SisterAgnes Walsh, a Daughter of Charity, is remembered for her heroism in France during
World War II. In 1943, when France was occupied by German Nazis, the search for
Jews began. In the face of grave peril, Sister Agnes convinced her mother superior
to open their convent and offer refuge to a Jewish family. The sisters did the
right, but very challenging, thing when many would have told them to take the
easy way out.
of us won't face the extreme circumstances these women faced, but we all have
our own challenges. What do I do if my boss gives me a task I believe is wrong?
How do I make ethical decisions about medical treatment in times of serious
the life of following Jesus Christ, both great heroes and ordinary saints alike
need the same thing: a well-formed conscience.
What is conscience?
creates us with a capacity to know and love him, and we have a natural desire
to seek the truth about him. Fortunately, we don't search for God unaided; indeed,
he calls us to himself and writes his law on our hearts to help us draw closer
helps us hear the voice of God; it helps us recognize the truth about God and
the truth about how we ought to live. Conscience is "a judgment of reason"1 by which we determine
whether an action is right or wrong.
told the apostles, "If you love me, you will keep my commandments" (John
14:15). We deepen our relationship with God by following him, and in doing so,
we become more fully ourselves.
Importance of a Well-Formed Conscience
you ever made a decision that turned out badly, but if you had more information
beforehand, you would have made a better decision? Sometimes, we may have the
best of intentions to do good, but choose an action that is, in itself, wrong.
example, think of learning a new language. We can only speak with the language
we have, and if we have not received good education in vocabulary and grammar,
we will communicate poorly, and others will not understand us. It is similar
our conscience isn't well-formed, we aren't well-equipped to determine right
from wrong. All of us have the personal responsibility to align our consciences
with the truth so that, when we are faced with the challenges of daily life,
our consciences can help guide us well.
How to Form Our Consciences
we are on our journey with Christ, we can grow deeper with him by continuing
the work of forming our consciences well, so that we may follow him ever more
closely. Although not a complete list, these suggestions can help us as we seek
to inform and strengthen our consciences with God's truth.
Through prayer and participation in the sacraments, especially Confession and
the Eucharist, we encounter the living God. Spending time with the Lord, such
as in silent adoration, opens our hearts to him. In drawing closer to the Lord,
we allow God's grace to conform our minds and hearts to Christ, so that we
might better discern in every moment how we ought to act.
Without a foundational, practical
formation, it is difficult for our consciences to guide us well in concrete
situations. As Catholics, we have the immense gift of the teaching authority of
the Catholic Church and can turn to it for help forming our consciences. For
example, learning about Christian moral principles, reading the Catechism of the Catholic Church, or
researching what the Church says about a challenging teaching will help us grow
in knowledge of the truth. In turn, this helps us understand a little more how
to live in a way that leads to our true happiness.
We are formed by the stories we hear and tell. We may be uncertain how we ought
to respond to various challenges as followers of Jesus, but there are many
saints who have faced similar questions throughout the ages. Immersing
ourselves in the stories of holy women and men can encourage us and help us
develop habits of mind that allow us to grow. Stories help us hone our
- Nurture friendships
A life of following Jesus is exceedingly difficult without help from a
community. When we devote energy to holy friendships with people who are also
trying to know, love, and serve the Lord, we gain partners who can lighten the
load. Conversation with other Christians about how to respond to challenges in
the life of discipleship are vital.
A couple challenges we may face in following our
consciences are worth noting.
When we are bombarded with news,
images, stories, and sound bites, it's easy to become numb to other people and the
world around us. Conscience requires us to be attentive. We must listen to God,
who speaks to us. Having a well-formed conscience doesn't mean we have all the
answers to the complex problems in the world, but it does mean that we are
sensitive to the needs and struggles of other people.
Increasingly, we are seeing that
certain groups use the power of the media and even of the state to coerce
people to violate their consciences. We can see how unjust these types of
actions are that insist that popular opinion, rather than conscience, should be
our primary guide for action.
Inspired by the example of Sister Agnes Walsh and her
mother superior, let us devote ourselves anew to following wherever the Lord
leads. Let us take courage from their example of faith and, when facing our own
trials, remember what Jesus promised his apostles before ascending into heaven:
"Behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age" (Matthew 28:20). Be
not afraid; God is with us.
 Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd. ed., 1778.
texts in this work are taken from the New American Bible, revised edition ©
2010, 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Washington, D.C.
and are used by permission of the copyright owner. All rights reserved. Catechism of the Catholic Church, second
edition © 2000 LEV-USCCB. Used with permission. Copyright © 2017, United States
Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, D.C. All rights reserved.