Pope Francis: What Is Spiritual Consolation? The Saints Explain

The Holy Father reminded the faithful that ‘seeing God’s presence in everything … strengthens faith and hope, and even the ability of doing good.’

Pope Francis prays at the general audience on St. Peter's Square.
Pope Francis prays at the general audience on St. Peter's Square. (photo: Daniel Ibáñez / CNA)

Pope Francis used the example of several Catholic saints to explain the concept of spiritual consolation during his weekly audience on Wednesday.

“What is spiritual consolation?” he said Nov. 23. “It is a profound experience of interior joy, consisting in seeing God’s presence in everything. It strengthens faith and hope, and even the ability of doing good.”

The Pope continued his teachings on the theme of discernment at his public audience in St. Peter’s Square, where he contrasted last week’s reflection on spiritual desolation with consolation, as experienced by several of the Church’s saints.

“The person who experiences consolation never gives up in the face of difficulties because he or she always experiences a peace that is stronger than any trial,” Francis said. Consolation “is, therefore, a tremendous gift for the spiritual life as well as life in general.”

The Pope began his explanation by drawing from the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, who wrote about rules for the discernment of spirits.

Francis said “consolation is an interior movement that touches our depths. It is not flashy but soft, delicate, like a drop of water on a sponge.”

He went on to describe consolation as not “a passing euphoria,” nor something which tries to force our will or inhibit our freedom. “Even the suffering caused, for example, by our own sins can become a reason for consolation,” he added.

St. Augustine was consoled when he spoke with his mother, St. Monica, about the beauty of eternal life, the Pope said. And St. Francis of Assisi experienced perfect joy despite the difficult situations he had to bear.

“Let’s think of the many saints who were able to do great things not because they thought they were magnificent or capable, but because they had been conquered by the peaceful sweetness of God’s love,” Pope Francis said. “This is the peace that St. Ignatius discovered in himself with such amazement when he would read the lives of the saints.”

The Pope also quoted St. Edith Stein, who is also known by the name she took in religious life: Teresa Benedicta of the Cross.

A year after her baptism as a Christian, following her conversion from Judaism, Stein wrote about her interior feeling of peace: “As I abandon myself to this feeling, little by little a new life begins to fill me and — without any pressure on my will — to drive me toward new realizations. This living inpouring seems to spring from an activity and it gives a strength that is not mine and which ... becomes active in me.”

Francis emphasized the importance of action following consolation.

“Consolation is such peace, but not to sit there enjoying it; no, it gives you peace and draws you to the Lord and sets you on a path to do things, to do good things,” he said.

“In a time of consolation, when we are consoled, we get the desire to do so much good, always. Instead, when there is a time of desolation, we get the urge to close in on ourselves and do nothing. Consolation pushes you forward, in service to others, to society, to people.”

He recalled when St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus, at the age of 14, visited the Basilica of the Holy Cross of Jerusalem in Rome.

The girl from Lisieux, France, “tried to touch the nail venerated there, one of the nails with which Jesus was crucified,” the Pope said. “Thérèse understood her daring as a transport of love and confidence. Later, she wrote, ‘I truly was too audacious. But the Lord sees the depths of our hearts. He knows my intention was pure. […] I acted with him as a child who believes everything is permissible and who considers the Father’s treasures their own.’”

This, Pope Francis said, is a “splendid description of spiritual consolation.”

“We can feel a sense of tenderness toward God that makes us audacious in our desire to participate in his own life, to do what is pleasing to him because we feel familiar with him; we feel that his house is our house; we feel welcome, loved, restored,” he added.

Consolation gives one the strength to continue in the face of difficulty, Francis said, pointing to St. Thérèse’s request to the pope to enter the Carmelite order even though she was too young.

According to the Pope, St. Bernard teaches us about consolation and discernment, especially the pitfall of "false consolations.”

“If an authentic consolation is like a drop on a sponge, is soft and intimate, its imitations are noisier and flashier, like straw fires, lacking substance, leading us to close in on ourselves and not to take care of others,” Francis said. This is where discernment comes in.

“False consolation can become a danger if we seek it obsessively as an end in itself, forgetting the Lord,” he pointed out. “As St. Bernard would say, this is like seeking the consolations of God rather than the God of consolations.”

There is a risk of treating our relationship with God in a childish way, he concluded, “of reducing it to an object that we use and consume, losing the most beautiful gift, which is God himself.”