Mass on Sunday offered a very striking opening prayer. Through the words of the priest, we asked our loving and merciful God to "look graciously on this confession of our lowliness, that we, who are bowed down by our conscience, may always be lifted up by your mercy."
We seek mercy from God, who we know is always ready to grant it in love to the contrite heart. Yet the prayer of the mass makes clear it is our conscience that awakens us to our need for forgiveness. Hmmm. How are we doing with "conscience"? Do we understand what it is? Do we examine our conscience?
These are not idle questions. It seems to me that obedience to conscience - correctly understood - is indispensable to healing the vast array of societal ills that best us, because so many spring from inattentiveness to conscience's demands. Indeed, the fact that our Supreme Court can make legally permissible a moral wrong - physician assisted suicide and euthanasia; the fact that the abortion of thousands of children is presented by many as a societal good; the fact that there exists what Pope Francis has labelled a "globalization of indifference" to the sorry plight of millions living in dire poverty; all these and more point to a widespread darkening and, indeed, silencing of conscience. Would that we were "bowed down by our conscience"! Instead, we are paying it little, if any, attention.
Conscience is not a matter of subjective feeling, of doing what I feel is right. Such an erroneous approach to conscience simply becomes a justification for doing what I want. Rather, conscience is the capacity within the human heart to discern the good that must be done, whether I "feel like" doing it or not. Conscience unveils an imperative, which arises from obedience to an objective moral standard. The standard is the Word of God, faithfully transmitted to us by the teaching of the Church.
That opening prayer of the mass on Sunday suggests a petition we would all do well to offer God daily, namely, that He awaken our consciences, and that there be a great awakening of conscience throughout our land. When we allow God to guide by his grace our examination of conscience, then we become aware of our need for his mercy. Careful attentiveness to conscience gives rise to a "blessed alarm" (cf. Karl Rahner), or what the Church calls a "salutary shock", as we become aware of how far we have fallen from what God's Word demands of us." It is, indeed, "blessed" and "salutary", because, even though it bows us down and humbles us, it opens our hearts to the gift of mercy, which, when received, grants incomparable peace and real hope.