of spirits. Saint Ignatius in his Exercises has presented the lion’s share on this. “It can be said that discernment is the real goal of the Spiritual Exercises and the great contribution Ignatius made to Christian spirituality: It is a question of coming to a choice of an authentic response to the Word of God in every individual concrete life situation”. [3]

Father de Mazenod never developed a theory of discernment, but he was always conscious of the ambiguity of human actions. He attempted to navigate these troubled waters while always keeping his course fixed on truth with regard to himself and the various situations in which he was involved. We will now attempt to follow him.

The Founder’s discernment with regard to himself.

Discernment is the road which threads a path through the multiplicity of internal divisions to lead to reconciliation with oneself and to inner peace.

Like everyone else, the Founder experienced in his relationship within himself certain tensions, dissatisfactions and inner disorders. The Founder’s retreat notes especially take into account the enormous gap he felt between the spiritual ideal that he set for himself and the wretched interior condition in which he found himself as a result of the constant agitation imposed upon him by his missionary life. In this regard, it seems to me that the retreat he made at Bonneveine in the summer of 1816 represents an authentic experience of discernment in which the elements that were previously in tension found their resolution in harmony. In my opinion, it could provide us with a basic scheme through which we can get a reading of his discernment and interior reconciliation. It is worth our while to quote extensively from these notes: “I notice first that in the midst of my extreme distress – for I am seeing myself as I really am, namely, absolutely deprived of any virtue […] I note, not without surprise, that I am not bothered by all that. I have a great trust in God’s goodness […] and I have a kind of hopeful assurance, that he will grant me the grace to improve, for one thing is sure, I am not worth much right now. […] But I cannot cast off the mental attitude […] that, as my desire is to win the glory of God and the salvation of souls he ransomed with his blood […] that this good Master will not grant me some consideration […] Is all this an illusion? Rashness? I have no idea. I am writing what comes to my mind […].” [4]

This seems to have been an new experience for Father de Mazenod, hence the final remark. The novelty is “that in the midst of my extreme distress […] I am not bothered by all that”. Previous to this, the awareness of his sins aroused remorse in him and drove him away from God. Now, the uncompromising clarity of who he is propels him towards the goodness of God. Moreover, if his missionary activity is a source of internal distraction, it does not separate him from God because it is a question of “the salvation of souls he ransomed with his blood”.

It seems to me that the experience is made up of three elements: a clear, uncompromising view of himself, faith in the mercy of God, and mission. Indeed, this is not a case of three parallel elements juxtaposed, but of three points in the same movement. The discovery of his “wretchedness” (clear, uncompromising view of himself, self-knowledge) propels him towards the mercy of God, wherein lies the experience of reconciliation; mission expresses its fruitfulness and gratitude. Let us examine the three elements.


Father de Mazenod really sees himself as he is. In 1813, he wrote: “There is always some self-seeking in everything I do” [5]. “[…] It is because I am wholly carnal, human, imperfect” [6]. Such expressions are not lacking. More interesting still is how the Founder goes about getting to know himself. Obviously, he uses the examination of conscience. He makes extensive use of it during his retreats – and he does it in writing – but on a daily basis as well: “twice a day; but three times would be better […]” [7]. He prepares himself for confession. In this same quote, he rebukes himself for not having examined himself with enough care: “The fault I am pinpointing here is that of not examining myself with enough care”. He wants to go beyond appearances in his in-depth examination of his attitudes to discover what is not immediately obvious. In his retreat of May 1837, he twice comes back on the necessity “to probe myself and descend into my interior” [8]. “So it means descending into one’s interior to purify it of every imperfection and remove all that could constitute an obstacle to the working of the Holy Spirit” [9]. The way he establishes a relationship between descent to his interior world, purification and the Holy Spirit is very interesting. As long as one remains on the level of conduct, ambiguity remains. Action must, therefore, leave behind the realm of the purely moral in order to submit oneself to the Holy Spirit.

In a somewhat enigmatic letter [10] (because we do not know its context), he acknowledges that one always sees things more clearly in regard to others. Then, he speaks of thoughts that one is reluctant to acknowledge and that tend to organize themselves to the point of forming a judgment upon which one acts. He seems to be alluding to spontaneous thoughts which are only a reflection of our self-centredness and which bring disaster in their wake if, without discernment, we permit them to be transformed into action. The Founder speaks of thoughts “which I would permit to become manifest” [11]. These spontaneous expressions give a strong impression of revealing a conscience acutely aware of the vagaries of our subjectivity.

