During his talk to the Curia before Christmas, our Dear Holy Father Francis, in the spirit of the Desert Fathers, gave the Roman Curia and the whole Church a catalogue of spiritual illnesses that may afflict us. Like the seven ‘deadly’ sins they can be a source of real disorder in our spiritual life if not attended to. He listed 15 of them and invited the members of the Curia and all of us to use them as an examination of conscience. They go way beyond the Ten Commandments to hit at the root of so many evils that haunt the human heart. It would be impossible to describe each in detail so I summarized them in the form of questions that you can pose to your heart. The words in quotes are from the Holy Father’s talk unless noted.*
1. Do I feel that I am indispensable, superior to others? Do I suffer from pathology of power and narcissism? Pope Francis says, “An ordinary visit to cemeteries would help us to see the names of so many persons, some of whom thought they were immortal, immune and indispensable!… The antidote to this epidemic is the grace to see ourselves as sinners…”
2. Do I suffer from “Martha-ism” – immersing myself in work, neglecting “the better part” (to be seated at Jesus’ feet), and neglecting family and necessary rest? Pope Francis suggests “…spending some time with relatives and (in) respecting holidays as moments for spiritual and physical recharging…” This is why God gave us the Sabbath!
3. Do I suffer from “mental and spiritual petrification” - a stiff-neck and a hard heart? Have I lost the ability to sympathize and rejoice with others? Am I “incapable of loving unconditionally the Father and my neighbor…to have the same sentiments that were in Christ Jesus…humility … self-giving… detachment and generosity.” An old song by Joe Wise says it well: “Lord, give me a heart of flesh to hear Your words, Your love; I’ve had a heart of stone for so long.”
4. Do I suffer from excessive planning and organization, wanting to control even the Holy Spirit, getting upset if things don’t go according to my plan? Pope Francis says, “One falls into this sickness because it is always easier and more comfortable to settle down in one’s own static and unchanging positions. In reality, the Church shows herself faithful to the Holy Spirit in the measure in which she does not have the pretext of regulating or domesticating Him…” The Irish call the Holy Spirit ‘the Loose Goose.’
5. Do I suffer from bad coordination: instead of collaborating with others to bring about communion and team work I feel I can do it better myself? It is “When the foot says to the arm: ‘I have no need of you,’ or the hand to the head: ‘I command,’ thus causing harm and scandal.” There is always the temptation, ‘to go it alone’ stemming from pride in our own abilities.
6. Do I suffer from “spiritual Alzheimer’s disease: namely the forgetfulness of the ‘history of Salvation,’ of one’s personal history with the Lord, of one’s ‘first love’ (Revelation 2:4)?” Have I lost my remembrance of God and live in the prison of my own individuality, depending on self alone, forgetting His Providence?
7. Do I suffer from the desire to appear great in the eyes of others? "...forgetting Saint Paul’s words: ‘Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves.’(Philippians 2:1-4)” It takes a long time to root out pride and realize that God is everything and we are nothing, but a loved nothing.
8. Do I suffer from “the sickness of existential schizophrenia? Do I live a double life full of hypocrisy and mediocrity? Do I appear outwardly as a Christian but ‘live a hidden and often dissolute life?’ Conversion is all the more urgent and indispensable for this very serious sickness.” Jesus gave a harsh description of these people – ‘whited sepulchers!’
9. Do I suffer from gossiping and grumbling? Pope Francis says this “is a grave sickness that begins simply…then it takes hold of the person making him become a ‘sower of discord’ (like Satan), and in many cases ‘murderer in cold blood’ of the reputation of his colleagues…. It is the sickness of guarded persons who, (do not have) the courage to speak directly…beware of the terrorism of gossip!” St. James warns us about the tongue; it is like the rudder of the whole ship, directing our lives.
10. Do I suffer from “the sickness of divinizing directors” courting the boss for favors? We have common term for this – brown-nosing. “They are victims of careerism and of opportunism; they honor persons and not God.” It can go the other way when bosses court their colleagues to get their submission and dependence leading to an unhealthy complicity. I’m sure none of us has ever seen this in the workplace.
11. Do I suffer from indifference to others: thinking only of myself, failing to nurture human relationships? Pope Francis says this leads to a hoarding of ones knowledge and expertise, refusing to share it with others who may need it. “When, because of jealousy or cunning, one feels joy in seeing the other fall instead of lifting him up again and encouraging him.” It sounds like climbing to the top on the backs of others.
12. Do I suffer from “the sickness of the mournful face …treating others, especially those regarded as inferior – with rigidity, harshness and arrogance?” The pope feels that this stems from one’s own insecurity. He says, “The apostle must force himself to be a courteous, serene, enthusiastic and joyful person who transmits joy wherever he is. A heart full of God is a happy heart that radiates and infects with joy all those around him…” There are no sad saints!!
13. Do I suffer from “the sickness of accumulating: when the apostle seeks to fill an existential void in his heart by accumulating material goods, not out of necessity but only to feel secure?” He humorously reminds us that “the shroud does not have pockets.” The problem of clutter plagues all of us and the bigger the house the more stuff we tend to accumulate. But stuff eats away at the time for prayer, family, rest and joy. Dorothy Day says that if you have three coats two of them belong to the poor.
14. Do I suffer from “the sickness of closed circles: where belonging to a little group becomes more important than that of belonging to the Body and, in some situations, to Christ himself.” Clicks and divisions in any group can become a “cancer” threatening “the harmony of the Body and causes so much evil – scandals – especially to our littlest brothers.’… as Christ says: ‘Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste’ (Luke 11:17).”
15. And the last one: do I suffer from the sickness of seeking worldly profit and power? Pope Francis says “It is the sickness of persons who seek insatiably to multiply powers and, for this purpose, they are capable of calumniating, defaming and discrediting others, even in newspapers and magazines… This sickness also does much evil to the body because it leads persons to justify the use of any means so long as they reach their purpose, often in the name of justice and of transparency.” Our newspapers are full of accounts of the effects of this illness on society.
In many Dioceses around the USA the program “The Light Is On for You” will be held during Lent. It is a day on which confessions will be heard in every church of the diocese for a period of time. The Holy Father has encouraged the initiative of “24 Hours for the Lord” and held a Penitential Service in St. Peter’s on March 13 at which time he himself went to confession. It is an effort to encourage people to make this step toward reconciliation with God, examining one’s life and turning from sin toward grace. You may want to use these questions gleaned from the Holy Father’s catalogue of “spiritual diseases” as your examination of conscience.
I close with the Holy Father’s encouraging words: “It is the Holy Spirit who supports every sincere effort of purification and every good will of conversion. He it is who makes us understand that every member participates in the sanctification of the Body and in its weakening.” May the Spirit help you know yourself, seek out God’s mercy in the sacrament of reconciliation sometime during Lent and lead you to do your part in strengthening the Body of Christ!
* Pope’s Address to the Roman Curia, www.vatican.va