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Examination of Conscience

November 01, 2002 – All Saints Day

Letter of the Father General to the Vocationist Fathers and Brothers


My Dear Confrere,

 May God the Holy Spirit unite us always more to the Father!

In the business world of the society in which we live, it has become a matter of fact, that at the end of the day, of the week, of the month and of the year, one must prepare the balance sheet of income and expenditures. At the end of the day, the business person wants to have a clear picture of every gain or possible loss. In the financial and commercial world, the computers and computerized cashier machines, make it very easy to see the actual state of affairs at any given moment: it is enough to press a key and we have under our eyes in black or red the figures we want to se, an up-to-date inventory.

What in the business world is only recently becoming a common practice has been taught, practiced and inculcated for centuries in spiritual life through our examinations of conscience. It is with regret that we notice that while the business world multiplies forms and methods of control, spiritual life seems to neglect them more and more. How true it is that the children of darkness are more industrious than the children of the light!

In this message for the Solemnity of All Saints, solemnity that reminds us of our vocation to holiness and of our commitment to promote universal sanctification, I invite myself and you to deepen our self-knowledge and to encourage the daily practice of the Examination of conscience.

What is an “Examination of Conscience”?

The examination of conscience is an ascetical practice that helps us to know ourselves and to maintain a constant control of our actions. The examination of conscience is our balance sheet; it enables us to become aware of what we have received and what we have given out, of what God has done for us and of what we have done for the Lord.

People often question our behavior by simply saying: “Examine your conscience” or “did you examine your conscience”?

To examine our conscience simply means to update the inventory of our real status in the presence of the Lord, to draw the conclusions, to see our figures in the black or in red, to see the positive and the negative, the successes and failures in our life; to see how we can multiply our successes and eliminate our failures. Fr. Justin introduces the questionnaires in preparation for the evening examination of conscience with the invitation: “Become aware, my soul, before God”.
The examination of conscience is one of the ascetical practices most practiced by the saints and more deeply rooted in the conscience of every Christian. It is absolutely necessary to improve the quality of our life and to maintain complete control over ourselves.

The man, who is seriously trying to please God, cannot lower his watchfulness and merely live his life, without knowing who he is and where he is heading. The Socratic saying “Know yourself” applies to every man, who wants to do something with his life, it applies in a very special way to those, who through their religious consecration to God, want to conform themselves completely to Christ.

Let us briefly consider the three types of examination of conscience:
a) General Examination of Conscience.
b) Particular Examination of Conscience.
c) Preventive Examination of Conscience.

General Examination of Conscience

The General Examination of Conscience consists in reviewing, in the light of the Gospel and ascetical teachings, all our actions of the day. Noticing our deficiencies and our failures, not only we experience repentance and sorrow, but we also trying to understand the “why” so that we may avoid them in the future. To eradicate our failures, we must go to their roots.

The General Examination of Conscience is mandatory before every sacramental confession; in this case, it must review all our actions since our last confession. The resolution not to sin again, the confession (admission) of our faults and the reparation (or penance) are the practical consequence of this examination of conscience. This practical consequence must also follow every daily examination of conscience, otherwise it would have little or no value at all.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church presents the practice of the daily examination of conscience as a daily “daily exercise of conversion” (CCC # 1435). The Catechism for the Adults states: “The examination of conscience, like the mediation, is recommended daily” ( art. 940).

Particular Examination of Conscience

The daily particular examination of conscience is a very useful practice; it is indispensable for anyone who wants to grow in the way of holiness. Since it is impossible to achieve simultaneously the perfection of all Christian virtues, through the particular examination of conscience one applies himself to the knowledge and practice of one specific virtue to be acquired or a vice to be eradicated. At light of this specific virtue one reviews all the actions of the day examining if or how that virtue was practiced in each and every action.

