Joseph A. Tetlow, S.J.: Mature Catholics are thirsting for spiritual help.

The Montserrat Jesuit Retreat House at Lake Dallas, Texas, where Father Tetlow previously served as director. (

Joseph A. Tetlow, S.J., is a leading writer on Ignatian spirituality and a world-renowned spiritual director. He served eight years in Rome as Secretary for Ignatian Spirituality on the Jesuit Superior General’s staff, overseeing 250 Jesuit retreat houses throughout the world. Earlier he served as dean of Loyola University New Orleans, president of the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley and associate editor of America. He is also the former director of Montserrat Jesuit Retreat House at Lake Dallas, Texas.

Father Tetlow’s last book,Always Discerning: An Ignatian Spirituality for the New Millenium,won the First Place Catholic Press Award in Spirituality for 2017. His other books include Ignatius Loyola: Spiritual Exercises, Choosing Christ in the World and Making Choices in Christ. On Oct. 26, I interviewed him by phone about the topic of discernment for lay people. The following transcript of our conversation has been edited for style and length.


How do you define discernment?

Discernment is living aware of the constant interplay in energy and among head, heart and hands. So what we think changes what we feel and what we do. What we feel changes what we think and what we do. And what we do changes what we feel and what we think.

Why should lay people care about discernment?

The reason is they do it constantly, but don’t reflect on it and might not be aware that they’re doing it. Ideas they pick up in the marketplace affect their feelings about the church. Things that they do in consumer society affect what they feel about their generosity, about their love of God, but they’re unaware of that. So the reason people need to learn about discernment is it’s what they’re doing all the time, and to be a mature Christian requires reflecting on what you’re doing all the time.

The reason people need to learn about discernment is it’s what they’re doing all the time.

How can lay people practice discernment today?

To practice discernment, you have to be praying. You have to be a prayerful person. Now praying doesn’t mean sitting for long periods of time in communion with God. Praying for the ordinary person begins with examining conscience and being aware of the virtues that the Holy Spirit has infused into us. The Holy Spirit gives us a supernatural life and all the strengths we need to live it. But most people are quite unaware of wisdom, understanding, counsel; they’re unaware of prudence, justice, fortitude. Discernment requires that you think about these things and pray about them.

What does St. Ignatius of Loyola teach us about discernment that seems especially relevant to our 21st century American context?

Probably the most important thing Ignatius taught us is to discern among spirits. What spirit am I following? Is it a spirit that’s leading to good or a spirit that’s leading to bad? Those spirits come to us perhaps as ideas or as convictions of our heart. The spirits move us to do this or that and Ignatius teaches us to discern among the movements of the spirit to good and the movements of the spirit to bad.

The next important thing he teaches us, I would say, is the need for indifference. That is to say, the need to not be deeply attached in feeling, or idea, or action, to anything which could lead to sin, to anything that’s unloving.

Pope Francis’ homilies and writings are full of discernment.

What does Pope Francis contribute to our understanding of discernment?

I would say Pope Francis’ main contribution is that he’s constantly doing it and speaking it out. His homilies and writings are full of discernment. Francis is the one who created the statement “[what] you think affects or changes what you do and what you feel,” and the rest of it.

What does the Scripture teach us about discernment?

Scripture is filled with it. Once you understand the need to notice head, and heart, and hands, you find out that Scripture is full of references to this. For example, in 1 Timothy, Paul tells Timothy that the final goal of the instruction he’s going to give is love issuing from a pure heart, a clear conscience and a sincere faith. Pure heart is the heart of what you’re convinced of, what you’re aimed at. Clear conscience, that’s your mind being instructed to know what is right and what is wrong. And a sincere faith, as James says, is not faith if it’s not what you do. The Scripture is filled with references like that once you get the pattern of head, and heart, and hands.

How has discernment helped you in your own life as a Jesuit priest?

