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Fr Billy Swan

Dear friends. For my homily this weekend I have chosen the theme of conscience, something we probably don’t think about enough but something very important. As imperfect people we live in an imperfect world. As Christians we are joined to others in the search for the truth and for the right solutions to many problems that arise in our own lives and in the world. Life at times is complex and messy. Often there are no quick fixes or easy answers. We need time to reflect, pray and listen to what is the right thing to do. Finding answers to questions engages our conscience so that we can arrive at a mature and responsible decision.

Our conscience can be described as the place where the Spirit of God makes itself felt deep in our hearts where it prompts us what to do and what to avoid. It is the place in our hearts where we recognise God’s word as being true and beautiful. It is the place where, deep in our guts, we know what is the right thing to do and how we are called to be. As we heard in last week’s Gospel from the Good Shepherd ‘all who belong to me listen to my voice’. Our conscience then is where we hear the voice of the Good Shepherd and whose word of truth presses on us with enormous power. It condemns us when we have done wrong and rewards us with peace of mind when we have done right. Therefore, when we listen attentively to our conscience, we are really listening to how we are with God and how he is with us.

If our conscience condemns us then the chances are we need to seek forgiveness and repair any harm we have done. Sometimes we feel guilty because we should feel guilty! But in the words of St John in the second reading, if ‘we cannot be condemned by our own conscience we need not be afraid in God’s presence’. All the more reason then to listen to our conscience and examine our conscience regularly. This is what we are called to do at the end of each day and why the examen of conscience forms part of the ‘Night Prayer’ of the Church.

When we don’t prayerfully listen to our conscience then our capacity to do good and avoid evil can be affected by all sorts of things: by the opinions of others, by our own weaknesses or addictions and by our own selfish desires. These are the things that can drown out the voice of our conscience in a way that leads down the wrong path. It is like the white line on the middle of the road. It tells us where to go but doesn’t stop us from crossing it. Here I offer five ways that we as Catholic Christians can inform our conscience on matters that affect us and the society we live in.

1.    Study and reflect on the Word of God in Scripture especially the Sunday readings. It’s amazing how Scripture speaks to all of us in different ways and gives life.

2.    Discover what the Church teaches. Discover what the Church really teaches and why. Consult the catechism. There it states: "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). The words of Jesus need to be applied to the complex realities of today. The Church does not invent her own teaching but tries to bring the mind of Christ to bear in our lives and in our world.

3.    Pray: I think it was St Augustine who was asked his advice by a young man who was in a moral dilemma and wasn’t sure what to do. Augustine advised him to do three things: to pray, to pray again and to pray even harder. Prayer connects us to what the Holy Spirit is saying to us and moves us closer to God’s will. Stay connected. Examine your conscience regularly. Listen to the voice of God within you, the voice of the Good Shepherd that urges us to do what love and truth demand. If your conscience condemns do, ask for forgiveness and repent. If it affirms us, gives thanks with joy!

4.    Seek the truth. Don’t settle for popular opinion or base a decision on what way the wind is blowing. Martin Luther King once famously said that: ‘There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe nor politically correct not popular but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right’. Truth lives in our conscience. Go and meet it there.

5.    Participate in the Eucharist. At Mass our hearts and minds become attuned to the life giving sacrificial love of God for the world. Our lives become conformed to that of Christ. As it says in the second reading, here at Mass we learn to ‘live the kind of life that he wants’.

If we follow these five ways of informing our conscience then the greater is the chance of making choices that are wise and sound for us and the common good. More importantly it leads us to union with God - the only source of true and everlasting peace. I conclude with a line from the film ‘A Man for all Seasons’ that tells the life of St Thomas More. Thomas risked being executed for not supporting the king. He was urged to sign the oath by a friend and to ‘join him for the sake of fellowship’. Thomas replied: ‘when you are in heaven for having followed your conscience and I am in hell for not having followed mine, will you join me in hell, for fellowship?’


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