In the seventh chapter of his gospel, St Luke writes: 'One of the Pharisees invited him to a meal; so he went into the Pharisee's house and took his place at the table.' At this point a woman, who is known publicly in the city as a sinner, arrives and comes up to wash the feet of Jesus who, in keeping with the customs of the time, is eating in a reclined position. The woman's tears are the water for this washing of feet which is so moving; her hair, the towel for drying them. With ointment poured from a fine alabaster jar, she anoints the Master's feet, and she kisses them.
The Pharisee thinks badly of this. He cannot imagine that Jesus could have so much mercy in his heart. 'If this man were a prophet,' he thinks to himself, 'he would know who and what manner of woman this is.' Jesus reads his thoughts and explains to him: 'Do you see this woman? I came into your house and you gave me no water for my feet; she has washed my feet with her tears, and wiped them with her hair. You gave me no kiss of greeting; she, from the moment she entered, has never ceased to kiss my feet. You did not pour oil on my head; she has anointed my feet, and with ointment. And so I tell you, great sins have been forgiven her, for she has greatly loved.'
We cannot pause now to consider the divine marvels of Our Lord's most merciful Heart. Instead let us turn our attention to another aspect of the scene, to the way Jesus notices the omission of the expression of human courtesy and refinement which the Pharisee failed to show him. Christ is perfectus Deus, perfectus homo. He is perfect God, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, and perfect man. He comes to save, not to destroy nature. It is from him that we learn that it is unchristian to treat our fellow men badly, for they are creatures of God, made to his image and likeness.
There is a certain type of secularist outlook that one comes across, and also another approach which one might call 'pietistic', both of which share the view that Christians somehow are not fully and entirely human. According to the former, the demands of the Gospel are such as to stifle our human qualities; whereas for the latter, human nature is so fallen that it threatens and endangers the purity of the faith. The result, either way, is the same. They both fail to grasp the full significance of Christ's Incarnation, they do not see that 'the Word was made flesh', became man, 'and dwelt amongst us'.
My experience as a man, as a Christian and as a priest, teaches me just the opposite. There is no human heart, no matter how deeply immersed in sin, which does not conceal, like embers among the ashes, a flicker of nobility. Whenever I have sounded out such hearts, talking to them individually with the words of Christ, they have always responded.
In this world of ours there are many people who neglect God. It may be that they have not had an opportunity to listen to his words, or that they have forgotten them. Yet their human dispositions are honest, loyal, compassionate and sincere. I would go so far as to say that anyone possessing such qualities is ready to be generous with God, because human virtues constitute the foundation for the supernatural virtues.
It is true that in themselves such personal qualities are not enough, for no one is saved without the grace of Christ. But if a man fosters and cultivates the seeds of virtue within him, God will smooth out his path, and such a person will be able to become holy because he has known how to live as a man of good will.
You may perhaps have noticed other cases which are in a certain sense just the opposite; so many people who call themselves Christians because they have been baptised and have received other sacraments, but then prove to be disloyal and deceitful, insincere and proud, and… they fail to achieve anything. They are like shooting stars, lighting up the sky for an instant and then falling away to nothing.
If we accept the responsibility of being children of God, we will realise that God wants us to be very human. Our heads should indeed be touching heaven, but our feet should be firmly on the ground. The price of living as Christians is not that of ceasing to be human or of abandoning the effort to acquire those virtues which some have even without knowing Christ. The price paid for each Christian is the redeeming Blood of Our Lord and he, I insist, wants us to be both very human and very divine, struggling each day to imitate him who is perfectus Deus, perfectus homo.
I don't know if I could say which is the most important human virtue. It depends on the point of view from which they are considered. In any case, this question doesn't really get us anywhere, for it is not a matter of practising one or even a number of virtues. We have to try to acquire and to practise all of them. Each individual virtue is interwoven with the others and, thus, our effort to be sincere will also make us upright, cheerful, prudent and composed.
I am not convinced either when I hear people making a great distinction between personal and social virtues. No virtue worthy of its name can foster selfishness. Every virtue necessarily works to the good both of our own soul and to the good of those around us. We are all of us men and all likewise children of God, and we cannot think that life consists in building up a brilliant curriculum vitae or an outstanding career. Ties of solidarity should bind us all and, besides, in the order of grace we are united by the supernatural bond of the Communion of Saints.
