Catholic News Service
Pope Gregory the Great once said, “The only true riches are those that make us rich in virtue. Therefore, if you want to be rich, beloved, love true riches. If you aspire to the heights of real honor, strive to reach the kingdom of heaven. If you value rank and renown, hasten to be enrolled in the heavenly court of the angels.”
Love true riches, he counseled. He doesn’t say to admire them or even think about them, but rather to love them. When you love something, it becomes a part of you. Loving virtue means more than thinking about it and more than admiring it. Loving virtue means incorporating it into who you are and what you do.
But what is virtue, really?
The Catechism of the Catholic Church gives us specifics when it comes to virtue. It says in No. 1803 that a “virtue is an habitual and firm disposition to do the good. It allows the person not only to perform good acts, but to give the best of himself. The virtuous person tends toward the good with all his sensory and spiritual powers; he pursues the good and chooses it in concrete actions.”
This definition is as beautifully woven as it is accurate. It shows the virtuous person as someone who gives the best of himself or herself out of a habitual and firm disposition.
In other words, good acts, for the virtuous person, are not a novelty or an occasional shift in behavior. For the virtuous person, good acts are part of that person.
We’re not talking about the “best version of yourself,” which can be a noble goal and for most people it is, from the aspect of self-improvement. The focus is on the self and making the self more appealing, capable, talented or personable (among any number of other adjectives).
However, virtue comes from an entirely different aspect. The focus of virtue is the other. The other, in this context, is God and our fellow brothers and sisters. As Christians, we strive to move constantly closer to God, to become more like Christ, and to serve others as Christ did during his journey in this world.
The catechism speaks of virtue as the tendency toward the good with all of our “sensory and spiritual powers.” In other words, virtuous people pursue the good with the mind, body and spirit. They put everything into it at all times.
Virtue is what keeps us yearning for and working toward heaven. Virtue is such an important element of our faith that the church, in the catechism, specifies prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance as “cardinal” virtues that play a pivotal role in our lives of faith, even though there are additional virtues.
First, prudence is the “practical reason to discern our true good.” Prudence is what helps us to make balanced and godly decisions. It’s what helps us to decide to use our freedom for God rather than against God.
Then we have justice, which, the catechism says, consists in “the constant and firm will to give their due to God and neighbor.” Justice helps us to establish and maintain harmonious human relationships and to work toward the common good.
Fortitude “ensures firmness in difficulties and constancy in the pursuit of the good.” Fortitude is what strengthens our resolve and helps us to resist temptations. It also helps us to face trials, fear, persecution and even death.
Temperance “moderates the attraction of pleasures and provides balance,” the catechism says. Temperance helps us control our appetites and avoid impulses and compulsions that can lead us away from God rather than toward him.
Of course, it’s easier to define than to live the virtues. But God gives us grace to sustain us in our efforts. We need only ask for that grace.
Fenelon is a author of “Imitating Mary: Ten Marian Virtues for the Modern Mom.”