During his retreat at Bonneveine, the Founder went to preach in Mazagues where he told the people “that one must approach God by the contemplation of his kindnesses”. This is a message he wished to apply to himself, allowing himself to be touched by “all the things God in his goodness has done for us…” [12]. In his retreat in preparation for his episcopal ordination, he tied in admirably well the contemplation of his wretchedness (clear, uncompromising view of himself) with God’s mercy: “My good God! If you had not accustomed me to the traits of your infinite mercy, if already you had not inspired in my heart a gentle trust, there would be every reason to draw back with horror. But no, you are my Father […] Everything you have done for me in the course of my life is too present to my memory […] not to count on your infinite goodness[…]” [13]. It is fitting to emphasize the phrase “to count on”. To count on God, to count on his Word, to find one’s security in him. To count on God means to no longer rely upon oneself.

At the conclusion of his meditation on the ritual of ordination, he wrote: “How can I have got to the end of these lines […] The Lord will have pity on me […] I turn to him with the utmost confidence, for his is my help […] I hope of his infinite goodness that having sown by an impulse of his mercy this seed in my soul, having thus begun the work he will deign to see it through to the end” [14].


During his retreat at Bonneveine, Eugene wrote: “God in his goodness knows that I need this trust to act; this it would seem is why he gives it to me” [15]. He quotes as well from his retreat at Amiens, before his ordination to the priesthood, in which he ties his awareness of personal sin in with his missionary response. His ministry is seen as a means of redeeming himself, “the means of discounting a little my great sins” [16]. On a deeper level, he discovers that if until the present he could consider himself “a private person, bound to yearn for his own salvation”, from now on, “If I am not fervent and holy, the works the Lord has confided to me will feel the effect. [17] The link between mission and holiness is established. In his retreat in preparation for episcopal ordination, the Founder brings to a close in this manner the consideration of his own poverty and God’s goodness toward him: “[…] to throw myself with total abandon into your paternal bosom, fully resolved to do […] everything you demand of me […] Too happy to devote the few days left me to spend on earth to do your holy will […]” [18]. In this way, mission becomes a manifestation of his love, a response to the Father who loves us.

The retreat of 1837, at the moment when he was actually to take charge of the See of Marseilles, is focused on the link between holiness and mission. Nonetheless, we rediscover our three elements: clear uncompromising view of himself, mercy and mission all caught up in the same movement. “To you alone it belongs to give strength to my soul; you alone can renew in my depths the sacred fire of your love which must first enkindle fire in my heart, and then pour itself out by my ministry in the souls whom you want to confide to me” [19]. “I expect no less of your usual goodness, that mercy that my infidelities have never wearied and which inspires me even in this moment with so much trust. I shall without delay put out my hand to the work, for time is pressing” [20].

From this radical experience, which unites the elements of truth with regard to himself, the mercy of God and mission, there came reconciliation and interior peace. It was in this way that the Founder experienced the road to freedom.

In the Letter to the Philippians, Saint Paul wrote: “may [your love for each other] increase more and more and never stop improving your knowledge and deepening your perception so that you can always recognize what is best” [21]. A reconciled heart is capable of true knowledge and a feel for discerning what is best. What superb expressions in our context! Now, let us see how that applied in the case of the Founder, in the rich diversity of everyday situations.

The Founder’s discernment in formation

The formation process begins with admission to novitiate. The importance of this event was evidently not lost on the Founder. Not satisfied with merely citing principles [22], he showed his shrewd judgment with regard to the candidates. On October 2 and 3 of 1834, he wrote to Casimir Aubert concerning some postulants he had met at Calvaire: “I see no possibility of admitting the one who is sub-standard in intelligence. He did very badly in school. […] It is some teacher in the town who pushed him through his studies in double quick time”. As for the other, “[he] has a crooked smile, a fastidiousness about his [personal appearance] […] I don’t think he has the least idea about the religious virtues and it could well be has come for some ulterior motive” [23]. The letter shows that the Founder has capably questioned and checked out these two men and formed an opinion about them.

With regard to a priest novice, he wrote to Father Florent Vandenberghe, master of novices at Notre-Dame de l’Osier: “I have difficulty believing in the sincerity of his effusions; it seems to me that there is a kind of affectation in everything he says. In a word, I did not fall victim to the kind of spell which he cast here […]” [24] that is, in the Marseilles community.