A. Wallenstein. In Guida pratica alla perfezione, says that the particular examination of conscience is “condition sine qua non” for spiritual growth: “The process of eliminating our many weaknesses and our faults is like the process of unraveling a skein of innumerable, tangled up strings. If we get all the strings at once we can never untangle them, if patiently we taken one string at a time we may easily and quickly achieve our objective. If we do not progress in a specific virtue as we should, the culprit is usually the faulty use of the general and even more of the particular examination of conscience”.

Undoubtedly, for the fact that this is a particular examination of conscience, it must be more detailed and more in depth. The particular examination is done on the same virtue until one reaches a noticeable progress in it. It is advisable to do this examination of conscience apart from the general examination of conscience, however it can be done also at the same time, but as a second part.

Preventive Examination of Conscience

Only improperly, this is called an examination of conscience; it is usually done at the beginning of the day. One places himself in the presence of the Lord, offers to him the actions of the day ahead, and then, with the experience of the previous day, looking at the schedule of what has to be done, anticipates situations or circumstances that have occasioned faults or imperfections in order to prevent a repetition of the same. It is the application of the preventive method, proper of the educational system, to spiritual formation and growth.

The soul anxious to please God, does not want to be caught by surprise or unprepared!

Examination Conscience in the Vocationist Spirituality

In the spirit of Fr. Justin and in the Vocationist spirituality the examinations of conscience are mandatory and are considered – as they actually are – true and proper mental prayers. As a mental prayer, the examination of conscience prevails over all vocal prayers.

Fr. Justin has prescribed that in our life of prayer we do the preventive, general and particular examinations of conscience at dawn, i.e., at our first devotional exercise of the day. The second major devotional exercise of the day, at noon, also includes the general and particular examination of conscience. At the last devotional exercise of the day, at the conclusion of the day, once again there is a general and particular examination of conscience. So that these examinations of conscience may really be mental prayer, Fr. Justin requires that they should not last less than fifteen minutes.

If, for whatever reason, there should not be enough time to do all the prescribed devotional practices, the local superior may shorten or dispense from the other prayers, but he cannot shorten or dispense from the examinations of conscience (cfr. Devozionale Ordinario, pages 12,16, 17, 19). This shows the importance attributed to the examinations of conscience by our Venerable Founder.
Preventive, General and Particular - Examination of Conscience in Fr. Justin

Following the Method of St. Ignatius, Fr. Justin prescribes the preventive, general and particular examination of conscience at the beginning of the day. At the light of the difficulties or failures of the previous day, the Vocationist diligently plans to avoid sins, imperfections or omissions that have degraded us the previous day – as it has appeared from the general and particular examinations of conscience – by preventing them.

“The first devotional exercise of the day is at dawn, in honor and union of the resurrection of the Lord; it is done in union with the first of the Seven Spirits Assisting at the throne of God Trinity. It consists of the morning vocal prayers with intentions and protestations of love that elevate the value of every action of the day, and of the preventive, general and particular examination of conscience, as immediate preparation to the holy sacrifice of the mass” (Sabatario, page 7).

This preventive examination of conscience is the renewal of our commitment of fidelity to the Lord; it is a practical way of transforming our failures in instruments of growth. This examination of conscience makes sure that temptation or the devil will not catch us by surprise. One builds his immediate future on the experience of the recent past.

“The purpose of the examination of conscience is the eradication of faults; it is not enough to know and verify that they are there; it is necessary that one promptly and diligently applies the weapon of sorrow. The so called preventive examinations of conscience, are of little value, if they are not preceeded by an act of contrition for our moral poverty, against which we want to strengthen our will at the beginning of the day or of a series of actions” (Direttori di Spiritualita, page 137). With this last expression, Fr. Justin clearly recommends the preventive examination of conscience not only at the beginning of a new day, but at the beginning of every series of actions, as at the beginning of new scholastic or pastoral year, at the beginning of new assignment or mission, at the beginning of the yearly spiritual retreat etc… Even here, he seems to apply the principle “more and better”.

