How Can Vincentian Discernment Anchor Us in Uncertain Times?

Each of you reading this today has a unique identity and place in the world. Indeed, it is humbling to think that no one quite like us has ever existed on this planet, and there will never be another person like you again!

If we want to understand how to take better take care of ourselves and remain spiritually healthy, we need to know how to discern well and how to align our values and behaviors with wise choices that support a balanced life. This will surely involve learning how to listen and to trust the voice deep within, paying attention to the wisdom of the community that supports us, and observing the rhythm of our days.

At first, this may sound like an easy task, but how do we discern well amid the cacophony of dissonant and competing clatter that regulates our waking hours? Maybe Vincentian wisdom can guide us along our discernment path.

Vincent de Paul’s process of discernment had three parts: an openness to God’s will, an evaluation of reasons for or against an action, and a consultation with wise persons.[1]

For Vincent and Louise, it was in the concrete and sometimes messy circumstances of their lives that they so deeply experienced the presence of God. God was very much alive to them in the midst of their relationships, especially with those who existed on the margins of seventeenth-century France. The essence of their approach to relationships involved “living with a listening heart, paying daily attentiveness to God’s presence, and a daily discerning and decisioning.”[2] Such a Vincentian approach has been described by scholar Vie Thorgren as “living with a discerning heart.”[3] This discerning sensibility also involved examining the pros and cons of a situation and deciding on a suitable response or course of action.

Yet, it is important to note that it was often only after events themselves had passed, in an intimate moment of prayer and contemplation, that their meaning became clear. Thus, for Vincent and Louise, carving out quiet, reflective moments was important as it provided opportunities to interpret the events of their lives through the lens of their faith and in dialogue with their lived experience.

Another integral aspect of their discernment process was to seek advice and sound counsel from people whose wisdom they respected. This stemmed from their deep belief and trust in the fact that God mediated God’s will through people.[4] Consequently, while receiving wise counsel, Vincent and Louise would seek to identify the word of God, which would then help guide and inform their decision-making and their quest for right and just action.

So, what might such a discernment process mean for us at DePaul today, when our context is so very different?

As we strive to remain spiritually grounded and holistically healthy, perhaps, it is as simple as merely considering some simple questions: What is the quality of the yeses in your life right now, and are these supporting your professional and personal growth? Are you saying no when you need to? Finally, how, with a listening heart, might you discern the difference?


Reflection by: Siobhan O’Donoghue, Director of Faculty/Staff Engagement, Division of Mission and Ministry

[1] As noted in the abstract to Hugh O’Donnell, C.M., “Vincentian Discernment,” Vincentian Heritage 15:1 (1994). Available at: http://via.library.depaul.edu/vhj/vol15/iss1/2.

[2] O’Donnell, “Vincentian Discernment,” 15.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 8.

Learning to Discern Well

“Virtue loves discernment and can never be excessive—neither too little nor too much.”
(Document 57, Journal of the Last Days of Saint Vincent, 5 June 1660, CCD, 13a:196.)


“…in the final analysis, virtue is not found in extremes, but in prudence.…”
Letter 881, To Etienne Blatiron, In Genoa, 26 October 1646, CCD, 3:101-02.


As the global community faces uncertainty and fear surrounding the COVID crisis, we are invited into a period of ongoing discernment individually and collectively about what to do and how to live in the midst of this current and unprecedented situation. Discernment might be thought of as both the art of making wise decisions about particular matters, as well as developing the habit of learning and growing in wisdom through our daily challenges and experiences.

A focus on discernment is especially suited to the current season of Lent, practiced by Catholics and in many other Christian traditions during these 40 days leading to the celebration of Easter. What wisdom might this time-tested annual spiritual practice hold for us now as we seek to discern well?

While we find little in Vincent de Paul’s writings specifically concerning the practices of Lent, he clearly invited his followers to consider what they might do in order to use this season well. For many Catholics in the northern hemisphere, the Lenten season is a sort of spiritual “spring training” during which we re-assess where we are on our journey and re-focus ourselves on what is most important.

For some, using the Lenten season well, therefore, means committing to positive action consistently over this 40-day period, hoping to build or deepen habits that reflect important values or goals. Others find it helpful to use the Lenten season to focus on refraining from habits that may be unwittingly pulling them away from what is most important—because sometimes we are swayed into navigating the stresses of life in ways that are ultimately harmful and do not reflect the best of who we are.

Vincent’s unswerving focus on moving from espoused values to lived virtues offers a timeless challenge particularly relevant for this season of Lent, as well as during this time of public crisis. Virtues, as Vincent understood them, are values that are embodied or put into practice consistently through our actions and in concrete ways. He believed that virtues are “acquired only by repeated acts,” and are not realized all at once but only “gradually, gently, and patiently” over time (1933, To Pierre de Beaumont, CCD, 5:443). Vincent tended not to rush making decisions, but waited for the best path to be revealed through careful attention to prayer and to the realities of life.

Certain situations in our lives offer us compelling opportunities to practice the art of discernment. We are living in such a situation now.

The Lenten season invites us to exercise these discernment muscles as a regular and ongoing practice in our lives, such that making wise decisions becomes more our habit. Vincent’s wisdom invites us to focus on putting our values into practice, and to pay careful attention to what is being revealed through our daily life, our experiences and relationships.

As we move through this season and the challenges before us, we also can look forward to the promise of springtime. May this season bless us with a deepened wisdom and a stronger connection to one another, as well as with hope for the abundance of new life on its way in the near future.

Reflection by:  Mark Laboe, Associate Vice President, Mission and Ministry

Indiscreet Zeal

“The spirit of God urges one gently to do the good that can be done reasonably, so that it may be done perseveringly and for a long time.” Vincent de Paul  (CCD, I:92)

Vincent seemed to be aware that he and others often falter by pursuing passions uncritically. Rather, he advised his followers not to rush into new ventures, aware that “indiscreet zeal” can at times lead more to harm than good. He advocated for a more discerning approach, rooted in experience. In his regular Tuesday Conferences, he would often invite the input of others with different perspectives, reflecting a way of proceeding in which discernment was dynamic and dialogical, open to various viewpoints, and aware that one person does not hold all of the answers. What regular practices of discernment can help to provide a healthy balance to your zeal and enthusiasm? How do you invite diverse and even contrary perspectives into dialogue with your own thinking?