The summer now past, we come once again to what is in effect, for many, the beginning of a new year. It is an opportune time to ask, not only, ‘What am I doing?’, but the more fundamental question, ‘Who am I?’ We, who must live and labour in this secular world, but carry Christ in our hearts, can only respond to that question within the radical context of Christian faith, gifted and celebrated in that sacrament common to us all, Baptism.
The 4th-Century Church Father, St Cyril of Jerusalem, speaking of the significance of baptism said: “Now that you have been ‘baptised into Christ’ and have ‘put on Christ’…he has made us like to ‘the glorious body of Christ’. Hence, since you ‘share in Christ’ it is right to call you ‘Christs’ or ‘anointed ones’….”(Myst. Cat.3)
Oil of chrism
In the Catholic tradition, Roman and Anglican, the person baptised is anointed with the oil of chrism. As the word ‘chrism’ and the name ‘Christ’ both mean ‘the anointed one’ the rite of anointing speaks eloquently of, and celebrates, that which lies at the very heart of Baptism, for just as our skin absorbs the oil of chrism so by Baptism we absorb Christ into our very being – chrismed we are ‘christen-ed’, made Christians. We ‘in-corporate’ the spiritual DNA of Jesus Christ. The words of the Prophet Ezekiel put it nicely, “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you.” (Ezel 36:26)
The baptismal gift is a radical faith which is more than simply believing certain ‘doctrines’ to be true, it enables the Christian to see “things as Jesus himself sees them”. (cf LF 18) Faith, in other words, influences every aspect of life; a Christian can only see as a Christian, hear as a Christian, speak as a Christian, decide and act as a Christian. St Augustine advises: “In everything that you do, see God as your witness.” Faith, therefore, is not a superficial identity that can be set aside. Pope Francis recently commented: “Faith is not a superficial decoration, it is a strength of the soul.” (Angelus, August 18, 2013). My faith defines who I am. Should I wilfully decide to act in a way other than Christian, this would not only be a denial of Jesus Christ, or be a matter of disloyalty to my Christian community, but would be a deep down betrayal of my very self, my own ‘recreated’ being.
An obvious question is “How do I know how to live and act as a Christian?” The legal Fraternity is involved with more than the mere application of the legal code. In the exercise of their responsibilities, they listen to others, they reflect, they reason, and they listen to their own inner voice, a voice honed by acquired knowledge and experience. In this way they seek to find the truth. It is a similar process in Christian living: we listen to the voice of Sacred Scripture, particularly to the voice of Jesus in the Gospel; we listen to the voice of that wisdom accumulated by the Church; we listen to the voices of trusted fellow pilgrims; we reflect and reason and listen too to an inner voice. In Christian spirituality this inner voice is thought of as the Holy Spirit whispering God’s word in the human heart. Gerard Manley Hopkins, in his poem Nondum writes: “Speak! Whisper to my watching heart one word – as when a mother speaks, soft.” This ‘whispering’ is more commonly understood as the ‘voice of conscience’, “the guide of life implanted in our nature”.
My conscience is that inner sanctuary where I am alone with God whose voice, sounding in my heart, moves me to do good under any circumstances and to avoid evil by all possible means. Conscience informs me that before God this is good, true and right, and that is bad, false and wrong. When I listen to my conscience I hear God speaking and am prompted to act accordingly. My conscience reveals to me who I am. Cardinal John Henry Newman declared: “Who can deny the existence of conscience? Who does not feel the force of its injunctions? Were it not for this voice, speaking so clearly in my conscience and my heart, I should be an atheist. When I obey it I feel a satisfaction; when I disobey, a soreness – just like I feel in pleasing or offending some revered friend.”
Made in the image and likeness of God, the dignity of each human being is such that to ignore the conscience of another, to impose any restriction on it, or to violate it in any way whatsoever, is gravely wrong, a sin before God and the violation of a human right. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who suffered under the regime of Soviet Russia, commented that the denial of the authentic rights of conscience suppresses “the divine in the human being”; it leads to intolerance and even to tyranny. Only genuine respect for the rights of conscience fosters tolerance and guarantees freedom. Yet in our own society do we not recognise “the worrying signs of a failure to appreciate not only the rights of believers to freedom of conscience and freedom of religion, but also the legitimate role of religion in the public square”? (Benedict XV1, Address in Westminster Hall, 2010)
Today, Christianity is becoming more and more marginalised in the public forum. Those who publicly support Christian ethics are frequently dismissed as unenlightened conservatives, or often as fundamentalist bigots – religion is viewed as a problem. In Ireland, North and South, there is great pressure, particularly on those in public life, to act against conscience and to support, or at least not to oppose, pragmatic and short term solutions to very complex social and ethical dilemmas. This pressure is often applied for the paradoxical reason of eliminating discrimination in our society.
Conscience, that innate moral sense written into the very fabric of humanity, touching upon the fundamental issues life and death, truth and justice, tragically has come to be interpreted as a subjective personal preference. Those who think in this way, in a complete subversion of language, even appeal to the ‘rights of conscience’; while simultaneously promoting a ‘libertarian’ agenda. They acknowledge no ultimate truth to which they are bound, only opinions, but not truth, and one’s opinion is sufficient truth for the day.
Those who experience pressure to act against conscience, while deserving of our sympathetic understanding, must face the question, ‘By appeal to what authority can moral dilemmas be resolved?’ Acting in the public forum as ‘agnostic’ in regard to moral dilemmas, will surely raise for Christians agonising questions concerning both integrity of faith and personal integrity? Pope Benedict XVI, in his address to public leaders, in Westminster Hall, in September 2010, gently but concisely, set before them the challenge which they face, and which faces each one of us. Referring to that champion of conscience and former Lord Chancellor of England, he said: “I recall the figure of St Thomas More, the great English scholar and statesman, who is admired by believers and non-believers alike for the integrity with which he followed his conscience, even at the cost of displeasing the sovereign whose ‘good servant’ he was, because he chose to serve God first.”
My friends, we know, do we not, that we are society’s ‘good servant(s)’ when we ‘(choose) to serve God first’? In a church in Rome there is a plaque which celebrates all the honours of John Henry Newman. The last words on the plaque are: “Sed ante omnia Christianus”; “But before all else, a Christian.” Ours is the same identity and the same task. It is the answer to that fundamental question, “Who am I?”
Fr Edward O’Donnell is Parish Priest in St Brigid’s Parish, Belfast. This is an edited version of a homily delivered on September 8 in St Anne’s Cathedral, Belfast to the Northern Ireland legal fraternity at the start of the new law year at the Royal Courts of Justice.