Forming our conscience is key to live in the love of Christ, a “love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and sincere faith,” as St. Paul states (1 Timothy 1:5). This is why we should “wage the good warfare, holding faith and a good conscience. By rejecting conscience, certain persons have made shipwreck of their faith” (1 Timothy 1:18-19).
How do we form our conscience well so we can act responsibly and out of love? Reflecting on God’s Word and his Creation, the Catholic Church has built up a body of moral teachings. There is a pedagogical progression in this formation that advances from parental admonishment to the meaning of spousal love.
One of the first moral principles that parents usually teach a child is the Golden Rule: “So whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them; for this is the law and the prophets,” in other words, treat others as you want them to treat you (Matthew 7:12; cf. Luke 6:31; CCC 1789). This rule is about fairness that children intuit, although they often need reminding.
The Golden Rule is common sense and we could discover it—like most moral principles—without God revealing it to us. But like little children need parents to put words to their emotions and intuitions, we need God to reaffirm what is obvious, especially when we are just starting on the road of moral decision-making.
Parents often teach their children by giving them consequences for their actions, both of reward and punishment. God does the same throughout the Old Testament, rewarding good behavior and punishing evil. God reveals that our ultimate goal is heaven, which we will reach if we follow God’s great commandments:
“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).
Hell (eternal damnation) is the consequence for refusing to love God, fleeing the light that reveals the morality of our deeds (see John 3:16-21). Heaven is the reward promised those who love God with all their heart.
Parents often set rules for their children, setting clear limits on what is right and what is wrong. God does the same thing for us in the Ten Commandments, which put into words what is already written in our hearts, as St. Paul says:
“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” (Romans 2:14-16).
God’s revealed law is the objective, firm, stable, enduring, and universal precepts that express in words what he established in the nature of the universe he created. Inert objects follow the laws of nature that are discovered and expressed in the objective, firm, stable, enduring, and universal laws of physics, such as the law of gravity. Living plants and animals follow the laws of biology, which describes the behavior of living entities.
God established all these laws when he made creation. They are universal because they apply to all material beings; they are firm, stable, and enduring because there is no time or place in the created universe in which they do not apply to the beings they describe—no material being is exempt from God’s Eternal Law; they are objective because they do not depend on the outside observer describing them.
What we call the Natural Law is that portion of God’s Eternal Law that applies to free human persons. The Natural Law is another way of saying human nature, expressing it in firm, stable, enduring, and universal precepts for human behavior. The Natural Law directs the conscience of persons who remain free; the rest of the Eternal Law bind all material beings to follow out of necessity the law of gravity and the other laws of nature in the Eternal Law.
Man is free (CCC 1731) and God’s Natural Law for us gives the conscience the freedom and dignity enabling us to know and love… to know, love, and serve God and others.Fr. John R. Waiss
Forming our conscience responsibly includes developing the virtue of prudence, the habit of properly forming and exercising the conscience, knowing when we can trust its formation and act on its judgments. A prudent conscience is like well-exercised muscles that enable us to perform well on the sports field. We become prudent by regularly listening to God’s gentile voice we need moments of silence to pray and meditate, especially meditating on God’s Holy Word.
A lax conscience arises when we act without first forming our conscience, acting on convenience and desire, rather than on the judgment of how our action would impact our relationship with God and others. A boy’s stomach may move him to dig into the birthday cake before his sister is allowed to blow out the candles. A well-formed conscience would direct the boy to wait and enjoy the cake in thanksgiving for the life of his sister instead of hurting his relationship with his sister and with his parents.
A scrupulous conscience is one paralyzed by doubt, dreading that every decision may be a mortal sin deserving eternal punishment. Often this is rooted in self-conscious pride, trusting in oneself and not in God and in a trustworthy, well-formed spiritual guide or confessor. The scrupulous person often finds him/herself trapped in legalistic rules that are impossible to fulfill, rather than learning to give him/herself with the full freedom of love in the service of God and others.
Sometimes we have a childlike doubt and our conscience cannot decide whether an act is objectively good or bad. If the decision is important, then we need to get the formation to resolve the doubt or seek advice from someone with reliable formation. Often we can do this when going to confession, asking the priest to help us resolve our moral dilemma. We can also get clarity by reading God’s Word, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, its Compendium, or some other good moral guide. In resolving doubt,
“Some rules apply in every case:
- One may never do evil so that good may result from it;
- the Golden Rule: ‘Whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them.’
- charity always proceeds by way of respect for one’s neighbor and his conscience: ‘Thus sinning against your brethren and wounding their conscience… you sin against Christ’ (1Cor 8:12). Therefore ‘it is right not to… do anything that makes your brother stumble’” (CCC 1789).
A daily examination of conscience is also recommended with frequent confession. This will give us an opportunity to consult our doubts in spiritual direction. Yet we can never surrender our personal responsibility for the formation of our conscience and for decisions we make, as St. Josemaría says:
“The advice of another Christian and especially a priests advice, in questions of faith or morals, is a powerful help for knowing what God wants of us in our particular circumstances. Advice, however, does not eliminate personal responsibility. In the end, it is we ourselves, each one of us on our own, who have to decide for ourselves and personally to account to God for our decisions.