On March 23, 1832, he wrote to Father Hippolyte Courtès: “Sound judgment is an indispensable quality, so much so that we have no right to overlook its absence in presenting candidates” [25].

In a letter to Father Prosper Boisramé, Master of Novices in England, on June 25, 1858, he showed surprise that the intellectual level of the novices was mediocre. Even if virtue is preferable to innate ability, “this is most unfortunate” [26]. But more often than not, he recognized and showed enthusiasm about the candidates Providence sent us: “They are excellent candidates who both edify and delight us” [27]. He would even tell Father Richard: “Are you aware that in Brother Logegaray you have sent me another Saint Louis de Gonzaga?” [28]

His letters to the various Novice Masters are peppered with shrewd remarks, whether it was a case of administration of the novitiate or the personal growth of the candidates. For example, he gives a lengthy response about the admission of formerly married men, making appropriate distinctions for the different situations [29]. In the same vein, in 1834, he recommends that Father Casimir Aubert extend the novitiate of the “people who have experienced sexual weakness”: “This is not a vice that dies by being put to sleep” [30]. One could make a whole collection of his pithy remarks which reveal solid good sense and a deep knowledge of the human heart. Shrewd insight, a healthy spiritual life, regard for the demands of the ministry, these were the attitudes the Founder showed with regard to formation. It traced out a “virile, religious, but paternal formation”, as he himself summed it up for Father Anthony Mouchette. [31]

The Founder’s discernment with regard to human conduct

Daily life is made up of a variety of unrecorded situations which call for decision making and choices. Differences in opinion create tensions which call for arbitration. The Founder’s companions were young and untested, which meant that he was constantly being consulted – and it was something he valued – for all sorts of direction and advice. From this overall picture, there emerged a kind of existential wisdom whose characteristics could be described as follows:

1. An insistence on purity of intentions and unambiguous motivation.

2. A principle of realism: to give preference to concrete results, the logic of life experience, over all other considerations having to do with the ways or approaches in doing something.

3. A seeking of objective criteria.

4. Consultation, knowing how to seek advice.

An emphasis on purity of intentions and unambiguous motivation is certainly the key to the Founder’s conduct.

On January 9, 1837, he wrote to Father Joseph Martin at Billens a long memorandum on Oblates who leave. He analyzed the cause of such defections. The first cause of these “criminal thoughts” is individualism: “It is because a person thinks he is someone great, that he imagines he has the means to success; it is because he has allowed himself to be enticed by exaggerated praise that he relies on himself and wants to be more free to act in his way, to assert his talents, always under the pretext of working for God’s glory” [32]. What a shrewd analysis! It has everything: an inflated idea of one’s ego and one’s abilities, a seeking of external approval, the birth of a plan of action and the will to be free to work out one’s own agenda – and all of this under the guise of seeking the glory of God!

The text continues: “Someone who finds himself restricted, vexed by obedience, does everything possible to find a situation where he can develop himself and does not realize that this is a trap of self-love”. And disorder sets in: “[…] that person will no longer abide by the superior’s decision […] [he] will want to consult outsiders […] until he finds someone who agrees with him, and that is the one who is right; selfishness and the passionate desire to do one’s own will drive a person to this extreme”.

Two examples further illustrate this observation. In 1850, Father Nicolas wanted to found a second Oblate house at Limoges because he could no longer get along with his superior whom he “does not find to [his] liking” and he wished to choose his confreres “to go and live with a friend who seems to be the object of [his] affections as if one were a dyed-in-the-wool worldling”. He says outright: ” […] there is no shadow of virtue in that, and there will be no blessing from God on projects conceived in similar vein”. [33]

