Pope Francis, yesterday, issued a document by which he established a third iter or path for a process of beatification.
Hitherto, in processes for beatification, unless one is determined to have been a martyr, it has been necessary for a “Servant of God” (someone for whom a cause has been opened) to be shown through proofs (“documents, writings, interviews, etc.”) that he lived a life of “heroic virtue”. So, there were two main paths to beatification: martyrdom or the life of virtue, (which is almost a distinction without a difference, since the Church holds that in the moment of martyrdom, the martyr witnesses also to the virtues of the Christian Faith).
Now, there will be three main paths, the two aforementioned and also the path of “offer of life… oblatio vitae“.
(There are actually a couple more paths, which are uncommon. There are the rare historic cases which fall into a narrow band of years between legislated processes – St. Juan Diego, for example. There are also “equivalent” canonizations, which sort of ratify what the people of God have held over time, as in the case of St. Hildegard of Bingen, formally declared by Benedict XVI. These are not common.)
The criteria for oblatio vitae include: a) the free and willing offering of life and heroic acceptance propter caritatem of certain death and in a brief time limit; b) the exercise, at least in an ordinary degree, of the Christian virtues before the offering of life and, thereafter, until death. Again, this path describes a person who has during life been living a virtuous life, but in an ordinary rather than extraordinary and heroic way, who for true charity (properly understood as sacrificial love of God and neighbor exemplifying Christ’s own sacrificial love) performs some act which results in death in a short period of time and because of the act performed.
Of great importance in this new path is the necessity that it be shown that the person lived a virtuous life before the act of charity that lead to death, and that the act that resulted in death was performed from true charity properly understood.
After that, just as in the cases of martyrdom and of the life of heroic virtue, there must also be a reputation of sanctity and a miracle for beatification, etc., as in the other two paths.
This new document establishing the third path of oblatio vitae has resulted in some confusion, some of which I believe may stem from a lack of understanding of what the life of heroic virtue is. Clarifying that might help people understand what a life of ordinary virtue is.
Back in 2012 when Paul VI was declared “Venerable”, I wrote an explanation of “heroic virtue”.
Here is what I wrote (touched up and expanded):
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”. [Since then he was beatified in 2014.]
What was at issue in the cause for beatification of Paul VI. Since Pope Paul was not martyred, the formal process was undertaken 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. [SWAG HERE!] 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.
Effort and grace, both.
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. Don’t confuse “spectacular” with “hard” or “hard” with “spectacular” or “heroic” with “public”. Some situations in which we are called to exercise virtues can be very hard indeed, although they are not very “spectacular”, in the sense that they are highly visible or they require some amazing feat of daring do.
When it comes to the causes of saints, very often people with more dramatic or famous lives come 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, although it is more likely to be virtuous in a more ordinary way. That doesn’t mean that a life of ordinary virtue isn’t difficult! And depending on the circumstances it can also be heroic! Virtues are habits: they are “easy” for the person to perform even when the going get’s tough because they have become part and parcel of a person’s life.
Accepting God’s will, living in conformity with God’s will is the true test of a Christian. When the circumstances are especially challenging, that is the essence of “heroic” virtue, not what appears outwardly to be heroic, although 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.
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, “ordinary virtue” consists mainly in living habitually 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. A person does this well and promptly in the ordinary circumstances of life, even when hard, because they have the habits of doing these things. They are so ingrained, that they are done with a certain ease, even when it is challenging.
The virtuous Christian life may have moments which are dramatic and famous. It will probably be rather plain and obscure.
But it is not mediocre.
So, “heroic virtue” describes unusual control of passions, as well as readiness and ease of living well, beyond what is considered common. Benedict XIV (whose legislation and theology for causes remains at the heart of the modern processes for beatification and martyrdom) held that in the matter of heroic virtue the matter must also be difficult enough to bring out uncommon spiritual energy and the practice of the virtues and works must be unusually prompt, joyful, unhesitating and habitual.
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. Also, you don’t want to fall into the trap of thinking that the life of virtue, if not heroic, is “ordinary” in the sense of not very hard, humdrum, no big deal.
So that’s a touch up of what I wrote some years ago. I cut out some bits that would most certainly lead to rabbit holes of dimensions so great that they might suck in entire galaxies.
The moderation queue is ON.
FINALLY: Don’t forget to pray for miracles! If you don’t ask for them, they won’t be given.