Sermon: Conscience in the Making of a Saint
“These are the ones who have survived the time of great distress; they have washed their robes and made them white in the Blood of the Lamb.”
One windy night in the heat of Roman July, in the year 64 A.D., a fire broke out among the poorly constructed timber apartment blocks that housed many of the city’s residents. It spread quickly, burning for nine days. In the end, over two thirds of the world’s most powerful city was destroyed. Among the wreckage was the palace of the emperor, Nero.
The great Roman fire was devastating for the people of Rome, but highly advantageous for Nero, who had been hoping to construct a Golden Palace, planned to cover a third of the city. Nero’s immediate revelation of a set of plans to re-construct the Imperial City – including his new, enormous palace – brought more than a little suspicion that the fire might have been his own doing.
Historians still debate whether Nero actually ordered the fire to be set, but it is clear that the Great Fire of Rome gave rise to the first widespread persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire, which were to last from 64 to 313 A.D. Needing someone to blame for the conflagration, Nero settled on the already unpopular Christians, who had been refusing to join in the sacrifices and other rituals that honored the cult of the emperor, who was believed by the Romans to be a living god.
The Roman historian Tacitus reports: “Consequently, to get rid of the report [of his involvement], Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. … [A]n immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired.”
This is likely what St. John refers to in the Book of Revelation when he writes of “the time of great distress” in today’s lesson. From the beginning of the Church’s history, “the blood of the martyrs is the seedbed of Christians.” From 64 A.D. until our own day, Christian believers have washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb by spilling their own blood. Only four years ago, the Ven. Fr. Jacques Hamel’s blood was mingled with the blood of the Lamb as his throat was slit by two terrorists who had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State while he was offering Mass. And just last week, three innocent Christians were brutally slain by other radical Islamic terrorists while attending Mass in southern France. (And this is just a brief snapshot of a disturbing trend of violence against Christians in France and many other parts of the world.)
What gave and still gives the martyrs strength to stand up for their faith in Christ? All the early Christians had to do to escape the fate of being devoured by the beasts or turned into torches for Nero’s garden parties was burn a little incense in front of a small statue of the emperor. Not such a difficult task, no? Surely one could drop a few incense grains on the fire, cross his fingers behind his back, and go on with life?
By the time of Christ, the Romans were not particularly religious people. Their animosity towards the Christians did not arise from any offense at the rejection of the worship of Jupiter, Juno, Venus, and Ares, in whom at least the upper classes did not really believe. Educated Romans certainly did not believe that the depraved emperor Nero was actually a god. Rather, religious ceremonies were about the civic religion. The Christians’ refusal to burn incense before the emperor’s image was about the civic life of the country. For the “modern” Romans, the State was the ultimate deity. The Christians’ refusal to honor the Roman state – their refusal to place the secular power over that of God – was what got them turned into human torches.
What gave them, then, this strength? Surely, a passionate, lived, and personal relationship with God, especially in the person of Jesus Christ. The savior who had died for us while we were sinners inspired them with the strength to do the same for Him. They knew that any pain and suffering would be worth not having to deny their Lord.
A second source of moral courage for the martyr comes from the power of the conscience. Fast-forwarding a few centuries, we can see the power of the conscience in the life of another martyr: St. Thomas More. When Henry VIII of England decided to break from Rome and declare himself to be the head of the Church in England, almost every single civil and ecclesiastical authority followed him. Thomas More was a layman – an educated and refined man of great power, influence, and erudition. A lawyer by trade, he was the Lord Chancellor – the second most powerful person in the land, the king’s “right hand man.”
Held in captivity for fourteen months and subjected to repeated interrogations, torture, and isolation, More was eventually beheaded. All he had to do was sign his time to a statement acknowledging Henry as Head of the Church in England. The theologians could work out the details. But St. Thomas More refused, citing his inability to violate his own conscience and affirm something he knew not to be true.
Closer to our own day is Bl. Franz Jagerstatter, a simple Austrian peasant who lived from 1907-1943. Franz was known to have lived a wild life in his youth (including fathering a daughter out-of-wedlock), but was converted to a more devout life by his eventual bride, Franziska. When Austria was annexed by Germany, Franz was drafted to serve in the German army. He was ready to serve his country, but would not take an oath of loyalty to Adolph Hitler. By 1941, it was becoming clear that the Nazi party sought to suppress belief in God, the Catholic Church in particular, and was euthanizing the disabled. Rumors of a program to exterminate the Jews circulated as well. How could Franz pledge allegiance to such a man?
All of Franz’s countrymen seemed astounded at his refusal to take a simple oath that everyone else was taking. What would happen to his young wife and three daughters? He was only 35 years old. His bishop told him to do it. Numerous priests attempted to persuade him. He may have wavered, but “When he heard of the fate of the Austrian priest Father Franz Reinisch, who had been executed for his refusal to take the Hitler oath, he was determined to go the same way.” Bl. Franz was tried for sedition and executed by guillotine on August 9, 1943. His last words were, “I am completely bound in inner union with the Lord.”
