Recently, the Congregation for Causes of Saints issued the decree concerning the “heroic virtues” of then-Servant of God Paul VI. The decree has now been promulgated by the Roman Pontiff. Thus, we may now call Paul VI “Venerable”.
What was at issue in the cause for beatification of Paul VI. Since Pope Paul was not martyred, the process was construed to determine if Paul VI lived a life of “heroic virtue”.
Some people in discussion under another entry are saying things such as “Paul issued Humanae vitae! That sure was heroic! I’d canonize him for that!”
“Heroic virtue” and doing heroic things are not the same.
“But Father! But Father!”, some of you are about to say. “Heroic virtue? Really? How can any of us aspire to such a thing! That’s sounds terribly difficult!”
It isn’t easy, but it is possible.
We are all called to be saints. God wouldn’t ask something of us that isn’t possible. And when He asks things that are hard, He also provides the means and the occasions.
Even in your suffering, for example, or your obscurity, you can serve Him in a holy way. God knew you before the creation of the material universe. He called you into being now, in this world. Of all the possible worlds God could have created, He created this world, into which you would be born. He has a plan and purpose your you, if you will embrace it.
Back to a virtuous life lived in a “heroic” way.
Perhaps we should spend just a moment on what “heroic” virtue is all about. It sounds dramatic and, frankly, unattainable by most people.
The term “heroic” comes from Greek (heros). It points to valor, courage. The term “heroic virtue” came into the west with a translation of Aristotle’s Nicomacheam Ethics by Robert Grossatesta (+1253). From there it was brought into the the writings of scholastic philosophers, such as St. Thomas Aquinas. It was more fully elaborated by the amazing Prospero Lambertini, who was elected Pope and took the name Benedict XIV. After that, it became a common term when dealing with saints and causes of saints.
The supreme “heroic” Christian is the martyr, who especially in the moment of martyrdom exemplifies the charity that the Lord taught from the Cross. So, that is a precise act of a Christian. In the moment of true martyrdom, the martyr is said to manifest Christian virtues in a heroic way.
But “heroic” can also be applied to a large arc of a Christian’s life.
Every person is called to live in union with the Trinity, in charity. In this life, we can only strive to live this way. Only in the next life will we truly attain what we were called to. Nevertheless, this life is what we have now. By baptism we became members of Christ and temples of the Holy Spirit, the adopted children of the Father. We can begin to live the life of charity and other virtues now, to the best degree we can with the help of God’s grace. It takes both, our elbow grease (we are not Quietists) and God’s grace (we are not Pelagians).
We live in this fallen world, in this vale of tears, with wounds to our intellects and will, constantly dealing with the world, the flesh and the devil. We are called to holiness. We are actually called to holiness in a heroic degree. Let’s understand “heroic” properly.
The “heroism” to which we are called does not consist mainly in great or famous or dramatic acts or accomplishments. It might include those, but it does not mainly consist of those. Every person has the possibility of this sort of heroism, even if he does nothing spectacular. When it comes to the causes of saints, very often people with more dramatic or famous lives comes to the attention of others, and therefore they are more likely to be the subjects of causes.
Living a virtuous life even in the tedium of routine or the obscurity of everyday living can be heroic.
Accepting God’s will, living in conformity with God’s will is the true test of a Christian. That is the essence of “heroic” virtue, not what appears outwardly to be heroic (though that may also be heroic, as in the dramatic case of the martyr).
Furthermore, people don’t, except by a rare gift from God, instantly or easily attain the state of living a life of virtue heroically. Virtues are habits. Some virtues, the theological virtues, are infused into us by God with baptism and sacraments. They “dwell” in us “habitually” (“dwell” and “habit” are etymologically related… think of a “habitat” where critters “dwell”). Virtues are habits, good practices and attitudes which are in us to a degree that it is easy for us to do them rather than hard. This usually takes time and maturity. We don’t suddenly, except by a special grace, become virtuous. It can take a whole lifetime and many stumbles along the way.
With God’s help we must strive in the concrete details of our lives to avoid faults and even small imperfections, even if we don’t always succeed. We have to want to succeed and try to succeed and make progress, not giving in to discouragement or, worse, despair, accepting God’s will and going forward with humility. Do we have to actually make progress in worldly terms? More on that below.
All the circumstances of our lives play a role in our living as Christians. Each one of us is born into a particular time and place. God gives different gifts to different people. There is no one way to live as a Christian, except for the common calling to holiness. We cannot be, however, content with mere mediocrity.
So, heroic virtue consists mainly in living in the state of grace, hating sin and imperfections and striving to overcome them while carrying out one’s vocation, always accepting God’s will with faith, hope and charity as we go forward during these short years on earth toward the goal of heaven, trusting that God’s providence guides all things. This life may have moments which are dramatic and famous. It will probably be rather plain and obscure. But it is not mediocre.
Those are some thoughts about “heroic virtue”, so that when you hear the term, you don’t fall into the trap of assuming that the person in question was working miracles while alive, or was going without food in a cave for thirty years, or levitating off the ground at the mention of the Holy Name.
There seems to be a development over the last few decades in what the Congregation accepts as “heroic virtue”. There seems to be a less and less strong connection between the person’s actual accomplishments according to his “state in life”, with the life of virtue lived in a heroic way.
Some will scratch their heads saying, “But Father! Maybe Paul was personally holy, and he prayed and was sincere, but can he have lived a life of heroic virtue if he wasn’t a very good Pope?”
In trying to make sense of this, in connection with Paul VI and what seems to many to be a lack of positive accomplishments according to his state in life, perhaps we have to take more and more seriously the circumstances in which he was Bishop of Rome.
I don’t have an answer to this difficulty right now. I have been thinking about it for a while. One of the things I ponder: Given what happened on Paul’s watch, did he exercise in a heroic way the virtue of Prudence? Prudence is one of the Cardinal Virtues. Prudence is said to marshal, guide, other virtues. Paul was faced with many difficult circumstances in which he had to make prudential judgments. I think he made a lot of decisions which, in the long term, proved not to be so good. Had he done something else, would things have turned out better? Even worse? Must we only say a person lived a heroically virtuous life if what he did in life turned out well?
However, something that Pope Benedict said about the role of the Holy Spirit in a conclave or council comes back to tickle my thought process. Ratzinger said that the role of the Holy Spirit in those special situation was not so much to elect the Pope or write the Council documents Himself. Rather, the Holy Spirit guarantees that whomever or whatever we choose isn’t a total disaster.
Another thing I ponder in light of this question is of a personal anecdotal nature. Whenever I bless a car, very soon after it seems to be involved in an accident. Thus, I always warn people that, if I bless the car, they had better have good insurance. On one occasion a woman came back to me to tell me, of course, that she had been in an accident. She added, “Think how bad it would have been if you hadn’t blessed the car!”
Somewhere in these questions and points and anecdotes may lie a way through what the Congregation for Causes of Saints (and Popes) are doing these days with the concept of “heroic virtue”.
I spent time with officials of the Congregation when I did their Studium some years ago. These guys were super-prepared, not just well-prepared. They were reliable. The shift in “heroic virtue” still leaves me turning around on my own axis, but I am slowly getting oriented.