His response to Father Suzanne who wanted to write books was based on the same argument: “My fear is lest self-love, self-esteem, scorn for others, and all that follows, insinuate themselves amongst you” [34]. The most terrible letter I have so far read is addressed to the very same person when he was still a scholastic, July 16, 1820. In a letter to the Founder, he was putting on airs, but he wrote in this vein to a M. Coulin. M. Coulin showed the Founder this letter which became the object of this terrible letter: “[…] its style was ridiculous..”.; and then, “in each line […] one saw a pretentiousness of mind, a studied expression, an affected way of being picturesque so badly or so little dissimulated that reading it was disgusting. […] but as for myself who looked further, who went to the principle and who plainly saw love of self, judge for yourself if I was pleased”. In the meantime, a third letter arrived from the unfortunate Marius Suzanne: “your famous deion of your journey to Saint-Cerf […] It was as bad as it could possibly be in any literary style whatever; but what is really insufferable is this pretension of not wanting to let anyone believe that you are unaware of a term, an expression more suitable for the thing you wish to say. The result of this pitiful pettiness is that your letters are overloaded with erasures”. And, height of stupidity, he used expressions of affection toward M. Coulin that “it is at the most what you could have said to Courtès or to me”. As a result, the poor wretch has made himself appear completely ridiculous by showing his total lack of judgment, and especially is being deluded by “a detestable vice which hides all its forms but which must be unmasked and pursued” that is, self-love [35]. The Founder administered in a rough and ready way this dose of truth while his own heart was breaking to have to teach him such a lesson. Fortunately, Marius Suzanne accepted his treatment well. Here we have, I believe, an excellent example of discernment; because of this, I allowed myself to quote it at length.

The antidote to such a situation is purity of intention, that is, seeking the glory of God, the salvation of souls and the good of the Church. Quotes in this vein abound.

The practice of purity of intention leads to being “totally detached as to whatever obedience may call for”, he explained to Father John Baptist Honorat who had just been named novice master [36]. To Father Bellon who accepted his obedience as superior of Romans he wrote: “I like such abandonment to the will of God, such renouncement of any particular taste […]” [37] Three years before when he was calling him back from England he warned him: “[…] I shall call in consequence upon the devotedness that we all owe to God and which hence precludes considerations of taste, inclination, health or life itself” [38]. Purity of intention brings forth zeal which creates the genuine missionary, the one who does not seek his own comfort, or his own interests [39].

What he enjoined on his followers, the Founder practiced himself: “[…] I would rather see my hand wither than to write even a single syllable contrary to that end [the glory of God]” [40]. What better quotation could one find to bring this section to a conclusion.


The Founder’s desire was to see things move forward, that missions be preached, Christians converted, that the Gospel spread ever more in the world. What was called for, then, was the use of effective means, even if they were simple, not to be finding out who was right and who was wrong, not to get entangled in rules of procedure, etc. That was his rule of thumb in knowing if writing books was called for or not; he wrote to Father Suzanne: “[…] a good catechism, if it converts many souls, ought to be preferred to the most beautiful tome” [41]. There was no question of wanting to punish the young people who had been rowdy at the mission of Theys, but to “win their hearts” in such a way of drawing “towards you those who were more guilty than they” [42]. Zeal, yes, but well advised zeal. Consequently, in would not be suitable in Cévennes, dealing with a mixed population, to wish to convert the Protestants: “It would not take much to unleash a persecution whose consequences would be incalculable” [43].

In Canada, in 1848, the Oblates had a disagreement with the Bishop of Bytown, Bishop Bruno Guigues, over a matter of money. The Founder urged them to seek an agreement. Since “you wish on both sides only the glory of God and the sanctification of souls. […] Go forth together then and seek to attain this unique goal […]” [44]. In 1826, during the mission at Digne, the question arose of taking up a collection to support some good work. The same principle of realism guided the Founder in this case. The Founder was not in favor of the collection because it would demand a lot of work, require a lot of time and, if the results were bad, “they are tempted to think […] that we are collecting for our convent” [45]. Ground would thus be lost on all fronts.

It was this same realism that led him to choose preaching missions rather than the “worldly” preaching of the Lenten season and Advent. These preachers played at being stars, drew the glory down on themselves, whereas missions were addressed to the simple folk. It was easier to forget oneself and, as a result, to be an instrument of the grace of Jesus. In this way, the humble missionaries showed fruitfulness as “compared with the barren results of most Lenten preachers”. And here was the conclusion he drew: “Let us look always to what is useful, let us seek nothing but God’s glory and the salvation of souls […]” [46]. We find the same point of view in regard to a project for the jubilee at Aix preached during Lent of 1826: “All I desire is that they preach in a profitable manner, putting aside all self-love” [47]. He also wanted to see them give the catechism classes with “an hour glass on the table” and not “a sort of little sermon” because the people need to be taught [48]. Let them take advantage of this opportunity to reaffirm the Sodality for young people and assure its survival [49]. The end result did not seem to meet his expectations. “If, in the place of this parade, they had evangelized the poor abandoned souls, […]” [50] he wrote with regret.