At the same time, we must bear in mind that decision making and responsibility derive from the personal freedom of each individual. Virtues are therefore also radically personal, they pertain to the person. Nevertheless, in this great battle of love no one fights alone. None of us, I like to say, is a floating line of verse. In some way we are always either helping or hindering each other. We are all links in the same chain. Join with me now in asking Our Lord to grant that this chain may anchor us to his Heart until that day comes when we shall contemplate him face to face for ever in Heaven.
Let us now consider some of these human virtues. While I am talking I would like you, on your own, to keep up a conversation with Our Lord. Ask him to help us all, to encourage us to penetrate more deeply today into the mystery of his Incarnation, so that we too, in our own flesh, may learn how to give living witness to our fellow men of him who has come to save us.
No man, whether he be a Christian or not, has an easy life. To be sure, at certain times it seems as though everything goes as we had planned. But this generally lasts for only a short time. Life is a matter of facing up to difficulties and of experiencing in our hearts both joy and sorrow. It is in this forge that man can acquire fortitude, patience, magnanimity and composure.
The person with fortitude is one who perseveres in doing what his conscience tells him he ought to do. He does not measure the value of a task exclusively by the benefit he receives from it, but rather by the service he renders to others. The strong man will at times suffer, but he stands firm; he may be driven to tears, but he will brush them aside. When difficulties come thick and fast, he does not bend before them. Remember the example given us in the book of the Machabees: an old man, Eleazar, prefers to die rather than break God's law. 'By manfully giving up my life now, I will show myself worthy of my old age and leave to the young a noble example of how to die a good death willingly and nobly for the revered and holy laws.'
The man who knows how to be strong will not be in a hurry to receive the reward of his virtue. He is patient. Indeed it is fortitude that teaches us to appreciate the human and divine virtue of patience. '"By your patience you will gain possession of your souls." (Luke 21:19) The possession of the soul is attributed to patience, which in effect is the root and guardian of all the virtues. We secure possession of our souls through patience, for, by learning to have dominion over ourselves, we begin to possess that which we are.' And it is this very patience that moves us to be understanding with others, for we are convinced that souls, like good wine, improve with time.
We have to be strong and patient and, therefore, calm and composed, but not with the composure of the man who buys his own tranquillity at the expense of ignoring his brothers or neglecting the great task (which falls to us all) of tirelessly spreading good throughout the world. We can keep calm because there is always forgiveness and because there is a solution for everything, except death; and for the children of God, death is life. We must try to keep our peace, even if only so as to act intelligently, since the man who remains calm is able to think, to study the pros and cons, to examine judiciously the outcome of the actions he is about to undertake. He then plays his part calmly and decisively.
I have been briefly reviewing some of the human virtues. I have no doubt that, as you pray to Our Lord, many others will spring to mind. I would like to pause now for a few moments to consider that wonderful quality which is magnanimity.
Magnanimity means greatness of spirit, a largeness of heart wherein many can find refuge. Magnanimity gives us the energy to break out of ourselves and be prepared to undertake generous tasks which will be of benefit to all. Small-mindedness has no home in the magnanimous heart, nor has meanness, nor egoistic calculation, nor self-interested trickery. The magnanimous person devotes all his strength, unstintingly, to what is worthwhile. As a result he is capable of giving himself. He is not content with merely giving. He gives his very self. He thus comes to understand that the greatest expression of magnanimity consists in giving oneself to God.
There are two human virtues, industriousness and diligence, which merge into one, for they both help us in our efforts to make good use of the talents we have each received from God. They are virtues because they lead us to finish things properly. As I have been preaching since 1928, work is not a curse; nor is it a punishment for sin. Genesis had already spoken about the fact of work before ever Adam rebelled against God. According to Our Lord's plans work was to be a permanent feature of man who, through work, would cooperate in the immense task of creation.
