Reflectons on Veritatis Spleandor by Alfred McBride, O.Praem.

In ancient times there lived a wise king named Dionysius of Syracuse in Sicily. Servants waited on him; people respected him. He lived in a palace surrounded by many things of beauty. Many people envied him, especially his best friend, Damocles: "How lucky you are! You must be the happiest man in the world."

Dionysius smiled at his good friend. "Do you really think I’m happier than everyone else?" he asked. "Of course," said Damocles. The king replied, "Perhaps you would like to change places with me." "Oh, I wouldn’t dream of that," said Damocles. "But I would like to trade places with you for one day. Nothing would give me greater happiness."

The next day, Damocles came to the palace. Servants dressed him in expensive clothes and put a crown on his head. They led him to a table set with flowers, fine wines, and magnificent food. Musicians played sweet melodies. "What a life," said Damocles. Then he raised a cup of wine to his lips. Startled, he saw right above him a sword, held to the ceiling by only one hair.

He shook all over. He wanted to run but was afraid that any sudden movement would snap the thread and bring the sword on his head. He sat frozen to his chair. "What’s the matter?" asked the king.

"The sword. Don’t you see it?" "I see it every day," answered the king. "I live every day with the threat that someone will cut the hair. Jealous men. Traitors. Even my own foolishness. These risks come with power and responsibility, you know."

"Yes, I see," said Damocles. He never again wanted to trade places with the king.

That "sword of Damocles" rests on all of us because we all have responsibilities - moral, familial, economic, and political. Once we grow up, we walk in a world full of risks. To face it we need a well-formed conscience, a consciousness of our moral responsibilities, and the ability to make correct moral judgments.

After World War 11, General Omar Bradley said: "The world has achieved brilliance without conscience. Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants."

The Church is very interested in our formation of conscience. "The Church puts herself ... at the service of conscience, helping it to avoid being tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine proposed by human deceit (see Eph 4:14), and helping it not to swerve from the truth about the good of man, but rather, especially in more difficult questions, to attain the truth with certainty and to abide in it" (No. 64).

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches five ways to form a good conscience. All are necessary and related to each other: (1) The natural law inclines our minds to tell the difference between good and evil and judge what is right and wrong. (2) The Ten Commandments specify the essential meanings of natural law. (3) The teachings of Jesus, especially his laws of love and the moral laws and ideals of the Sermon on the Mount, are a powerful and essential tool in conscience formation. (4) The magisterium of the Church develops and applies Steps 1 through 3 to new moral questions in each age of history. (5) The Holy Spirit works within our consciences, filling them with the divine light of grace, moving them to right judgment, and motivating us to actions that fulfill the will of God with the obedience of faith" (Rom 16:26).

We cannot do what is right unless we know what is right. For this we need the instruction that comes from the five steps in the Catechism: natural law, the Ten Commandments, the teachings of Jesus, of the Church, and of the Holy Spirit. What we do determines who we will become. True happiness and self-worth result from doing what is worthwhile. A trained conscience is designed to make this possible.

St. Paul exhorts us not to be conformed to the mentality of this world, but to be transformed by the renewal of our mind (see Rom 12:2). "It is the ‘heart’ converted to the Lord and to the love of what is good which is really the source of true judgments of conscience" (No. 64).

Theologian Karl Barth has said, "Conscience is the perfect interpreter of life." Correctly formed consciences see clearly the sins and injustices of the world and move people to seek virtue and justice. It is not enough to be smart. We must also be moral. And that requires lifelong moral conversion.

Fr. McBride writes for Our Sunday Visitor. All quoted matter is from the encyclical, unless otherwise indicated 1998 Our Sunday Visitor. Used by subcription. This article appeared in the August 1998 edition of The San Francisco Charismatics (ISSN 1098-4046). Member of the Catholic Press Association of the United States and Canada.

Read other articles of spiritual enlightenment in the September 1998 edition of The San Francisco Charismatics or return to the Main Menu by clicking on the blue.