Conscience is a wonderful gift, one whereby God reveals to us what is right and wrong in the secret of our heart. As St. Paul tells us:
“When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they… show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them on that day when… God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus” (Romans 2:14-16).
Because each one has a conscience that accuses and excuses, Christ can say: “If you continue in my word… you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32). True knowledge of what is good and bad, what is right and wrong, gives us the freedom needed to choose the good.
Our Personal Moral Guide
We all have a sense of a moral conscience, of that voice telling us that we have done wrong, or that we should or should not do this or that. But what is the conscience?
The conscience is simply the intellect—that spiritual faculty that judges the truth or falsity of something. The conscience judges how a past, present, or future action is right or wrong, by how it impacts our relationship with God and others. As the Compendium to the Catechism of the Catholic Church says:
CCCC 372. What is the moral conscience?
Moral conscience, present in the heart of the person, is a judgment of reason which at the appropriate moment enjoins him to do good and to avoid evil. Thanks to moral conscience, the human person perceives the moral quality of an act to be done or which has already been done, permitting him to assume responsibility for the act. When attentive to moral conscience, the prudent person can hear the voice of God who speaks to him or her.
The conscience doesn’t create moral laws, but bears witness to the truth of those laws and judges how they apply to “particular choices, approving those that are good and denouncing those that are evil” (CCC 1778). This is why the Catechism says that:
“Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, sounds in his heart at the right moment… For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God… His conscience is man’s most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths” (CCC 1776, quoting Gaudium et Spes 16).
The conscience discovers God’s call to enter a loving relationship with him and with all his children. It discovers how our actions affect those relationships, either as a loving response that affirms and deepens—or a selfish response that denies and rejects—those relationships.
As we go through life, our conscience acquires intuitive knowledge and awareness of the goodness or evil of our actions. We also can learn right and wrong from our parents and from the formation we receive at church, school, and in society. True knowledge is essential for the true freedom needed for morality, to live in the truth.
If we just live by our feelings—by “if it feels good, do it”—then our feelings will control and manipulate us—there is no freedom in manipulation. If we listen to our conscience and let it direct our feelings and emotions toward the good, it will tell us how a particular action will hurt or deepen our relationship with God and with others. Only then will we be free to choose the good and reject the bad; only then will we be free to love.
Man has a right to act in conscience and in freedom so as personally to make moral decisions. “He must not be found to act contrary to his conscience. Nor must he be prevented from acting according to his conscience, especially in religious matters” (CCC 1782).
So, we ought to respect the great dignity of the faculty by which man discovers the light of truth that leads to his true good and well-being.
All our free actions have a message that is either good or evil, never indifferent. For the message of our action to be good, it must have a good object, intention and circumstances together.
Fr. John R. Waiss
Today we celebrate Divine Mercy Sunday. This devotion was promoted by St. Faustina and promulgated by John Paul II in the year 2000, when he canonized Sr. Faustina. Yet this devotion also has profound link to St. Josemaría, the founder of Opus Dei.
St. Josemaría encouraged people to have some devotions, but not too many. As he wrote: “Have only a few private devotions, but be constant in them” (The Way, 552). One that he had—of which few people ever knew or heard—was the private devotion to the Merciful Love.
The Merciful Love was a devotion that arose during the First World War from the mystical experience of a French nun, Sister Maria Teresa Desandais. The nun had an image painted of her vision on which the devotion is based. The image shows Jesus on the Cross enveloped by the Eucharistic host; his eyes are serene and opened; his exposed heart is emanating flames that form the word, “caritas.” Sr. Maria Teresa died in during the Second World War. So did Sr. Faustina Kowalska in Poland. She also received a vision from our Lord under a similar title, that of Divine Mercy. She too had a painting commissioned. She saw our Lord standing with rays emanating from Christ’s wounded heart, the fount from which God’s mercy flow. Our Lord asked that a feast in honor of Divine Mercy be established for the Sunday after Easter, which Pope John Paul II did in the year 2000.
The Church doesn’t require Catholics to practice either of these devotions, which is likely why St. Josemaría kept his so private: it was not a required part of the spirit of Opus Dei. The chief message of both devotions is that God is rich in mercy, not a mean, exacting ogre looking for an excuse to condemn us to hell. No. “For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17). God is the merciful father of the prodigal son (and daughter) who runs out to meet us, giving us a passionate embrace and restoring our sonship to the full (Luke 15:11-32). He shows us his infinite love for us by sending his most precious son to suffer and die on the Cross (John 3:14-21). St. John Paul II said:
“There is nothing that man needs more than Divine Mercy—that love which is benevolent, which is compassionate, which raises man above his weakness to the infinite heights of the holiness of God… It is a message that is clear and understandable for everyone. Anyone can come here, look at this image of the merciful Jesus, His Heart radiating grace…: ‘Fear nothing. I am with you always’ (Diary, 586). And if this person responds with a sincere heart: ‘Jesus, I trust in you,’ he will find comfort in all his anxieties and fears… Divine Mercy! This is the Easter gift that the Church receives from the risen Christ and offers to humanity at the dawn of the third millennium.”