I would say the main thing is it has allowed me to watch constantly how what I am doing affects what I think and what I feel. And then during Vietnam and during other periods, what my thoughts were doing to my feelings and to what I was doing. In other words, briefly, it allowed me to live an integral life. So that the problems I had as a young boy, the problems I had as a young Jesuit, I was able to integrate into an affective and intellectual life that allows me to live with my heart at peace.

If we’re mature disciples of mature Jesus Christ, we are discerning. And that’s true of laity, priests and religious.

In the Catholic Church, how do lay people experience discernment differently from clergy and vowed religious?

The main thing is that religious have the luxury of a long period to pray every day. Priests have the gift of prayer in their lives. Laypeople have to struggle to get it. What I find is introducing laypeople to the Examen, to discernment, encourages them to spend time at the beginning of the day—or during the day—in prayer.

But I would say we are all disciples, mature disciples, of Jesus Christ. If we’re mature disciples of mature Jesus Christ, we are discerning. And that’s true of laity, priests and religious.

How does the Ignatian Examen help us discern?

The big thing is it makes us aware of reflecting on our actions, our thoughts and our feelings, and it gives us the time to do that. I would say the Ignatian Examen has focused too tightly, in my lifetime anyhow, on getting rid of sins and faults. We’ve forgotten that Ignatius points out, in Annotation 18 of the Spiritual Exercises, to little ways of praying. And in paragraph 245, he says you can do this with the Examen or with the vices or with the virtues. So reflect on the virtues. And I think that’s something Ignatius offers us that we’ve forgotten.

Your book Always Discerningwon the Catholic Press Award in spirituality in 2017, but you’ve written many books and articles over the years. What do you hope people will take away from your life and work?

Prayer. I hope the brief notes I’ve written will help people think straight and rightly about our service and praise of God our Lord. I suppose that Always Discerning in a way caps what I’ve been trying to do all my life, which is to help people live aware of the way the Holy Spirit deals with us — not just in ideas but in our head, and in our heart, and in our hands. The Holy Spirit comes to us sometimes by an inspiration to “do,” which will change what we think and what we feel; sometimes by an inspiration about what we’re feeling, to clarify or to correct a feeling we have; and sometimes by an idea.

Having turned 88 in October, you must reflect at least occasionally on your own mortality. What will you say to Jesus when you finally meet him in the next life?

After I say that “I love you, and I have loved you, and thank you for letting me love you,” I’m just going to say “thank you.” Just one big thank you. I do think about my mortality. I think about everyone’s mortality. I wonder whether I’ve preached enough about death. What I do know is we have not preached enough about the resurrection of the body. And if there’s one thing I hope my books help people grow in, it’s the conviction and the hope that I will live forever in my own flesh without all the grief.

When I meet Jesus in the next life, I will say: “I love you, and I have loved you, and thank you for letting me love you."

What advice would you give to a layperson who wants to try discernment for the first time, but doesn’t know how?

Whenever I preach a retreat, I give a certain amount of instruction on how to understand and practice discernment. When you tell a person what you think really affects how you feel and what you do, when you understand you’re an enfleshed spirit and your whole self is involved in this, you learn to go to prayer as you really are. So if you have a headache, you tell the Lord you have a headache and ask him for consolation. I think that’s the big thing. You don’t need to tell people much beyond that we go to prayer to praise, reverence and serve God our Lord with our whole self—our head, our heart and our hands. That’s really underlining John Paul II’s very difficult essays on the joy of love, on the theology of the body, which is really tightly part of his philosophical thought.

We have not preached enough about the resurrection of the body.

Any final thoughts?

Today there is a fringe within the church that we Jesuits need to go to and first be aware of. This fringe is mature Catholics who practice their faith as well as they can, maybe not every Sunday but as well as they can, and sit in the middle of the church wondering what does it give them. What are we offering them? The answer is not very much at all. The most common reason people leave the Roman Church is they’re not finding the spiritual help they need. We have to bring that to them, and bringing the Spiritual Exercises, bringing discernment, bringing Jesus to them is what they need now. That is what has driven me for the last 20 years of my life: mature Catholics—mature Christians—who are thirsting. And the church is not giving them anything to drink.