Upon the death of Father Victor Arnoux in 1828, the question arose as to whether, instead of giving his cross to someone else, it should rather be kept in the community as a memento of his virtues. But who “will be judge of the degree of heroism to which one must attain in order to be preferred […] I for one will not make any such discernment. I see miracles only as a reason for an exception” [51]. Miracles! Now, there is an objective criteria, indisputable as a norm.

The word of the Pope is also an objective criterion. That becomes evident in the case of Lammenais: “[…] to renounce one’s own opinions when they do not conform, I do not say to the decisions of the Holy See, but even to its viewpoint” [52]. There was debate as to whether or not one should officially pray for King Louis Philippe. Since the Pope was inclined to appeasement, the Founder concluded that “it is no dishonour to modify one’s opinion when the head of the Church gives his instructions” [53].

The Oblate Rule is an objective criterion as well. In his correspondence with people from the outside, bishops for example, the Founder freely referred to the Rule in accepting or refusing this or that work, to ensure the honoring of a certain way of doing things, whether it was an annual retreat, the style of preaching: for example, the necessity of community, the character of Oblate preaching, the non-acceptance of Lenten preaching, of parishes or of minor seminaries. [54]


Relying solely on one’s own efforts, it is difficult to find one’s way. Differing points of view abound, the information and the knowledge of the documentation that some have can complement that of others. Of necessity, then, one must seek advice.

The Founder knew how to seek advice. Whether it had to deal with the functioning of the Congregation, obediences, or the running of a diocese, he consulted other people. “I have been racking my brains to work out the appointments that have to be made. I discussed this a lot with Fathers Vincens and Santoni” [55]. He consulted Father Vincens “[…] to find out if I can risk giving an obedience to Father Piot. I gave up the idea when I heard what you had to say” [56]. There were some Oblates with whom he consulted freely, for example, Father Courtès. On May 17, 1831, he expressed regret that he did not have him present: “At this very moment I find myself in a real perplexity with regard to two individuals, and in things of this kind I do not like to act solely on my own judgment […]” [57].

The following quotation, taken from a letter to Father Casimir Aubert in the wake of abandoning the house at Penzance in England, could serve as an intermediary conclusion for us. After undergoing such a trial, he reflected with great serenity: “This calmness is the result first of my resignation to the will of God […] then the serious and prolonged reflections which I have made myself and which likewise have occurred to the good sense of the two men whom I have called to my side to give me their advice. […]” and who “it is really remarkable”, reached the same conclusions [58]. There you have the three levels upon which discernment works: acceptance of the will of God which quenches our passions and bestows on us his Spirit; personal reflection which can, then, lead to a calm judgment, a judgment which is confirmed, deepened and clarified as a result of the advice of others.

The Founder required that people seek advice. The classical text in this area is most certainly his letter of January 10, 1843 to Father Honorat in Canada. Father Honorat “was ruling in independent fashion” and was building without rhyme or reason, caught up in his “monomania of the trowel” [59], throwing money out the window. The Founder ordered him to hold “regular meetings” and to “deal with matters in a consultative manner”. Very astutely he pointed out to him the benefits of this way of operating: “It is thus by giving others marks of confidence, by showing them deference, by knowing how to modify one’s own ideas and to adopt those of others that one gains their sympathy” [60]. Moreover, each person has specific qualities others do not have; collaborative effort, where consultation has a part, make possible the enrichment of the whole: “Put everything then in common for the advantage of all” [61].

This text gives the spirit of the practice of counsel. It is conducive to making a better judgment of the situation, creates relationships built on confidence, and allows the talents of all to become manifest. For example, that is why the Founder recommended it to Father Santoni, Novice Master. He told him to exercise caution in admitting novices; in this role, “Do not overlook the little warnings that are sometimes under one’s nose” [62]. Even the worthy Father Tempier who had fallen into “a habitual independence” had his nose tweaked on occasion. Father de Mazenod wrote him, “[…] I […] share with you so willingly all my thoughts, while being surprised […] that […] you have so much trouble sharing yours with me” [63].

