The 2020s: For Your Penance, Stay Reflective

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One of Lent’s greatest gifts is a soul that’s been cleansed in a good confession. Another great gift, but a heavier lift, is the examination of conscience which prepares that soul for Reconciliation.

For at least two years, many of us have sensed the Lord calling Christians to a fresh perspective and a clean start on a global scale. We have had to acknowledge that the world is a mess. A pandemic, riots in many locales, chaos in governments and media, and war in Europe–along with anxiety over finances, economies, the global environment, and our human ecology–have enervated and implicated lots of folks.

We can welcome this Lent as a time of spiritual reckoning, a chance to realize our continuing need to watch and pray, a launching pad for heightened circumspection backward and forward along life’s accelerating timeline of crucial change. May the informal examination of conscience which follows–a modest proposal for scanning our sinfulness in the 2020s so far–help us gear up for perpetual reflection and perpetual renewal concerning big-picture realities. If we ask God to bless this mess, I can imagine Our Father reminding us He’ll check regularly to see if we’re cleaning our rooms.

Another metaphor: Before we enter the confessional, I can imagine being asked for two checklists.

First, an updated progress report downloaded from our consciences. Am I softening my hardened heart? Am I still holding on to systemic pride, claiming Christian privilege from an abundantly merciful God? I might be called out for going through the motions and flat-lining in my trajectory of spiritual growth.

Second, an action plan listing steps I can take in the upcoming months to improve my performance and demonstrate my focus, to contribute values and virtues to the Church’s treasury (and remedies to the secular world’s mounting deficits of Godliness). Imagine there’s a new human-resources director in town; making the metrics is getting harder. Every full-time disciple must bear his or her load.

With those notions in mind, here are first steps toward progress-report questions for a sin-scan examen. Remember the Good News: This is primarily a self-diagnostic exercise, and rich mercies will still be applied during the sacrament. We are encouraged to be creative within the necessary strictures. And, as with many tests, it helps if we show our work.

  • Have I been open to all “takeaway lessons” I can learn from the COVID-19 pandemic, from the war in Ukraine, from the best and worst of people’s behavior? If I’m observing good and evil in worldly and spiritual conflicts, how are these insights fine-tuning my approaches to God , to other people, and to myself? (Here, think … heroism, self-sacrifice, and signs of servant-leadership on one side? cowardice and confusion, untruths and betrayed trust, and horrific disregard for human life on the other?)
  • To the degree policies or other conditions during the pandemic changed my life’s schedule in the past two years, have I made good use of additional empty hours that became available? Have I tended to waste my extra time or resources, perhaps indulging myself in unhelpful distractions, or worse, in actions that harmed myself or others? (Here, think … binging on entertainment or self-absorbed habits during lockdowns?)
  • Have I formed habits of fear, suspicion, or disengagement that prevent me from full participation in family life, friendships, and important communities? Are there relationships or lines of communication that I need to re-energize? (Here, think … my vital connections to the sacramental life and a worshiping community in the Church?)
  • Have I been inclined to assume a role that belongs only to God–such as judging a person’s soul or essential nature rather than the person’s action? Have I initiated or supported dismissive or divisive stances toward people in my life, with “holier than thou” instincts leading to punishment or polarization? (Here, think … “canceling” people, deep resentment toward those who differ with my truth claims, snap judgments based on a single error when a person could apologize, “God’s not finished with me yet”?)
  • Do I allow my appetite for news to point me toward media, influencers, and subjective forces whose offerings are primarily driven by ratings, greed, power, and pride? Do I maintain a healthy skepticism, alongside a lively curiosity, encouraging me to pursue full understanding and genuine wisdom rather than merely titillating headlines? Am I digging for bigger, broader stories that include compassionate outreach to marginalized people and unheard voices? (Here, think … high standards for mainline media and social media, seeking multiple viewpoints? learning infused with wonder and appreciation? “confirmation bias” that closes minds and hardens hearts?)
  • Have I dismissed the power of prayer, the need for grace, and the virtues of faith, hope, and charity as the principal lenses through which to view challenges in my life (and the lives of others)? Do I lean toward a “take control,” “just do it” decision-making style that favors efficiency, shallow thought, and blame-shifting? Am I the plane’s pilot, relegating God to passenger or co-pilot status? (Here, think … authoritarian inclinations? or a preference for a God who “writes straight with crooked lines”?)
  • Have I paid special attention to needs for healing, guidance, and encouragement which may have grown among my friends–and especially within my own family? Am I mindful of the painful experiences and emotions of my spouse and children during chaotic times? (Here, think … the deepest relationships warrant consideration of long-term implications, wanting the whole good for a person, including their future in heaven? are the easy, short-term solutions more compassionate or less?)
  • Have I found myself asking “what is truth?” Am I letting society’s manipulative messages, immersion in lies and fakery, short attention spans, and artificial realities weaken my own honesty and my commitment to truth? Am I forgetting the maxim, “Reality wins”? (Here, think … lies destroying people, relationships, and bonds of social trust? am I tempted to adopt the relativism of secular society, not realizing that, without recourse to God’s ultimate truth, there is no basis for truly inclusive problem-solving?)
  • Is today’s oversexualization of human identity leading me to give my sexual consciousness and instincts broader leeway for expression? Do I recognize males and females possessing particular genius from God, invaluable as an integral–but not overriding–part of one’s complex, unique human dignity? Have I supported sexuality as a buttress for the meaning of the family? (Here, think … does one modify definitions of families or communities in ways that can erode their key strengths? do we want the best for each person regardless of their sexual orientation?)
  • Am I properly grappling with fundamental concerns like the plights of hunger and poverty around the world and in my own town? Am I sensitive to the unjust gaps in income, education, and empowerment which negate everyone’s equality in God’s eyes? Do I see this problem’s connection to violations of the right to life from womb to tomb? (Here, think … can one raise awareness by citing how these gaps have shown themselves in the pandemic, in war and violence, in short-sighted solutions?)
  • Despite a moral dissatisfaction with the status quo, do I live a life of forgiveness and humility? Am I standing against bitterness, anger, demonization, and a violent spirit, or am I leaning toward these tendencies? (Here, think … does assuaging social guilt through a display of righteousness indicate laziness or hypocrisy? does the removal of God from one’s moral system still leave room for forgiveness? can the Church be an instrument for protecting democratic freedoms with classical liberal thought?)

