When I was a little girl, I took swimming lessons at the municipal pool in the town near my farm home. The instructor was my older teenage cousin; actually, our dads were first cousins, but because we were related, she would always encourage me by saying, “Come on, cousin.” Naturally, I admired her and wanted to impress her.
Nonetheless, I could not bring myself to dive headfirst into that pool. The only thing I seemed to prove was that I was a big chicken. I was a kid with many fears. I was the one who was picked up early from slumber parties because I was scared to be away from home. The Halloween “spook house” at grade school terrified me, and I needed a night light because I was afraid of the dark.
So, how can I possibly reflect on fortitude, one of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, as it applies to my own cowardly life? I wonder, even now, if I have any more bravery than that little girl who feared so much.
Another name for fortitude is courage. The gifts of the Holy Spirit, conferred on us at the sacrament of confirmation, are first alluded to in Isaiah 11:2-3, and they describe the gifts that a Messiah will possess. Jesus, his face set toward Jerusalem, was a model of unstinting fortitude in the face of persecution and death.
The history of the church is replete with people whose fortitude amazes me. John the Baptist, facing Herod’s wrath, responded with unwavering courage. The apostles, who had no idea what they were getting themselves into when they responded in the affirmative to Jesus’ request to “follow me,” almost all died horrendous deaths in defense of their faith.
But one needn’t consult antiquity to find stories of fortitude. To me, the most impressive are those people who made a decision to stick around even when prudence and the world’s sense of practicality would have given them a good excuse to leave.
Father Stanley Rother, a young priest from Oklahoma, served impoverished indigenous people in Guatemala. When civil war erupted, he was threatened, and by 1981 his name was on a death squad’s list. He was given every opportunity to leave, yet after a sojourn in Oklahoma, he returned to the people he served and was martyred.
Likewise, Jesuit Father Frans van der Lugt refused to leave his people in Syria long after he knew his own life was in danger. He could so easily have accepted a transfer. But instead, in 2014, he was pulled from his home and the community center he ran in Homs and shot in the street.
The four Catholic churchwomen raped and murdered in El Salvador in 1980 present yet another example of the decision to stay faithful despite the threat of death. Jean Donovan, martyred there, said it was the children whom she couldn’t leave.
Would I ever have such fortitude? This kind of courage can only come from the Holy Spirit.
Sometimes, rather than choose the hard path, we are sent on a journey not of our choosing. Then, too, we ask the Holy Spirit’s help.
Perhaps the most oft-used phrase in Scripture is “fear not.” It’s not surprising why Scripture reminds us of this over and over because fear is such a common human response. Inside all of us is that child who is sometimes afraid of the dark.
But fortitude is a gift that we ask for repeatedly, a gift that we trust the Holy Spirit will give us when the time comes.
Caldarola is a freelance writer and a columnist for Catholic News Service.