Fr. Justin’s prayers “Preparation to holy Communion” and “Preparation for a holy death”, in the various “Devotional months” can give us a good idea of this examination of conscience, as they clearly express our determination to eradicate every fault, and the desire to be better prepared to the daily banquet of the Eucharist, and to the last hour of our life, when the soul will be completely united with the divine life, in God Trinity (Spiritus Orationis, page 90).

In the spirit of this preventive examination of conscience we can read the following prayer:

“O Jesus Eucharist… I unite myself to you in hating and in willing to destroy what displeases you; I unite myself to you in loving and willing what pleases you.

As a particular exercise and expression of love, I want to absolutely abstain from the fault of…I want to generously exercise myself in the opposite virtue.

If I should ever fall even in a semi deliberate fault, I will do this penance…; on account of my poor experience I fear every evil, if I count on myself alone.

Grant me the grace to progress ever more in the eradication of every fault and in acquisition of every virtue. From you I expect every good thing.

Grant that today, I may not lose any of the graces that you have prepared for me. Grant that I may properly put to work all the talents you have entrusted to me” (Devozionale Ordinario, page 48).

Particular Examination of Conscience according to Fr. Justin

Fr. Justin believes that man is “limited and successive”. Every good resolution must be specific and very detailed. For Fr. Justin, the particular examination of conscience is more important than the general examination of conscience. While the majority of the ascetical teachers recommend the practice of this examination once a day, Fr. Justin recommends it three times a day!

All of the questionnaires, written by Fr. Justin in the “Devozionale” as preparation to the examination of conscience, are practical aids for the particular examinations of conscience. The fact that these questionnaires change for every month of the year is a clear indication, that – ideally – that the particular examination of conscience should be done on the same virtue for the entire month, and that it should be changed every month.

The results of our particular examinations of conscience (in addition to the divine inspirations) are the object of our spiritual direction. If at the end of a month, one has not progressed sufficiently in that specific virtue, with the permission of the spiritual director, one can continue to do the particular examination of conscience on the same virtue for a second month.

During an instruction to the boys of the Vocationary in 1954, Fr. Justin was exhorting us to do the particular examination of conscience, suggesting that we select the virtue on which we do considering our main fault or prevailing weakness. He told us: Get to know your prevailing weakness and choose the opposite virtue. You can easily identify your prevailing fault by taking note of bad taught, distractions or temptations that come more frequently to your mind in the most sacred moments of your day, as while you go to the altar to receive Holy Communion, or while you pray. Transforming these distractions or temptations into instruments of spiritual growth, you discourage the devil from the tempting you again”.

As for the general examination of conscience, so for the particular examination of conscience, it is suggested that at noon, we do it, taking into account primarily what the lord does or says to the soul, and at night, taking into account primarily how the soul accepts, responds or corresponds to God’s action in us, limiting it to the Christian virtue that we want to perfection in us.

Explaining “when and how to do the daily particular examination of conscience”

Fr. Justin wrote:

1) It must be divided in three times: morning, noon and night:
2) It must be done on only one fault to be eradicated, starting from the ones that are external and more dangerous or annoying to our neighbor.
3) Or it may be done on only one virtue that we want to perfect in us, starting from the ones that are more important to our situation;
4) To establish a small but secret sign of repentance at every fall, of thanksgiving at every victory;
5) It is very important to write and confront the result from time to time, from day to day, from week to week;
6) The object of this examination must also be the immediate, practical purpose of all our life of prayer for that day (rosary, visits, etc..);
7) To persevere on the same object until one achieves complete victory, guaranteed by a holy habit (Devozionale, per l’ascensione dell’anima all’Unione Divina, page 70).

“Special object of our particular examination of conscience must be our loving attention to the divine presence, in order to know every moment the will of God and to translate into action the divine inspirations with fidelity, docility and generosity in spirit of loving obedience” (Fr. Justin, Regole I).