Controversy continued about whether Franz had really done the right thing. Didn’t, many people asked, he owe a greater duty to his wife and children than to his own conscience? The matter was finally settled when Benedict XVI declared him a martyr and beatified him in 2007.
While the power of their conscience was what moved both St. Thomas More and Bl. Franz Jagerstatter to courageous witness, they did not ultimately die for their conscience. They died for love of God, for the Catholic faith, for the truth. The lesson of the witness of the early Christian martyrs, of St. Thomas More, and Bl. Franz Jagerstatter is not that the individual’s conscience takes priority over the community. Rather, we should take from these examples the lesson that a conscience grounded in knowledge of the truth can give us the strength to perform authentic acts of heroism.
The Catechism states that, “Moral conscience, present at the heart of the person, enjoins him at the appropriate moment to do good and avoid evil. … It bears witness to the authority of truth in reference to the supreme Good to which the human person is drawn [that is, God], and it welcomes the commandments. When he listens to his conscience, the prudent man can hear God speaking.” (CCC 1777) The conscience “bears witness to the authority of the truth.” In theological language, we call the conscience the proximate norm of morality. That is, our conscience cannot determine what is right and wrong. Conscience is not a source of goodness or evil of an action, but a tool to know whether or not something is good. Conscience “bears witness to the authority of the truth.” The conscience is not an inner voice that determines what is true for me, while someone else’s conscience determines what is true for them. Conscience is an act of our reason by which we judge the goodness or evil of an act based on truths that we already know. The conscience convicts us of the truth, but it cannot determine the truth. Determinations about the truth must always be based on objective facts, not in our subjective feelings.
Conscience is not the source of good and evil, but a witness to it. Something can only be good in reference to the God who is the source of goodness, who reveals the goodness or evil of actions through the natural law and through Revelation (mediated through the Scriptures and the teachings of the Catholic Church). Our conscience, then, is only as good as it is well-formed. A conscience that is not well formed by the Word of God – the Scriptures and the Tradition of the Church – and a careful study of the natural law, is a false guide.
We see these false versions of conscience frequently. We see it in the person who says, “I know that the Church says that this is wrong, but my conscience tells me otherwise.” Or, “I know and believe this is wrong, but my conscience says that I should not force my beliefs on others.” This latter one is tricky. I believe that everyone should worship God at Holy Mass each Sunday, but it would be wrong to force people to go to Mass. On the other hand, there are times when society needs to ensure a degree of uniformity: What is marriage? Is the unborn child in the womb deserving of the rights of a human person? The conscience of an individual person cannot settle these difficult questions – only an investigation into the natural law and God’s revelation. Before we ask the question, “What do I think?” we must ask the question, “What is true?” The conscience can never tell us, for example, what marriage is or whether or not the pre-born child deserves all the rights and protections due to a person. Rather, it convicts us of the right way of acting once we know the truth by objective means in the mature formation of our conscience.
Even though conscience cannot establish what is in itself right or wrong, for the person whose conscience has been well-formed by the natural law and Revelation, the conscience can be what gives her the strength to bear courageous witness to the truth, even to the point of shedding blood. On All Saints day, we recall the many unknown heroes of our faith, who moved by an upright conscience offered their lives for the Lord in glorious martyrdom or humble perseverance. We also remember the calling of each and every one of us to that same heavenly glory. God wants you to be a saint! As our nation prepares to elect new public officials, we ask the Lord today to give us leaders with a well-formed conscience, who will not burn incense before the idol of the State, swear allegiance to any leader over their country, or affirm what is not true. We also ask the Lord to inform and strengthen our own conscience to know the truth and to adhere to it tenaciously. We also beg him to provide us with civic leaders who will respect the rights of conscience and a robust understanding of religious liberty that goes beyond a mere “freedom of worship” on Sunday mornings and allows people of faith to live their convictions in their daily lives.
God calls people from all different walks of life to be saints, from the Austrian peasant to the English nobleman. In the post-Christian world in which we live, we are all in need of a strong conscience to remind us of the saving truths we have received from the Lord and to encourage us to cling to those truths regardless of the conscience. If our conscience is well formed by God’s Word and the teaching of the Church, and if we cling to those truths will all our might, we will be able to join in that “great [heavenly] multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue. [Standing] before the throne and before the Lamb,” wearing robes stained white in the blood of the Lamb, and holding the palm branches of victory in our hands, “[crying] out in a loud voice: ‘Salvation comes from our God, who is seated on the throne, and from the Lamb.’”
The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
Parish Church of St. John the Evangelist, Goshen, Ind.
Solemnity of All Saints, A.D. MMXX
Image: Henryk Siemiradzki. Nero's Torches. 1876. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nero%27s_Torches#/media/File:Siemiradski_Fackeln.jpg