February 25, 2014
Fortitude: Taking a Stand against Evil
In the annals of history, the 20
th century may well be remembered as the return of the age of martyrs. For the first three hundred years of Christianity, Christians courageously faced death rather than deny their faith. A quick survey of the vast expanse of the Church’s entire history, however, reveals the astonishing fact that 65% of all martyrs belong to the last century. As Pope John Paul II wrote, “In our own century, the martyrs have returned, many of them nameless, unknown soldiers as it were of God's great cause” (
Tertio Millenio Ineunte, 37).
Recent research confirms what the pope had said. According to the September 20, 2012 report of the Pew Research Center, 75% of the world's population “lives in countries where governments, social groups, or individuals restrict people's ability to freely practice their faith.” In countries such as Indonesia and Nigeria, where there are open hostilities against Christians, new restrictions on religion come as no shock. But, sadly, there is surprise and dismay as other countries such as Switzerland and the United States move in the direction of restricting the practice of religion.
In no country today can faithful Christians avoid either persecution for the faith or hostility towards it. Sometimes it is open; sometimes, subtle. Christians simply cannot escape today’s challenge to be a
martyr, that is, a
witness to the faith. Some are called to the ultimate witness of giving their lives for the sake of the Gospel. All of us are called to live in clear witness to the faith. In both instances, the virtue of fortitude is needed.
However, God does not abandon us in midst of today’s daunting challenges. He strengthens us in our weakness. He enlightens our intellect so that we know and understand what is morally good. He supports us and sustains us, strengthens us with fortitude, one of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, so that we are able to do what is morally right despite any opposition. When we face threats to our well-being or obstacles to block our good deeds, fortitude helps us overcome fear and allows us to act. It is the courage to live the Christian faith in its fullness, despite the hostility and derision that we face. Fortitude is not fearlessness. It is “not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear” (Nelson Mandela). The Christian can conquer fear through the power of the Holy Spirit.
Examples of courage crowd the pages of Sacred Scripture. Moses against Pharaoh. David against Goliath. Daniel in the lions’ den. Esther before the Persian king Ahasuerus. Stephen at his stoning. Peter and John before the Sanhedrin. Paul before Festus. The list could continue. History, too, does not lack its canon of martyrs for the truth. Thomas More before the English Parliament. Edith Stein before the Nazis. Rosa Parks on a Montgomery bus. Oscar Romero at the altar. Martin Luther King, Jr. in his pulpit. Some accepted death as the price of their fidelity to the truth. Others continued to live their lives in witness to the truth. In every one of them, fortitude was at work.
Fortitude is not the reckless abandon to expose oneself to danger or to death. No. It is the reasoned courage to stand up for the truth, justice, the dignity of the human person and the common good. It is the moral virtue that enables us to follow our rightly formed conscience, come what may. With the virtue of fortitude, given to us by the Holy Spirit, we can readily face danger, resolutely accept hardship and gladly suffer loss for the good of others. Those gifted with the virtue of fortitude love God and neighbor more than themselves. Morally courageous individuals are never selfish.
Although most of us may never be called to exercise the virtue of fortitude in a dramatic way, nonetheless, we are being called to exercise this virtue in the choices we make each day. As we live our faith and the moral teachings of Jesus, we face opposition and persecution. Fortitude makes us courageous enough to rise above apathy and complacency. It puts us on the path to action in face of the dangers that lie ahead. It does not make us shrink from the risk of marginalization, unpopularity and, even at times, the loss of a job or promotion.
Moral courage does not always roar. It is sometimes the gentle voice of conscience that makes us stand against the evils of our day. Many today advocate and agitate for radical social changes that clearly oppose the teaching of Jesus. As his faithful followers, we must speak the truth, uphold the dignity of each person (the poor and rich alike), defend life (from the moment of conception to the moment of natural death), embrace God’s plan for marriage and family life and stand for honesty in business, justice in politics and chastity in society. These are polarizing issues in our day. In some cases, “There are no easy answers but there are simple answers. We must have the courage to do what we know is morally right” (Ronald Reagan).
Fortitude empowers us to speak, even if our voice trembles. It enables us to act, even if alone. Fortitude does not guarantee that we will be successful at all times. But it does enable us to be faithful and courageous enough to stand against evil. And such moral courage is already the Holy Spirit’s victory over our fearful self.