“For the particular examination of conscience, we will follow the method of St. Ignatius; the superiors must diligently explain it; the spiritual directions will control it; everyone will practice it form the time of the aspirancy and in our Vocationaries” (Fr. Justin, Regole I, Chapter 22)

General Examination of Conscience according to Fr. Justin

The general examination of conscience is considered as a “daily exercise of piety and as immediate preparation to confession” (Direttorio della Santa Umilta).  It is defined as “humble, intimate conversation with Jesus in us” (Ascension, art, 656). Fr. Justin also considers the daily examination of conscience as the purification of the soul “from all worldly and profane dust”; it is the way “to become ever more beautiful and sweet in the blood of Jesus” (Devozionale I, page 542).

It may be helpful to realize that Fr. Justin writes about the examination of conscience in the Directory of Holy Humility, and that in our community life of prayer it is always followed by the Offerings of the Most Precious Blood. It is so, because of the infinite value of the most precious blood for the redemption of souls, and also on account of the value of impetration attributed to it by our founder. It is impossible to do a good examination of conscience without humility; likewise, it is impossible to believe that one can do a good examination of conscience without obtaining – as a result – a growth in humility. According to Fr. Justin, humility is – at the same time – cause and effect of the examination of conscience.

As it has been mentioned already, for us it is not sufficient to do the examination of conscience once a day. Fr. Justin prescribes it three times a day:

 In the morning, to renew our commitment and prepare ourselves to the spiritual battle, foreseeing possible difficulties or difficult moments in the light of the experience of the previous day;

 At noon, to consider primarily “what the Lord has said, given and done to the soul”;

 At night, to consider “what the soul has said, given and done for the Lord” (Ascension, art 655).

As mental prayer, the examination of conscience is an extension or continuation of our meditation. More than a moment of physical stasis, it is a moment of recharge, of revival of reinforcement: “I have come to you, not to interrupt my work at your service, but to shake off the dust of my imperfections, of the distractions arising from human concerns, and to supply myself with new strength” (Devozionale Ordinario, page 120).

For our benefit, Fr. Justin recommends the method of St. Ignatius and stresses that “the examination of conscience must include:

1. Elevations of faith and adoration;
2. Acknowledgement and thanksgiving for what the Lord has done for us;
3. A short study to identify the cause and the remedy for our faults;
4. Writing down the results of our examination in view of the confession and of our spiritual direction” (Devozionale per l’Ascensione dell’Anima all’Unione Divina, page 69).

Would it be an exaggeration to consider the examination of conscience as the place or the moment in which the “soul-spouse” prepares herself to the encounter and union with her beloved? Every examination of conscience is a moment of grace, a new opportunity to identify and recognize oneself as a “soul-daughter” of the Father, who is always ready and happy to distribute his divine mercy.

Conclusion

With deep regret, I notice that in our communities, in the schedule of our communal prayers, there is hardly any space for the examination of conscience, and where there is, it is only a passing moment, only a few minutes. Often, and with excessive ease – even in our houses of formation – it is dispensed with. I want to remind you that the questionnaires of Fr. Justin are not part of the examination of conscience, but only a preparation to it; they must precede and not replace the examination of conscience itself.

I beg you to review your personal and communitarian life of prayer. Give more importance and allow more time to this important and indispensable means of sanctification.

My beloved brother, my spiritual life (and maybe even yours) is not what should be. Examining my many wants and deficiencies, my lack of ascensional growth, I have discovered that my weakness is connected to poor examination of conscience. I have found these reflections and this study helpful to me. May aim is not teach you what you can teach to me ( and teach to others) with greater efficiency and eloquence. I have  shared with you my experience, my personal in the hope that it may also be beneficial to you. It is also a fatherly and brotherly invitation to foster your spiritual growth.

My spiritual growth and yours, my holiness – or lack of it – and yours is strictly correlated to the fidelity, seriousness and depth of our examination of conscience.

May all the saints, whose solemnity we celebrate as the feast of our vocation to holiness, help us to understand the efficacy of the examination of conscience and to practice it faithfully in order to truly be “saints and sanctifiers”.

With every best wish of holiness, in union of prayers, I greet, embrace and bless you.

Yours in J.M.J.

Fr. Louis M. Caputo, S.D.V.


 
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