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JR Cosgrove
1 year 7 months ago

I believe the reason people leave the church is due to lack of belief. Why should anyone be a Catholic? Answer that decisively and there will be less problems. There is very sound reasoning to answer this. Feelings are always important but there is too much emphasis on emotions. Feelings are often not substantiated by reality.

Mary Reeves
1 year 7 months ago

Mature Catholics who practice discernment are discouraged by the poor homilies, the missing teachings on the faith, the lack of forthrightness in addressing the issues of gênder, sexuality, paternalism within the church governance. We seek transparency, dialogue, collaboration.....most of us seek. Elsewhere for sustenance in our faith

Mary Reeves
1 year 7 months ago

Mature Catholics who practice discernment are discouraged by the poor homilies, the missing teachings on the faith, the lack of forthrightness in addressing the issues of gênder, sexuality, paternalism within the church governance. We seek transparency, dialogue, collaboration.....most of us seek. Elsewhere for sustenance in our faith

Denise Delurgio
1 year 7 months ago

At the very end Father is asked, "Any final thoughts?" Then he addresses the real need of mature Catholics that was teased in the title.

Dr.Cajetan Coelho
1 year 7 months ago

Saint Ignatius of Loyola - Pray for us.

Kevin Besse
1 year 7 months ago

I agree that there is a lack of what could be called active discernment. Of course we all make decisions about many things, but I have found that if I use the word "discernment", to most people it means only one thing - he's thinking of religious life, while that is not the case. One reason for the misunderstanding is lack of any theological education post-grade school. In the last paragraph the lack of spiritual help is discussed. However, I see it as a lack of spiritual dialog, discussion, communion - at a higher level than grade school catechism. It's unfortunate; I don't see much to participate in for the "grown up" or intelligent Catholic. Most of what I've gleaned has been from journals, books, and independent searches.

Sean Salai, S.J.
1 year 7 months ago

Thank you all for reading. One thing I appreciate about Father Tetlow's recent book "Always Discerning" is that it expands discernment beyond a question of vocations like "do I choose marriage or religious life" to embrace every kind of decision from big to small, as the title and his words here imply. The book quotes then-Archbishop Bergoglio as saying we want to think what we're feeling and doing, feel what we're thinking and doing, and do what we're thinking and feeling to be sure we're making Spirit-led decisions. Let's continue to pray for one another that we may hone this self-awareness of hands, heart, and head.

JR Cosgrove
1 year 7 months ago

I am not sure I buy into this understanding of the concept of “discernment.” Too much emphasis on feelings which are notoriously famous for leading one astray.

Rhett Segall
1 year 7 months ago

Moses could only "discern" God after God past by: God allows Moses to go in the cleft of a rock and God puts His hand protectively over Moses' face and passes by: "You cannot see my face, for no human can see me and live...Exodus 33:20-23). That's the way it is for much of our discernment. We pray, consult, decide.; then we look at our life and discern God's providence in our personal history.

Kevin Liston
1 year 7 months ago

I think people would feel more comfortable with these ideas and practices if they did not sound so much like technical terms from The Spiritual Exercises. As I understand it, discernment means evaluating what is happening in our lives and working out what is to be done. Most people do it frequently in relation to non-religious matters so why have a special word for it in spirituality?
Discernment of spirits sounds like a phrase from the middle ages. Judging feelings would be a contemporary phrasing. The comment above by J. Cosgrove is relevant here – feelings can be very confusing.
As Joseph Tetlow explains, examen is about reflecting on our actions, thoughts and feelings. We all do this regularly in a multitude of ways so let’s not make it appear esoteric when applied to spirituality.
The traditional language used in relation to spiritual or religious matters is one of the major difficulties in communicating with the modern world. It needs updating or, as Pope John XXIII would have said, ‘aggiornamento’.


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