Our Lord told Sr. Faustina that: “The soul that will go to Confession and receive Holy Communion will obtain complete forgiveness of sins and punishment” (Diary, 699). To obtain this mercy, we too need to: “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36), since the unmerciful soul will not be forgiven (cf. Matthew 18:23-35). Therefore, we need to forgive all those who have hurt us in any way.
Then we can say with St. Josemaría: “Cheerfulness is a necessary consequence… of knowing that our Father God loves us with a predilect love, that he holds us up and helps us and forgives us” (The Forge, 332). Let’s encourage our friends and family to trust in the risen Lord, abandoning their anxieties to him so as to experience this Easter joy. They will not be disappointed.
Fr. John R. Waiss
“La voluntad de Dios es que sean santos, que se abstengan del pecado carnal” (Primera Carta a los Tesalonicenses 4:3). La voluntad de Dios es que cada uno de nosotros sea santo, que seamos verdaderamente felices con Él en el cielo, lo que significa que le amemos haciendo el bien y evitando el mal.
La voluntad de Dios es una invitación a amar. Él no nos fuerza a que le amemos ni a que entremos en unión con Él en el cielo. Dios no nos obliga a que seamos felices, sino que nos deja que elijamos abrazar su voluntad, que respondamos libremente a su invitación de entrar en una relación amorosa con Él. Esto es en lo que consiste la moral cristina.
Por esta razón, Jesús nos enseña en el Padre Nuestro: “venga a nosotros tu reino; hágase su voluntad en la tierra como en el cielo.” Rezamos para que nos ayude a buscar su reino y la fuerza para hacer su voluntad. Jesus ejemplifica esto cuando nos dice: “Mi comida es hacer la voluntad de aquel que me envió y llevar a cabo su obra.” (Juan4:34). Durante la noche de su agonía en la oración del huerto, la voluntad humana de Cristo se rindió a la voluntad divina de su Padre: “Pero que no se haga mi voluntad, sino la tuya.” (Lucas 22:42). Y antes de esto Él nos enseñó: “He bajado del cielo, no para hacer mi voluntad, sino la del que me envió.” (Juan 6:38).
El hacer la voluntad de Dios justo ahí donde nos ha puesto es clave para la santidad, como nos dice el Concilio Vaticano Segundo:
“Por tanto, todos los fieles cristianos, en las condiciones, ocupaciones o circunstancias de su vida, y a través de todo eso, se santificarán más cada día si lo aceptan todo con fe de la mano del Padre celestial y colaboran con la voluntad divina, haciendo manifiesta a todos, incluso en su dedicación a las tareas temporales, la caridad con que Dios amó al mundo” (Lumen Gentium, 41).
¿Cuál es esa voluntad para nosotros? Su voluntad no es otra que nuestra santificación, que seamos santos, santificando todo lo que hacemos. Discernimos la voluntad de Dios escuchando su Palabra en la Biblia, en la Iglesia, y en nuestra oración. Dios desea que nos unamos a Él en una unión eterna que comienza con nuestro bautismo. Él manifiesta su voluntad en los Diez Mandamientos, que nos enseñan cómo amar y cómo no comportarnos si buscamos amar. Dios manifiesta su voluntad en las Bienaventuranzas, enseñándonos que el amor siempre va más allá de lo mínimo, y se sacrifica a sí mismo por Dios y por los demás. Por ultimo Dios manifiesta su voluntad en los dos Mandamientos de amor: “Amarás al Señor, tu Dios, con todo tu corazón, con toda tu alma y con todo tu espíritu… Amarás a tu prójimo como a ti mismo” (cfr. Mateo 22: 37-39).
La dirección espiritual con un sacerdote o con una persona laica bien formada, puede ayudarnos a discernir la voluntad de Dios en nuestras circunstancias particulares. En otras palabras, la dirección espiritual puede ayudarnos a santificar esas circunstancias al hacerlas por amor. La dirección espiritual es uno de los medios humanos que Cristo nos da para ayudarnos a aclarar y a confirmar la voluntad y el camino particular de Dios para nosotros. La Iglesia siempre la ha recomendado para quienes buscan la santidad.
Así cumpliremos con lo que San Pablo exhorta:
“Como elegidos de Dios, sus santos y amados, revístanse de sentimientos de profunda compasión. Practiquen la benevolencia, la humildad, la dulzura, la paciencia. Sopórtense los unos a los otros, y perdónense mutuamente siempre que alguien tenga motivo de queja contra otro. El Señor los ha perdonado: hagan ustedes lo mismo” (Colosenses 3: 12-13).
El hacer la voluntad de Dios requiere esfuerzo ya que nuestra voluntad humana está sujeta a tentación, debilidad y distracción. Practicar la virtudes—especialmente la fe, la esperanza y la caridad—nos facilita el hacer la voluntad de Dios, desarrollando al mismo tiempo hábitos que nos lleven a amar y a hacer la voluntad de Dios más fácilmente.
Cristo nunca nos abandona, al contrario, nos da a su Madre como Madre nuestra—como lo hizo con el discípulo amado—para ayudarnos a cumplir mejor la voluntad de Dios.