To take counsel is a necessary thing; and yet again, one must be discerning in choosing one’s counselors. We have seen how Oblates in difficulties were seeking counselors who would tell them what they expected. The Founder wrote: “What do most men know of the duties of the religious soul and the value of the bonds contracted […] with God?” [64]

During the cholera epidemic in Marseilles, an Oblate left his post on the advice of a doctor. The Founder knew how to make the distinctions called for: “Doctors are to be consulted only in order to ask them for the assistance of their skill in regard to the indispositions a person may have; but let us beware of listening to them when they advise something that is low, cowardice […]” [65]

These texts teach us that one must not confuse counselors with accomplices, such as were the court prophets of the Old Testament. The practice of counsel is a function of discernment, driven by a search for truth. It is the fruit of a genuine friendship, as this last quotation admirably well affirms: “You know that a true friend can be compared to a faithful mirror in which one can see oneself as one is; if it reflects some imperfection, […] one is not annoyed with the mirror; on the contrary, one is thankful and relieved at having perceived it”. [66]

The Founder’s discernment in the affairs of his time

Jesus was approached on the question as to whether one should take sides with the occupying Roman power or the national independent army of his time. The first Christians showed themselves to be compliant citizens [67], but they also considered themselves as foreigners and sojourners among the nations [68]. Society is a reality and each one must take his own stance. A theoretical neutrality is possible, but in practice we are always categorized. This is where discernment comes into play to run this course of hurdles made up of ideologies, compromises, partisan loyalties, resistance, party politics or personal choices.

The Founder lived in an age of radical upheaval. Consequently, one cannot avoid considering his discernment even in the social realm. I will, therefore, say a few words about the Lammenais affair, a suitable example for our purposes.

Jean Leflon treats the Lammenais affair at length [69]. We will limit ourselves to examining two letters to Father Tempier on this question.

Dated May 30, 1826, the first letter gives the reasons for which Father de Mazenod is not in favor of signing a petition bearing the signatures of 68 bishops condemning Lammenais’ ultramontanism. That is not surprising since he was in basic agreement with Lammenais [70]. What is interesting, however, is the line of argument he followed. He judged such a show of force to be uncalled for on the part of the bishops. Such a noisy maneuver could lead people to believe that “they were justified in being suspicious of their [the bishops’] intentions”.

More subtle still, he felt that “this declaration is a concession made to the liberal party that they fear and which will not cease to plot our downfall in spite of all such declarations which it mocks” [71]. He foresaw the opportunism of the liberal spirit and its profound antagonism for the Church. Today, we understand that the correct attitude to have in a liberal society is not the spirit of compromise, but of authentic identity: to be what one really is in a society which legitimately permits it and this is to its credit. Now, the Church was being tempted to make such a compromise. A letter of September 13, 1830 made reference to the mission crosses that were removed – probably to less visible locations – with the consent of the ecclesiastical authorities. Writing to Father Tempier, he said: “In my opinion, there is a greater scandal in the benevolent compromise […] than in the profanation perpetrated by a horde of illdoers […]” The conclusion showed an astuteness worthy of a second look. For the Founder, “it is possible that by dint of such illogic they may succeed in changing the accepted meaning of words […] in that eventuality, I would wish that they leave God aside and not implicate him disrespectfully in all these human vagaries and vicissitudes” [72]. To refashion “God” according to the current fad is indeed one of the criticisms leveled against liberal theologians; had he seen this already in his time?

The October 26, 1830 letter indicated a break with the “school of M. de Lammenais”. Monsignor Leflon summarized Lammenais’ teachings in this way: “In a world where liberalism was triumphing, Catholics had to speak out in favor of freedom […] instead of demanding privileges […] they would now have to stand on freedom alone if they were to regenerate the world and religion while bringing the work of Christ to fulfillment” [73]. Such theses seem rather appealing to us today. The Founder’s criticism does not go to the essentials, but stopped at accidentals. Lammenais’ thesis assumed that “Catholics are a power in France while not even having a party”. Was, then, the power of the Church really on the agenda? And if it was the independence of the clergy that one was out to protect, was the best way of doing this to give up state support? Would they really be independent when they have no bread and no one would give them any? What especially distressed the Founder was “to see a man of his genius waste time writing newspaper articles” when he should have been completing “the works which Europe awaits with rightful impatience” [74]. We rediscover here the Founder’s realism in top form, even if he had not grasped all the ramifications of the questions. That is what Leflon seems to say in the end: “It must be recognized in all justice that during the whole crisis, this man who was so opposed to liberalism, so touchy where doctrine was concerned […] stayed clear of all party spirit and proved to be understanding, fraternal and conciliatory. [..] [He] so beautifully safeguarded charity as well as truth in difficult conditions […]” [75]

