Fr Billy Swan
Dear friends. Did you ever lose your wallet or purse in a supermarket or shop and return later to find that someone had handed it in with nothing missing? It is an experience that restores your hope in humanity and confirms that the human conscience is still a powerful force for doing what is right. And when we see even greater examples of the triumph of conscience, it lifts all humanity in the hope that good overcomes evil and truth overcomes falsehood. I think here of people like St Joan of Arc, St Thomas More and St Oliver Plunkett. I think too of the martyrs of conscience of the Second World War including St Edith Stein and Dietrich Bonhoeffer who stood up to Hitler’s murderous regime who justified it by saying ‘conscience is a Jewish invention’.
In the first reading today, Moses asks the people to obey the commandments and to live by the values they protect. But he also points out that there is a corresponding law that everyone knows about and that makes a demand of all of us to follow. He speaks of course of our conscience – our most secret core where we are alone with God whose voice echoes within us. Moses insists that this law is not beyond us but written on every human heart for our observance. It about the prompting we feel by the Holy Spirit to hand in a wallet or purse when we find it, to do good, to avoid evil, to tell the truth and avoid lies. Our conscience affirms us when we have done good and disturbs us when we have done wrong. It prompts us towards what we ought to do and what we ought to avoid. Often this takes us outside our comfort zone and changes our plans. In that sense there is no witness so terrible and no accuser so powerful as a lively conscience.
One man who followed his conscience was the Good Samaritan. On seeing the injured man, he was ‘moved with compassion when he saw him’, followed his conscience and helped him. It was the right thing to do unlike what the others did who walked away. They followed not their conscience but their own diaries and plans which we can easily do as well.
Friends, let our conscience be alive and allow it to be the moral compass that guides all our thoughts and actions. From finding a wallet or purse that isn’t ours, to speaking up against an unjust system, to taking a risk to help someone in need – let us listen to it and abide by it for it is the voice of God. The priest and the Levite walked away because their self-will was stronger than their conscience. Let our conscience be stronger than our self-will. In the words of St Augustine: ‘Return to your conscience and question it. Turn inward and in everything, see God as your witness’.
Pray and be led by the Spirit. If your conscience bothers you, don’t ignore it. Do everything in Jesus’ name.
I conclude with one of the last lines of James Joyce’s classic ‘Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’ where he wrote about his struggle with his identity and his efforts to form ‘the uncreated conscience of our race’. Yet, we already have an uncreated conscience. It isn’t uniquely Irish but given by God to humanity as a moral compass to teach us right from wrong. Joyce tried to replace it. Our call is to obey it.