Fr. John R. Waiss
The Bible contains a story, a love story, the story of man’s relationship with God. This story includes the story of sin—of man’s rejection of God’s love—destroying our relationship with God, enslaving is to selfishness and pride, damaging God’s gift—nature—and our relationship with others.
But the Bible also contains the story of God’s Word—God’s Word of Truth—who takes on our flesh in order to set us free from the slavery of sin. It is thus the story of God’s mercy, which restores man’s ability to love, to truly love both God and other men again.
God’s Merciful Response to Man’s Rejection
The Bible can be a source of moral reflection if we recognize it as a love story. This story begins with creation of Adam and Eve, and with God’s invitation to join him freely in a covenant of love; Adam and Eve rejected that covenant, preferring to seek happiness independent of God. In effect, all sin—all moral evil—repeats this seeking happiness independent of God and of his love.
The Bible continues with the story of God’s response of mercy to man’s rejection, promising Adam and Eve a redeemer—of Eve’s seed—who would conquer the deceiver who led them into sin. The Bible tells us of God’s covenant with Noah, then with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and finally with Moses, where God gave us the Ten Commandments.
These Commandments are a father’s instruction to his children, teaching us about the demands of love. It teaches us to put our Love—God—first, having no other loves before him; to respect the person we love in word and the weekly anniversary of our covenant of love; to honor those who represent our Love, to remain faithful, to respect the life that flows from that Love, and to treat Love’s gifts and expressions in ways that always reflect that faithfulness. Such are God’s paternal admonitions to us.
Yet it is easy to treat those loving instructions as requirements to keep our Father God off our backs—to avoid his wrath and any nagging threats of punishment. Such childish (minimalist) behavior reduces morality to fulfilling the commandments so as to avoid (eternal) punishments.
But Jesus tries to raise our eyes higher, to get us to go beyond doing the minimum. That is why he gave us the Beatitudes: blessed (happy) are the poor in spirit… the pure of heart… the merciful… If our actions arise from love and reflect love, it will make us truly happy and lead to seeing God in the eternal life of heaven. Beatitudes challenge us to give ourselves truly beyond the minimum.
The Beatitudes do not wipe out the Commandments, but help us to fulfill them, as our Lord says—after giving us the Beatitudes:
“Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them… Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:17,19).
Ultimately, all our moral actions boil down to love, which fulfills all the Commandments:
“And he said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets’” (Matthew 22:37-40).
So, this love story doesn’t stop with the death of the last apostle, but must continue with each one of us: our response to God’s invitation to love is essential; to love him with all our heart and our neighbor out of love for him. This is what the Bible teaches us about morality.
Fr. John R. Waiss
As Christ hung from the Cross he cried out, “I thirst” (John 19:28). He thirsts for love, for our love. In our Lord’s encounter with the Samaritan woman (John 4:4-44), he asks her: “Give me to drink.” Again, what he really longs for is her love.
But she does not feel loved, telling our Lord: “‘How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?’ For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.” She won’t even give our Lord a cup of water because she sees just a Jewish male and not her God, her Lord, her Love. This reminds her of how she has been treated throughout her life: how Jewish men would look down on women as subservient creatures with no inherent dignity; how Jews in general were racists against Samaritans and treated them as lesser beings; how perhaps her mother, overwhelmed by the burden of so many children, treated her eldest daughter—this woman—more as a servant girl than as a daughter; how she sought love by marrying one man after another and how her husbands had divorced her because she never lived up to their expectations for a subservient wife.
This Samaritan woman presumes Jesus Christ sees her the same way, which is why she refuses his request for a drink. She thinks that he is talking to her because he just wants some “thing” from her, not because of who she is as a child of God.
Jesus can fill her every need as well as he own needs: “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” God doesn’t need her; he doesn’t need us. He chooses to love us. In fact, God loves us into existence; he loves us just as we are, with all our defects and imperfections.
But he thirsts for a response of love, to give him a little bit of water, a little bit of love: “whoever gives to one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he shall not lose his reward” (Matthew 10:42). All Christ wants of us is a little bit of our time, our small Lenten sacrifice, our alms… a little bit of our love. Then he will give us everything we need. This is why Jesus Christ came to die on the Cross… he thirsts for our love and wants to reward that response by providing for us.
How did the Samaritan woman come to feel loved? She felt loved—perhaps for the first time in her life—when Jesus revealed her sins to her:
“Jesus said to her, ‘Go, call your husband, and come here.’ The woman answered him, ‘I have no husband.’ Jesus said to her, ‘You are right in saying, I have no husband; for you have had five husbands, and he whom you now have is not your husband; this you said truly’… So the woman left her water jar, and went away into the city, and said to the people, ‘Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?’”
The woman felt loved, because Christ revealed how her actions affected their relationship—her sins. Christ also revealed that God forgave her of her sins, that she is loved by him with all his heart: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
Knowing that God forgives us—that we are loved just as we are—transforms us. This is why the Sacrament of Reconciliation is so powerful. Let us take advantage of this Sacrament to experience God’s love this Lent, so as to transform our lives; invite your friends and family too.
Fr. John R. Waiss