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Virtue is a habit

Virtue is a habit, and Paul seemed to know that as he wrote to the Church in Philippi, while imprisoned, using himself as an example of a virtuous life in Christ. He was not bragging, but referring to the fact most Christians by that time knew of his exemplary life, how he remained virtuous and faithful through suffering and abuse. Even at a moment when his future life on earth was very much in doubt, he remained stalwart in his mission for Christ.

No wonder then, that the Catechism of the Catholic Church article on The Virtues begins with Paul instructing the Philippians to make a habit of thinking about and doing pure, honorable, virtuous, and praiseworthy things. (Philippians 4:8-9) A virtue is a deliberate habit of doing good. Virtues discussed in the catechism are listed in two groups: human and theological.

The human virtues are those things that guide our choices and steer our actions, and they come under four headings known as ‘cardinal virtues.’ Prudence is the virtue of right discernment. It is reason that guides and activates the conscience to make a judgment. Prudence leads to justice, which, as a virtue, can best be described as the great commandment: to love God completely and to show that love by the way we care for one another.

Paul also wrote a letter to Philemon, who was a wealthy slave owner and devout Christian living in Colossae. Slave ownership of the day was not seen in the same light as now, but was rather an accepted practice common to all known peoples in ancient times including the new Christians. The direct subject of the letter was a man named Onesimus, a slave who ran away from Philemon and ended up in jail with Paul, probably in Ephesus. It was there that he was converted to Christianity. Tradition has it that Paul sent the slave back to Colossae with his letter to the Church there and the letter to Philemon. Onesimus is believed to have risen in the ranks of the early Church leaders and eventually became the Bishop of Ephesus.

The short letter Paul wrote to Philemon was one of the most eloquent pleas ever credited to the saint. He praised the slave-owner for his commitment to teaching virtue as the way to life in Christ. Letting Philemon know he was pleading to his faithful intellect, Paul asked the man to accept Onesimus back in his household without punishment, and further, that he would acknowledge him as a free man and a Christian brother. Paul was stressing what he had written to the Galatians a few years earlier: there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, woman or man, but all are one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 4:28-29) This is the way in which prudence and justice prevail.

The other two cardinal virtues are fortitude and strength, and they mean just what the words say. These are the characteristics of courage, strength, moderation, and self-restraint. Together they aid in deflecting temptation and strengthening the determination to lead a moral life in Christ.

These very deliberate virtues are acquired, as the catechism points out, through education, purposeful acts, and always perseverance. They are enhanced by the graces poured forth from God through the salvation rendered to us by Jesus Christ. Continuing to practice the virtues adds strength onto strength. The catechism is very clear to assure the faithful that they will continue to grow in the grace of God by praying for his light and strength, by celebrating the sacraments frequently, and to hear and listen to the Holy Spirit’s guidance to love good and reject evil. (CCC#1811)

It should be a regular part of every Christian’s prayer to ask for God’s strength and light; this is the way, the truth, and the life in Christ. By frequenting the sacraments, we are of course referring primarily to Reconciliation and Eucharist. Baptized Catholics may receive other sacraments more than once, but for most, it isn’t common.

Reconciliation provides the opportunity for the individual to verbally express the human virtues to God through the priest-mediator. The sacrament allows the expression of that which we do, be it good or bad. Most especially, it gives the faithful a comfort and a blessing, and always the forgiveness of God.

The Eucharist is the center of our connection to God as a community of faith. The two-fold purpose of the ecclesiology of the Church is to commune and to spread the Gospel; the first gives the grace to do the second. According to the General Instruction of the Roman Missal #16, supported by The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy #10, this is the summit of life in Christ. Everything either flows from the Eucharist or returns to it.

These are the guides, the deliberate, discerned human thoughts and actions that bring us closer to God. Human virtues lead us to a moral, Christian life, but their roots go even deeper than that. They are directly connected to the theological virtues which govern our relationship with the Holy Trinity.

(To be continued)