A hardworking person makes good use of time, for time is not only money, it is glory, God's glory! He does as he ought and concentrates on what he is doing, not out of routine nor to while away the passing hours, but as the result of attentive and pondered reflection. This is what makes a man diligent. Our everyday usage of this word 'diligent' already gives us some idea of its Latin origin. 'Diligent' comes from the verb diligo, which means to love, to appreciate, to choose something after careful consideration and attention. The diligent man does not rush into things. He does his work thoughtfully and lovingly.
Our Lord, perfect man in every way, chose a manual trade and carried it out attentively and lovingly for almost the entirety of the years he spent on this earth. He worked as a craftsman among the other people in his village. This human and divine activity of his shows us clearly that our ordinary activities are not an insignificant matter. Rather they are the very hinge on which our sanctity turns, and they offer us constant opportunities of meeting God, and of praising him and glorifying him through our intellectual or manual work.
In order to practise the human virtues, we need to make a sustained effort, since it is not easy to maintain a spirit of honesty and integrity for any length of time when faced with situations that seem to put our own safety at risk. Take truthfulness, a virtue so clean and pure. Can it be true that it has fallen into disuse? Has the practice of compromise, of 'gilding the pill' and 'putting on a show' finally triumphed? People are afraid of the truth and to justify their attitude they make the shabby excuse that no one practises or tells the truth any more, that everyone has to resort to pretence and lies.
Fortunately this is not so. There are many people, Christians or not, who are ready to sacrifice honour and reputation for the sake of the truth, people who aren't always feverishly turning this way and that in search of 'the warmest place in the sun'. These are the very people who, because they love the truth, are happy to put things right when they discover they have made a mistake; whereas those who begin by lying, those for whom the truth has become merely a high-sounding word to cover up their baseness, such people refuse to make amends.
If we are truthful we will practise justice. I could go on talking about justice and never tire, but here we can only outline a few of its characteristics, bearing in mind that the purpose of the considerations I have been making is to build a real and genuine interior life upon the deep foundations of the human virtues. Justice means giving to each his due. I would however go further and say that this is not enough. However much a particular person is due, we must be ready to give him more, because each single soul is a masterpiece of God's making.
The best way of living charity lies in generously outstripping the demands made on us by justice. Such charity will generally go unnoticed, but it is very fruitful in heaven and indeed also on earth. It would be a mistake to think that when expressions such as 'the happy mean' or 'a just mean' are used regarding the moral virtues, they imply mediocrity, or somehow aiming at doing half of what we could do. The mean we are asked to aim at lies midway between excess and defect, and is in fact a summit, a peak: the best course of action, as indicated to us by prudence. Though when it comes to the theological virtues, there is no middle course. We cannot believe, or hope, or love too much. We are called to love God without limit, with a love that overflows to those around us in an abundance of generosity, understanding and charity.
Temperance is self-mastery. Not everything we experience in our bodies and souls should be given free rein. Nor ought we to do everything we can do. It is easier to let ourselves be carried away by so-called natural impulses; but this road ends up in sadness and isolation in our own misery.
Some people don't want to deny anything to their stomach, eyes, or hands. They refuse to listen when they are advised to lead clean lives. As for the faculty of generating new life — a great and noble faculty, a participation in God's creative power — they misuse it and make it a tool for their own selfish ends.
But I never did like talking about impurity. I would rather consider the rich rewards that temperance brings. I want to see men who are really men, and not slaves to cheap glitter, as worthless as the trinkets that magpies gather. A manly person knows how to do without those things that may harm his soul and he also comes to realise that his sacrifice is more apparent than real; for living this way, with a spirit of sacrifice, means freeing oneself from many kinds of slavery and savouring instead, in the depths of one's heart, the fullness of God's love.
Life then takes on again shades and tones which intemperance had tended to blur. We find ourselves able to care for the needs of others, to share what is ours with everyone, to devote our energies to great causes. Temperance makes the soul sober, modest, understanding. It fosters a natural sense of reserve which everyone finds attractive because it denotes intelligent self control. Temperance does not imply narrowness, but greatness of soul. There is much more deprivation in the intemperate heart which abdicates from self-dominion only to become enslaved to the first caller who comes along ringing some pathetic, tinny cow bell.
'The wise heart will be reckoned prudent,' we read in the book of Proverbs. We would have a mistaken idea of prudence if we thought it faint hearted or lacking in daring. Prudence expresses itself as a habit which inclines us to act well, by shedding light on the end and by helping us to seek the most suitable means of achieving it.
