See, discern, act: Back to the future

Addressing French Specialised Catholic Action movements in January 2022, Pope Francis drew a parallel between the “judge” process that is the second step of the see-judge-act and the process of discernment.

As he explained:

The second step (of the SJA) is to judge or, one might say, to discern. This is the moment when we allow ourselves to be questioned and challenged. The key to this stage is recourse to Holy Scripture. It is a matter of allowing our lives to be challenged by the Word of God which, as the Epistle to the Hebrews says, is ‘living, energetic and sharper than a two-edged sword (…); it judges the intentions and thoughts of the heart’ (4:12).

Nor was it the first time he had referred to the “judge” as a process of discernment. As early as 2015, in his encyclical Laudato Si’ §185, he wrote in similar fashion:

In any discussion about a proposed venture, a number of questions need to be asked in order to discern whether or not it will contribute to genuine integral development. What will it accomplish? Why? Where? When? How? For whom? What are the risks? What are the costs? Who will pay those costs and how? In this discernment, some questions must have higher priority.

See, judge, act and synodality

And this linkage between the see-judge-act as a process or part of a process of discernment has only grown through the course of Pope Francis’ pontificate, particularly in the context of the development of synodality.

See for example the Working Document for the Synod for the Amazon in 2018, which explained the see-judge-act within the context of a holistic “dynamic process of listening and discerning”:

Following the proposal of the Pan-Amazon Church Network (REPAM), the document is structured on the basis of three conversions to which Pope Francis invites us: the pastoral conversion to which he calls us in the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (see-listen); the ecological conversion which the Encyclical Laudato Si’ urges, setting the course (judge-act); and the conversion to church synodality detailed in the Apostolic Constitution Episcopalis Communio, that guides the walking together (judge-act). All of this occurs within a dynamic process of listening and discerning the new paths whereby the Church in the Amazon will announce the Gospel of Jesus Christ in the coming years.

In similar fashion, Synod sub-secretary, Sr Nathalie Becquart xmcj, also highlighted the significance of the see-judge-act as a synodal process “because it begins with the reality” enabling us to “start from our situatedness, from the very concrete reality where we are.”

See, discern, act… in 1925

Well, as the saying goes, there’s nothing new under the Sun. And if we look back to the early days of the JOC in 1925, we discover – or rediscover – that the “judge” component of the see-judge-act was already understood as a process of discernment at that time.

Thus, in a wonderful talk delivered at the First Study Week of the Belgian JOC on 23 September 1925, we find Cardijn’s assistant chaplain, Fr Joseph Arendt SJ, explaining the judge as a process of discernment:

You will therefore need to learn to discern what is good from what is bad; what is good from what is pleasant; what is good from what is achievable.

A. The good and the bad.

To discern good and bad in the conduct of an intelligent being, one needs to possess a supreme rule, because a reasonable being does not act without sufficient motives. When you eat, when you study, when you work in the workshop, in the mine, on the construction site you have a goal and it is based on this goal that you regulate your actions. You want to strengthen yourself, rest, educate yourself, earn money. But why do you want all this? Is it to help your parents? To prepare for starting a family? To become useful citizens of your country? To contribute to the recovery of your comrades? But again, why do you want all this? A person worthy of this name must be able to indicate the supreme goal of his life, the deep motive of all his or her reasonable actions. Life is not about taking a few steps to the right, a few steps to the left, a few steps back and, from time to time, a few steps forward. No, it’s about heading directly towards the goal, in order to arrive quickly and well.

Fr Arendt’s talk is in fact the first fully developed presentation of the JOC’s “new” method and still deserves close study by any budding jocist leader, chaplain or mentor.

And it was no accident that, like Pope Francis, Joseph Arendt was also a Jesuit. It was therefore natural for both of them to see a parallel between the judge and the process of discernment that is so much a part of the Ignatian tradition.

Nevertheless, Joseph Arendt was also very clearly aware of the Aristotelian and Thomistic sources of the see-judge-act as a means of developing and exercising the virtue of prudence by developing “the good habit of informing ourselves carefully and deliberating prudently before acting,” adding that “once the decision has been made, let us understand how to act with vigour and constancy.”

Indeed, as Cardijn noted himself in 1925, like a great river, the JOC has many sources!

Stefan Gigacz

References

Joseph Arendt, Social formation by the YCW (Joseph Cardijn Digital Library)

Pope Francis, The see-judge-act and the review of life (Joseph Cardijn Digital Library)

Pope Francis, Laudato Si’ (Vatican.va)

Synod for Amazonia Working Document, The Amazon: New paths for the Church and for integral ecology (Synod.va)