Discernment in the Constitutions and Rules of 1982
The 1980 text contains eighteen references to discernment, nine in the Constitutions and nine in the Rules. When the choice between temporary vows and promises was done away with, Rule 46 was eliminated as well. There remain, then, in the 1982 text, seventeen references to discernment. Six touch on formation, C51, 53, 55 and R 64, 67 [R 66f, 67c in CCRR 2000]; five deal with the exercise of government, C72, 81, 105, 111 and R 18; [C 73, 82, 125, 131 and R 26a in CCRR 2000] four deal with spiritual growth, C 26, 68 and R 20, 21 [R 33a, b in CCRR 2000]; three treat explicitly of the mission, R 6, 9, and 10 [R 7f, 9a, and 9b in CCRR 2000].

What is the object of discernment in the Constitutions and Rules? What is at stake in discerning? In the paragraphs that speak of formation, it is obviously a question of discerning the Oblate vocation (C 51), “what the Lord expects of them [the novices] (C 53), “the Lord’s call” (C 55); the spiritual director helps “to discern God’s action” (R 21) [R 33b in CCRR 2000]; in the face of new needs, they will be “discerning all the while the movement of the Spirit” (C 68). With regard to the laity, discernment bears on “their own talents and charisms” (R 6) [R 7f in CCRR 2000]. When it comes to obedience, it is also a question of discerning “the will of God” (C 26). In participation in the government of the Congregation, it is “as a body, therefore, we discern the Spirit’s call” (C 72). In the General Chapters, “we discern God’s will in the urgent needs of our times” (C 105) [C 125 in CCRR 2000]. The General Administration’s task is to “help us discern our common objectives” (C 111) [C 131 in CCRR 2000].

In speaking of the ministry for justice, Rule 9 recommends “in each case, a serious discernment”. “When they [prophetic voices] arise, they will be heard, tested, and supported” (R 10) [R 9b in CCRR 2000].

The Constitutions and Rules have few things to say on the manner of practicing discernment. One point, however, is clear: its link with community. Constitution 26 says it very explicitly: “Decisions which express this will are best reached after community discernment and prayer”. Constitution 72 speaks to us about the spirit of government and says: “As a body, therefore, we discern the Spirit’s call […]” And Constitution 105 states: “Together, in union with the Church, […] we discern God’s will […]”

In another context, community is the place which permits individuals to make a full scale exercise of discernment: Constitution 53 invites communities to welcome “those who wish to ‘come and see’ […] we will help them discern what the Lord expects of them”. The Master of Novices enables the candidates to “discern the Lord’s call” (C 55).

In addition to this major reference to community, the text gives a few other methodological directives for discernment. As we have seen, Constitution 26 mentions prayer. Constitution 105 speaks of the General Chapter which discerns “in union with the Church”; the same constitution asks us to “discern God’s will in the urgent needs of our times”; Rule 9 asks for a discernment “in the light of ecclesiastical directives”; and Rule 21 speaks of the assistance of a spiritual director.

This first reading of the Constitutions and Rules is already very enlightening and reveals the richness of its content. We can now study their content more in depth in the following three brief paragraphs.


Constitution 1 tells us that “the call of Jesus Christ, heard within the Church through people’s need for salvation, draws us together”. The need for salvation expresses itself differently according to time and cultures. We must, therefore, learn to grasp, interpret them and pray in order for them to produce missionary responses in us. “There is no ministry, however, which is foreign to us, provided we never lose sight of the Congregation’s primary purpose: to evangelize the most abandoned” (R 2) [R 7b in CCRR 2000].

The nature of our charism as expressed in these texts naturally demands an exercise of discernment.

Constitution 68 paints a picture on a grand scale which embraces the work of God in the world, of his Word which transforms humanity to make of it the People of God. The Oblates are audaciously characterized as “instruments of the Word”. There you have an unsurpassed theological and all-encompassing statement which could not be any broader. God’s work is right now; it is not repeated; it is carried out. That is why Oblates must be “flexible and open, learning how to respond better to new needs”. The means recommended by this same constitution is “discerning all the while the movement of the Spirit who renews the face of the earth”.

