Final part of a two-part series
By Rachele Smith
The Catholic Commentator
“Examination of conscience.” It’s a phrase that is typically associated with confession or the sacrament of reconciliation. But what exactly is an examination of conscience, and why is it important to this sacrament?
Taken in its most basic description, an examination of conscience involves looking back at your words or actions and determining how you reflected the Gospels.
Yet, an examination of conscience is more than just a list where you check things off during self-reflection. Rather, it is, at its very heart, a prayer, according to Father Chris Decker, pastor of Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in Maringouin, St. Frances Xavier Cabrini Church in Livonia and St. Joseph Church in Grosse Tete.
“If you think about it, in an examination of conscience you are not just asking yourself what you have done and not done, but you are asking the Holy Spirit, who teaches us to pray and who moves our heart to God, to get in there with the tweezers and say, ‘This and this and this; these are the things you need to bring to me,’ ” he explained.
Father Decker explained that our conscience is the Holy Spirit trying to root sin out of us.
“Some people will come to confession and say, ‘I’m not sure if this is a sin or not, but it’s on my heart,’ and that is very helpful” said Father Decker, noting how during confession, a priest reflects God’s mercy, offering words, which may include counsel or possibly challenging counsel, so the penitent can understand his actions better and be encouraged, even reminded, in avoiding similar or other occasions for sin in the future.
An examination of conscience is also reminiscent of compline, a type of night prayer or final office, offered every day by many priests, religious and those involved in secular holy orders, according to Father Decker, who also suggested that it “would be a good idea at the end of the day for everyone to make an examination of conscience.”
One easy way to do this, he said, is by prayerfully looking back at the day, and thinking how you encountered Jesus and asking questions, such as “Lord, how have I met you today?” and “What disguise were you wearing?” as well as “In what way did I meet you and turn away from you?” and “In what way did I refuse to meet you?”
Questions such as these can reveal suspect thoughts or actions. “We may think, ‘Okay, so that lady in the supermarket, I saw she only had a few things in her basket, but I did pull in front of her, and I had more than 20 items. And I did that willingly without taking her into account. Lord, what’s going on in my heart there? Was that definitively showing someone contempt or acting in pride or selfishness?'” said Father Decker.
Bringing those discoveries to confession and experiencing its healing grace can be uplifting, a feeling that many faithful express immediately after receiving the sacrament.
However, for those who do not experience a so called “cleansing” or another emotional response, Father Decker said not to worry.
“It’s important to say that whenever the sacraments are properly done, they always work,” he noted.
“The Holy Spirit knows how to speak to us in a language we can understand and that voice is perhaps different for everybody,” Father Decker said, adding that during reconciliation Christ is not just cleansing our psychology (which can result in emotions for some), but he is also cleansing our soul. And that level of communication, with the soul, is not principally marked by an emotional response, he explained.
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has created “A Brief Examination of Conscience” (summarized here) based on the Ten Commandments:
I am the Lord your God; you shall not have strange Gods before me.
Have I treated people, events or things as more important than God?
You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.
Have my words, actively or passively, put down God, the Church or people?
Remember to keep holy the Lord’s Day.
Do I go to Mass every Sunday (or Saturday Vigil) and on Holy Days of Obligation? Do I look for ways to spend time with family or in service on Sunday?
Honor your father and mother.
Do I show my parents due respect and try to maintain good communication with them as much as possible?
You shall not kill.
Have I harmed another through physical, verbal or emotional means, including gossip or manipulation of any kind?
You shall not commit adultery.
Have I respected the physical and sexual dignity of others and of myself?
You shall not steal.
Have I taken or wasted time or resources that belonged to another?
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
Have I gossiped, told lies or embellished stories at the expense of another?
You shall not covet your neighbor’s spouse.
Have I honored my spouse with my full affection and exclusive love?
You shall not covet your neighbor’s goods.
Am I content with my own means and needs, or do I compare myself to others unnecessarily?