01 May 2016

Our Aboriginal Vicar

6th Sunday of Easter
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, NOLA

Maybe it's just me, but I get nervous when Jesus starts making promises. Of course, most of the time he's promising Good Things. Like forgiveness of sin and eternal life. But on occasion he promises things that cause me give him a squinty-eyed glare. Things like persecution, torture, and death. Then there are the promises that seem – I dunno – odd. Maybe. . .unclear. Like the promise he makes this morning: “The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you.” This promise seems straightforward enough, but what does it mean exactly? I mean, he'll send the Holy Spirit to teach us and remind us. OK. But how will the Holy Spirit teach us and remind us? Do we each get a tutorial with the Holy Spirit when we need to be taught and reminded? Is there a class somewhere? Or a maybe a C-SPAN call-in show where we can ask the Holy Spirit questions? No, nothing so complicated as all that. Jesus promises, “Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him.”

What Jesus is telling us here is how the Holy Spirit will teach and remind us. It's rather straightforward process: 1) love Christ the Son and keep his word; 2) the Father loves those who love Christ and keep his word; 3) the Father comes to dwell with those whom He loves; 4) Christ the Son comes to dwell with those whom the Father loves; and 5) where the Father and Christ the Son dwell, so too dwells the Holy Spirit! So, the Holy Spirit teaches and reminds those who love Christ and keep his word. As I said, this is a straightforward process; however, we might wonder why we need the on-going presence of the Holy Spirit. After all, we have Scripture and Tradition, why do we need the ever-present Spirit to teach us and remind us? Scripture and Tradition are invaluable history, priceless records of how our ancestor's in faith lived out God's Self-revelation. However, neither Scripture nor Tradition can address every moral decision each of us must make on a daily basis. We need a way to access the wisdom of God when we are confronted by those difficult situations that the inspired authors of Scripture and Tradition could never imagine. We need a mechanism that allows us to participate in Christ's living love and word so that his wisdom can guide our moral choices toward holiness. We call this mechanism: conscience.

Many of our centuries-old Christian concepts have been beaten and abused in the last 50 years or so. None more so that the nature and purpose of moral conscience. For example, every Disney movie produced in the last 30 yrs pushes the notion that any moral difficulty is solved by “just following your heart.” For decades, faithful Catholics have been told by bishops, priests, religious, and theologians that conscience simply means “doing whatever you want,” so long as you claim you're doing it in “good conscience.” Conscience has come to means something like “the inalienable right to invent my own invincible truth.” To put it bluntly: this is the Devil's definition of conscience. The Church teaches us that “moral conscience. . .enjoins [us]. . .to do good and to avoid evil” (CCC 1777). Good and evil here describe objectively knowable standards of behavior not just subjective beliefs or wishes. Conscience does not invent the truth; it discovers the truth and urges us to do what is right. “[Conscience]. . .bears witness to the authority of truth in reference to the supreme Good to which the human person is drawn. When he listens to his conscience, the prudent man can hear God speaking”(CCC 1777). The prudent person knows and loves the teaching and reminding presence of the Holy Spirit.

Blessed John Cardinal Newman writes: “Conscience is the aboriginal Vicar of Christ.” While Pope Francis is the current Vicar of Christ on Earth, your conscience is the primordial vicar, the first representative of Christ appointed to you by your Creator at your creation. This means that we are all gifted with the divinely assisted ability and moral duty to seek out and obey the truth. Not to invent the truth as we wish it to be. Not to claim authority over the truth b/c we find the truth unpleasant or inconvenient. But to uncover the truth, and use it to do the good. To accomplish this task, your conscience must be well-formed in right reason; grounded in the moral law revealed in Scripture and in nature; and docile to the legitimate authority of the Church to interpret both Scripture and Tradition. Our “aboriginal vicar” is first, but it is not last, and without the proper formation, it cannot be final. Christ comes to live with those who love him and keep his word. And with him comes the Holy Spirit. . .to teach us, to remind us, to strengthen and confirm us in the faith. Our Lord promises us both great rewards and difficult futures. But with the Holy Spirit dwelling in us and among us, nothing merely difficult or troublesome or even terrifying can move us from our Father's love and His promise of mercy.


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