“Over and above any private advice stands Gods law, which is contained in sacred Scripture, guarded and taught by the Magisterium of the Church with the assistance of the Holy Spirit. When a particular piece of advice contradicts Gods word as taught by the Magisterium, we have to reject it decisively. God will give His grace to those who act with an upright intention. He will inspire them as to what to do and, when necessary, He will enable them to find a priest who knows how to lead their souls along pure and right paths even though at times they may be difficult ones” (Conversations, 93).
Fr. John R. Waiss
In his Angelus address, Pope Francis said: “the Eucharist is like the ‘burning bush’ in which the Trinity humbly dwells and communicates itself.” The Eucharist is the Sacrament of Trinitarian Love, where God humbly makes himself present to us.
In the Eucharist, God the Father “so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world… that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:16-17). The Father feeds his children by giving them true bread from heaven, which is Jesus Christ, the Bread of Life (John 6:32), under the appearance of ordinary food. Secondly, God the Son shows us the greater love, that he lays down his life for us on the Cross (John 15:13), re-presented to us in the Sacrifice of the Mass. Finally, God the Holy Spirit bonds us to Jesus Christ in Holy Communion, where we enter into and experience the Father’s love for Christ, Christ’s love for the Father, and their love for each one of us.
We need to correspond to this love. We correspond to the Father’s love by making many acts of faith in the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist. One way we can do this is by stopping by the church sometime during the day to greet our Lord in the tabernacle or to spend some time in silent adoration. It doesn’t have to be for a long period of time, just long enough to show the Father that we believe in the real presence of Christ in the Host: “he who believes has eternal life” (John 6:37,47). By this we experience the Father’s great love for each one of us, and we will sense that he is actively providing for our needs and protecting us from all dangers.
We correspond to the Son’s love for us by attending Holy Mass with great faith and piety. How much it means to our Lord when we go to just one extra Mass during the week. It is a sacrifice, but how can we compare it to the great sacrifice that Jesus made for us by dying for us on the Cross. If he loved us in this way, I can assure you that he will more than repay us for the sacrifice we make by attending Holy Mass. Efforts to attend Mass with greater attention and devotion will manifest that love even more.
And what better way is there to correspond to the Holy Spirit’s love for us in Communion that to receive our Lord well? Making a good confession—cleaning up our soul—embracing a life of virtue, and offering spiritual sacrifices such as work offered to God out of love, invites our Lord into our soul and into our body with an attractive disposition. Frequent confession and fighting temptations to sin, tells our Lord that we are united in heart and spirit to him. Then there will be no barriers to that spiritual oneness as we become one body with him in Holy Communion.
Making Spiritual Communions is a wonderful devotion, wherein we manifest our faith in the Real Presence—thus we feed our soul and prepare ourselves spiritually to receive him. Another way to prepare ourselves to receive him well is by arriving early to Mass and to unite our sacrifices and our intentions to the gifts to be offered on the altar. In this way we offer our body, our work, our efforts to live our faith so that the Holy Spirit may unite that all to Christ at Holy Communion.
Corpus Christi is the feast of our Lord’s Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity really present under the appearance of bread and wine. It is a feast of thanksgiving for the Sacrament of Trinitarian Love for each of us. Let us discover how to correspond to this great gift of Love!
Fr. John R. Waiss
We celebrate the feast of Pentecost, the day when God the Father communicated the Holy Spirit to the Apostles in Christ’s name (see John 14:26), and, just a few days ago, some of our parishioners, school and CCD students received His outpouring in the Sacrament of Confirmation.
After the gift of Baptism (whereby we become God’s children) and the Eucharist (whereby we become one body with Christ), Confirmation is the greatest Gift—the gift of God’s Spirit—whereby God’s New Life comes to dwell in us, conferring upon us a share in Christ mission. This Sacrament gives our lives purpose, a reason to keep living as Confirmation calls us to nurture the new life of grace in us so as to bring others to the joy of knowing true Love: Jesus Christ.
Consider the apostles’ joy on Pentecost. They were “drunk” with the Holy Spirit. All fear and sadness had disappeared as the Holy Spirit moved them to preach the Gospel with boldness to their fellow Jews (see Acts 2). He gives us this same joy at Confirmation as we are sent forth. This joy keeps arising in us over and over again as we serve others, especially when we share our Faith with others; when we see our shared Faith take root in them, bringing them the joy we have received. Graduation is a similar kind of moment. We have eighth graders graduating on to high school, seniors graduating on to college, and college students graduating on to “real” life. This fills them and their families with great joy. With graduation there is a real sense that each on of them is being sent forth anew; they are now ready for new challenges and new opportunities to witness to Christ in a world antithetical to their Catholic Faith.
Just as our Lord prepared his disciples to take on the responsibility to bear witness to him (see John 15:26-27), St. Mary of the Angels’ families and school has been preparing our young people for their mission in the world as witnesses to Christ. Along with the Faith, we have been preparing our young men and women by teaching them the three R’s: “Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic” as well as a smattering of History, Science, Foreign or Classical Languages, and perhaps Calculus, in due time. These give our young people the ability to speak to and to engage the world on its own terms.
As we share the joy of our young people as they are being sent forth, let us ask the Holy Spirit to guide them and set them on fire with love for God and their neighbor. May Today’s good citizens of the family, community, and Church become Tomorrow’s good spouse-parents, friend-leaders, and saint-apostles. May they too have an impact on their family, friends, and the world.
Fr. John R. Waiss