This text obviously draws its inspiration from the theology of “signs of the times”, that was so dear to the heart of the Second Vatican Council. The mission is not simply a repetition of tried formulae; it embraces inculturation, incarnation, creativity, in order to bestow on the unchanging deposit of faith a new relevance making it become nourishment and good news to contemporary humanity.

In this work of discernment, which is above all a work of purification and detachment from self in order to better reflect the will of God, the role of community and prayer is basic (C 26). Rule 9 makes the astute observation concerning missionary initiatives linked with ministry for justice – and this is true of all initiatives – that following discernment, they “will receive their mission for this ministry from their Superiors”. The community takes ownership of the mission, authenticates it and guarantees its continuance.

The attitude which fosters the practice of discernment is described in Constitution 81 [C 82 in CCRR 2000]which speaks of the qualities of superiors: “In humility and true obedience they will seek enlightenment from God and from their brothers’ counsel”. At the heart of discernment, there lies a poverty of spirit as it is expressed in the first of the Beatitudes. One must, then, avoid hardness of heart and the espousal of rigid ideologies. Among those brothers whose counsels bless us with God’s grace, the spiritual director (R 21) [R 33b in CCRR 2000] has his specific role to play. The “exercises” listed in Constitution 33 provide a living context conducive to the practice of discernment. In the context of discernment, examination of conscience holds a very special place.


Formation works hand in hand with life. The world of chemistry is a world of repetition, governed by unchanging, static laws. Chemical reactions can be predicted and reproduced. Nothing like this exists in formation. Each person is unique and in the process of development. The educator works with this changing and unrecorded phenomenon. The contemporary mentality is more aware of this. That is why Constitution 51 speaks of journeying with people in their integral development, in their spiritual journey and the progressive discernment of their vocation.

Formation is definitely an art. Rule 35 requires of educators “sound judgment, an understanding of persons, a community spirit and apostolic zeal”. That is certainly a cluster of qualities that would enable them to be good spiritual directors. At the heart of direction of the conscience lies the practice of discernment. Discernment should enable each one to acquire genuine and accurate self-knowledge. The formation community is called to be the milieu in which this surfaces. Constitution 48 says: We are “[…] supporting one another in a healing and empowering way. Together, we create an atmosphere of freedom and mutual trust in which we call each other to an ever deeper commitment”.


Oddly, the question of discernment emerges frequently in the context of government. Constitution 72 mentions it in relation to the spirit of government. It is found among the qualities required for being a superior (C 81). It lies at the heart of the work of the General Chapter (C 105) and of the General Administration (C 111).

For my part, I will stress the link established by Constitution 72 and Rule 18 between discernment and consensus. I see here an interesting political philosophy.

Indeed, democracy barely escapes being arbitrary when its decisions are enforced on the basis of a slim majority. Among ourselves, we try to achieve something better. “As a body, therefore, we discern the Spirit’s call and seek to achieve consensus in important matters […]” At the basis of this linking of the words discernment and consensus, there is the certitude that the call of the Spirit is one and unique. The principle of consensus is rooted in the fact that there is one single call of the Spirit. From this point on, any problem rests in perception, acceptance and the uncovering of this unique call. This is where discernment comes into play. If acceptance leaves something to be desired, it is because its vital energies are being siphoned off by elements of passion or fear which cloud the vision. The work of communitarian discernment has, then, as its goal to purify the senses so that they provide access to the greatest possible fidelity to the call of the Spirit, the perception of reality, to the analysis of the present reality. This is a process conducted in community. The community as such must also accept to undergo this work of purification and conversion in order to reflect, as in a polished mirror, the call of the Spirit, perceived in the challenges and the concrete needs of a given moment in the life of the community.

So it happens that consensus is possible and that it arrives as a ripe fruit, the product of the process of discernment.

Rule 18 states this same philosophy as being valid on the level of the local community. Such a process seeking consensus is reserved for “major decisions and in matters concerning the life and mission of the whole community”. It is important, then, to know how to distinguish the essential from the accidental. More and more, communities are taking on community projects. That is an area which is worthy of being approached in this fashion, that is, through a process of discernment which has consensus as its goal.

We are probably only at the beginning in the area of discernment. In the years to come, it would be important to collect the lived experiences in the Congregation to define more sharply through them the stimulating insights we find in the Constitutions and Rules.