But prudence does not stand highest in the scale of values. We should ask ourselves always: prudence, for what? For there is a false kind of prudence (cunning would be a better name for it) which is at the service of selfishness and is expert in using the best means to achieve warped ends. In such circumstances, cleverness and perspicacity only serve to worsen one's dispositions and to bring upon oneself the reproach St Augustine made in one of his sermons: 'Are you trying to bend the heart of God, which is always upright, so that it may fall in with the perversity of yours?' This is the false prudence of the person who thinks his own efforts are quite sufficient to save him. 'Do not seek to consider yourselves prudent,' says St Paul, 'for it is written, I will destroy the wisdom of the wise and the prudence of the prudent.'
St Thomas points out three aspects of this good habit of the intellect. They are: to seek advice, to judge correctly and to decide. To be prudent the first step is to acknowledge our own limitations. This is the virtue of humility. Through it, we admit that in certain matters we cannot cover everything, that in so many cases we cannot take in all the circumstances that have to be borne in mind in order to make a fair judgement. So, we look for advice; but not from just anyone. We go to a person with the right qualities, to someone who wants to love God as sincerely as we do and who tries to follow him faithfully. It is not enough to ask just anyone for their opinion. We must go to a person who can give us sound and disinterested advice.
Next we have to judge, because as a rule, prudence demands that we come to a suitable decision, and promptly. Though at times it is prudent to delay a decision until all the factors that should influence our judgement have been brought together, on other occasions it would be very imprudent not to begin to carry out immediately what we see needs to be done. This is specially true when the good of others is at stake.
Such wisdom of the heart, such prudence will never become the prudence of the flesh that St Paul speaks of, the prudence of those who are intelligent but try not to use their intelligence to seek and love Our Lord. A truly prudent person is ever attentive to God's promptings and, through this vigilant listening, he receives in his soul the promise and reality of salvation: 'I glorify thee, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for having hidden these things from the wise and prudent and revealed them to little ones.'
Wisdom of the heart guides and governs many other virtues. Through prudence, a man learns to be daring without being rash. He will not make excuses (based on hidden motives of indolence) to avoid the effort involved in living wholeheartedly according to God's plans. The temperance of the prudent man is not insensitive or misanthropic; his justice is not harsh nor is his patience servile.
A person is prudent not because he never makes a mistake, but because he corrects his errors. He shows his prudence in preferring to miss the mark twenty times rather than give in to an easygoing 'do nothing' attitude. He won't rush into things foolishly or behave with absurd rashness. He will run the risk of his decisions. Fear of failure will not make him give up in his effort to do good. As we go through life we find ourselves coming across people who are objective and know how to weigh things up, who don't get heated or try to tip the balance towards that which favours them. Almost instinctively, we find ourselves trusting such people, because, unassumingly and quietly, they always act in a good and upright manner.
This open-hearted virtue is indispensable for Christian living. But the highest goal of prudence is not social harmony or the peace which results from not creating friction. The fundamental motive behind prudence is to fulfil the will of God who wants us to be straightforward without being childish, friends of truth but never bewildered or superficial. 'The prudent heart shall possess knowledge', the knowledge given by God's Love, that ultimate knowledge which can save us and bring to all creation the reward of peace and understanding and, to each soul, eternal life.
We have been speaking about human virtues. Now perhaps some of you might wonder: if I behave in this way, will it not involve cutting myself off from my normal environment? Isn't it something alien to the everyday world? No. Nowhere is it written that Christians should be strangers to the world. Our Lord Jesus by his deeds and by his teaching has bestowed praise on another human virtue which is particularly dear to me, the virtue of naturalness or simplicity.
Remember how Our Lord comes into the world, just like every other human being. He spends his childhood and adolescence in a village in Palestine, where he is no different from his fellow villagers. Time and again in his public life we hear echoes of his everyday existence in Nazareth. He speaks about work. He is concerned to see that his disciples rest. He makes a point of meeting people of every sort and never refuses to talk with anyone. To his followers he expressly indicates that they should not hinder children from coming to him. Recalling perhaps memories of his own childhood he uses the example of the children playing in the marketplace.