Pope Francis recently addressed an urgent need of the world by coupling his Marian consecration of Russia and Ukraine to introductory statements–ultimately, an examination of conscience to rend and galvanize humanity’s heart.

It seemed right and just for us to pause for this cross-examination before seeking the Lord’s healing mercy and acting upon the loving wake-up calls Our Lady has sent to us. Her promises and prophecies during apparitions are often quite specific, and she asks that we consider and act upon particular things.

Thus, we can smile about the notions of sin-scans and action plans as discussed at the start of this blog post, but there is something valuable about specificity, focus, and rigor that keep our spiritual lives relevant. We are not called to be the Pharisees who obsessed about every detail of multitudinous laws. But our Church is an enduring champion for right ways to do things–and generations of kids from Catholic schools have grown up with an advantage in professions where clear, community-minded assessments and effective, responsible performance are essential.

This decade seems to be starting out in an especially messy way, and the Church can help straighten things out. There is clearly much she can do to wield her virtuous influence, but, as the imaginary human resources manager mentioned earlier in this post knew, everyone must bear their load so we can avoid slippery slopes in our own life and in our shared mission.

We should continue to ask the Lord to bless our mess. But, as Pope Francis showed when he preceded his Marian consecration with a poignant global statement of contrition, we must accept consistent responsibility for the messes we help to make as individuals and in groups. We should be sure, with Our Lord’s and Our Lady’s help, to avoid messing up the blessings that are the reason for our hope as individual Christians and as local and global communities entrusted as our brothers’ keepers.

About Bill Schmitt

OnWord.net is the home for Bill Schmitt's blog and biographical information. This blog, initiated during Bill's nearly 14 years as a communications professional at Notre Dame, expresses Bill's opinions alone. Go to "About Bill Schmitt" and "I Link, Therefore I Am" to see samples of multimedia content I'm producing now and have produced during my journalism career and my marketing communications career. Like me at facebook.com/wgschmitt, follow me on Twitter @wschmitt, and meet "bill schmitt" on LinkedIn.
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