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Sacrament of Penance: examination of conscience Print
Year of Faith
Thursday, Jul. 25, 2013 -- 12:00 AM

By Abbot Marcel Rooney, OSB

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This is the second in a series of articles examining the theology and spirituality of the Sacrament of Penance/Reconciliation.

We have seen, in the first article about this sacrament, that three things are necessary for its valid celebration: contrition for the sins one has committed; confession to a priest of all serious sins; and satisfaction of the penance which is asked of the penitent.

Interested in learning more about the Mass?

Abbot Marcel Rooney's DVD series, “Reflections on Holy Mass” may be ordered through the Orate Institute of Sacred Liturgy, Music, and Art via the institute’s Web site at www.OrateInstitute.org or by phone at 608-203-6735.

Examination of conscience

Before the confession to a priest, it will be necessary to examine one’s conscience, so as to know what sins have been committed. When we use such terms, we should be clear about just what we are talking about.

Conscience, the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, is a certain “judgment of reason whereby the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act that he is going to perform, is in the process of performing, or has already completed… It is by the judgment of his conscience that man perceives and recognizes the prescriptions of the divine law” (No. 1778).

What is conscience?

Put simply, conscience is the faculty within us that tells us, at any given moment, to do good and to avoid evil. It calls for a certain interiority, as the Catechism puts it in No. 1779, a certain sensitivity so that we even hear our conscience prompting us, or warning us.

Some of us were familiarized with “a guilty conscience” already at a young age. I can recall an instance when I was visiting my grandmother’s home, of doing something wrong, and then when I went into the kitchen to get a soda from the refrigerator, she took only one look at me and knew that I was guilty of something.

I can hear her still to this day: “Well, what have you been up to?!” I blushed red as a beet, because my conscience told me clearly that I had done something wrong, and had been caught at it.

Dulling our conscience

But it is possible to be so immersed in a worldly life, to be so formed by the secular mores of our nation rather than the law of God, that we don’t even recognize any more inside ourselves the little voice warning us that we cannot do something because it is wrong — or that we should do something because it is such an act of goodness.

That is what the Catechism means when it states that we need a certain interiority in order to recognize the difference between really good and sinful actions.

How to make an examination of conscience

Let us presume that one does really has developed an authentic Christian conscience.

Then how does one go about examining it, in order to prepare for the Sacrament of Penance/Reconciliation?

One certainly can make a list of “what I have been up to,” to use my grandmother’s words — that is, make a list of sinful things I have done, or good things that I should have done and have failed to do so.

That is, one can concentrate strictly on oneself, recall our little list, and then go to confession to recite it to the priest and ask God’s pardon for whatever sin has been there.

Suggestion for different way to make an examination

But I would like to suggest another way of examining (and first, of forming) one’s conscience.

Earlier, I used the example of getting caught after having done something wrong when I was young.

Like many my age, I learned to “examine my conscience” by questioning myself as to “what I have been up to.”

Instead of centering only on ourselves (“What have I been up to?), why not think about the Lord’s action in our lives, in terms — so to speak — of what “God has been down to”?

Once we become more aware of God acting in our lives, we can more easily see whether or not I have responded to that divine action as I have been called to do by my Baptism and Confirmation.

Let’s divide this little exercise of reflecting on how God is acting in our lives into three parts: (1) how I have related to God Himself; (2) how I have related to others; (3) how I “relate” to myself, that is, my attitude toward myself.

This way of looking at things demands that we recognize God’s initiative in our lives, always and everywhere.

Examining one’s conscience can be done in a spirit of prayer, like this:

Part one: How I have related to God Himself

  • O God, You have called me and saved me in Baptism, but I haven’t tried to live fully that Baptism or my Catholic faith… Lord, have mercy.
  • O God, You gave me a special grace today/this year, but I have not bothered to thank You…
  • O God, You offered me the opportunity to hear Your voice in prayer (for example, through unexpected free-time in my schedule), but I chose not to turn to You in gratitude and spend some time in prayer — but rather immersed myself in TV, in daydreaming, in wallowing in my inflamed imagination…
  • O God, Your gifts and action in my life is obvious when I think about it, but I have been too lazy to pray, to spend time with You to thank You, etc…

Part two: How I have related to others

  • O God, You have placed me in this particular Church community, but I have sat in judgment on some of its members; or: but I have not forgiven some slight from a priest 30 years ago…
  • O God, You have put me in contact with some very talented people, but instead of thanking You for that, I was jealous of their gifts, I tried to cut them down and damage their reputation behind their backs, I gossiped about them — all because I wanted the spotlight on myself not them…
  • O God, You have willed that I should be a citizen of this country/state/city, but I have attached labels to others; or: but I have harbored prejudices against others, have made sexist/racist remarks. . .
  • O God, You have given me this spouse, but I have been selfish in my relations with him/her, not generous with my time and attention when they called for it…
  • O God, You gave me the opportunity to witness to all these children (or: these over-exuberant kids, or: these confused teenagers), but I have shown them not Your Love, but my impatience (or: but I have been very selective in my attention to and care for certain ones, gravitating to the sweeter, nicer, more interesting, less problem-ridden ones)…

Part three: My attitude to my own person

  • O God, You have given me this particular body with its weaknesses and strengths, infirmities and blessings, beauty and ugliness, etc., but I refused to accept it as Your gift and instead let cultural attitudes and commercial advertising dictate what I should look like, be like, act like, etc…
  • O God, You have given me my sexuality as a gift for fostering life and love, but I have misused my masculinity/femininity; I have misused Your gift of sexuality, by myself / with others…
  • O God, You have given me my particular family background and upbringing, but I have not been willing to grow up into my own person; or: but I have not fully accepted responsibility for my life, but instead keep on blaming others in my past for who I am, making myself out as a victim. . .
  • O God, You have given me a heart to love with, but I have often left that heart on a childish and immature level; or: but I have not expanded my heart to grow in love, so that I give myself more authentically to spouse, family, parish, school, city…

Examining the conscience this way puts us in an attitude of constantly praising and thanking God for everything in our lives. In this way, this sacrament then leads to Eucharist, the Church’s great act of thanksgiving to God for all He has done for us — especially the saving action, Paschal Mystery, of Jesus.


Abbot Marcel Rooney, O.S.B., is president of the Orate Institute of Sacred Liturgy, Music and Art, resident in the Madison Diocese. The Institute is devoted to helping people understand more and pray better the sacred liturgy.