Surely all this is quite normal, natural and straightforward? Surely it can be lived in ordinary life? What happens is that people tend to get used to what is plain and ordinary and, without realising it, they begin to look for what is showy and artificial. You will have come across examples of this, as I have, as when for instance you remark on the beauty of some freshly cut roses, with delicately fragrant petals, and someone comments 'They look so perfect, they must be artificial!'
Naturalness and simplicity are two marvellous human virtues which enable men to take in the message of Christ. On the other hand, all that is tangled and complicated, the twisting and turning about one's own problems, all this builds up a barrier which often prevents people from hearing Our Lord's voice. Remember Christ's reproach to the Pharisees: they had enmeshed themselves in a maze-ridden world which made them pay tithes of mint, dill and cumin, while neglecting the most essential duties of the law, of justice and of faith. They were careful to strain everything they drank so as not to let even a mosquito pass, and they ended up swallowing a camel.
No. Neither the decent human lives of those who, through no fault of their own, do not know Christ, nor the lives of Christians, should be odd or strange. The human virtues which we are considering today lead us, each and every one of them, to the same conclusion. That man is truly human who strives to be truthful, loyal, sincere, courageous, temperate, generous, serene, just, hard-working, patient. Such behaviour may be difficult to achieve, but it can never be strange. If some people find it surprising, it is because their eyes have grown dim and they are clouded by a hidden cowardice and a lack of determination.
Once a person is striving to improve in the human virtues, his heart is already very close to Christ. If he is a Christian, he will realise that the theological virtues (faith, hope and charity) and all the other virtues which God's grace brings with it are an encouragement never to neglect the good qualities he shares with so many of his fellow men.
The human virtues are, I insist, the foundation for the supernatural ones. These in turn provide us with constant encouragement to behave as good human beings. In either case, it is not sufficient merely to want to have these virtues. We have to learn how to practise them. Discite benefacere, learn to do good. We need to make a habit of exercising each virtue, by actually being sincere, truthful, balanced, calm and patient… for love is proved by deeds and we cannot love God only by word, but 'with deeds and in truth'.
When a Christian fights to acquire these virtues, his soul is preparing to receive the grace of the Holy Spirit fruitfully. In this way his good human qualities are strengthened by the motions of the Paraclete in his soul. The Third Person of the Blessed Trinity, the soul's sweet guest, pours out his gifts: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety and the fear of the Lord.
Then one experiences joy and peace, a joyous peace, an interior rejoicing that goes hand in hand with the human virtue of cheerfulness. At the very moment when everything seems to be collapsing before our eyes, we realise that quite the opposite is true, 'because you, Lord, are my strength'. If God is dwelling in our soul, everything else, no matter how important it may seem, is accidental and transitory, whereas we, in God, stand permanent and firm.
Through the gift of piety, the Holy Spirit helps us to realise with certainty that we are children of God. And, being children of God, how can we be sad? Sadness is the end product of selfishness. If we truly want to live for God, we will never lack cheerfulness, even when we discover our errors and wretchedness. Cheerfulness finds its way into our life of prayer, so much so that we cannot help singing for joy. For we are in love, and singing is a thing that lovers do.
If we live our lives in this way, we shall be bringing peace to the world. We shall be making God's service attractive to others, because 'God loves a cheerful giver'. Christians are ordinary people, but their hearts overflow with the joy that comes when we set out to fulfil, with the constant help of grace, the will of the Father. Christians don't see themselves as victims, underrated, or restricted in their behaviour. They walk head on high, because they are men and children of God.
Our faith brings out the full meaning of these human virtues, which no one should ever neglect. Christians should be second to none as human beings. Those who follow Christ are able (not by their own merit but by the grace of God) to communicate to those around them what they at times suspect but cannot quite grasp: that true happiness, a genuine spirit of serving our neighbour, can only come by passing through the Heart of our Redeemer, perfectus Deus, perfectus homo.
Let us turn to Mary, our Mother, and the most excellent creature ever fashioned by God's hands. Let us ask her to make us humanly good so that our human virtues, woven into the life of grace, may become our best way of helping those who, with us, are working in the world to bring peace and happiness to all men.