By Fr. Benedict Groeschel, CFR
Plant deep within us, Lord, all the virtues, that we might be devout in divine matters, discerning in human affairs, and burdensome to no one in fulfilling our own bodily needs. (Prayer To Acquire The Virtues, St. Thomas Aquinas, 1225-1274.)
When we call Jesus, the “Example of Virtue” we mean that He was more than just a supremely virtuous man or a holy prophet. Nor is He the one who has so much virtue that He parcels it out to His saints. This term means that He is Virtue itself. All virtue flows from Him and finds maximum expression in Him. He is the source of every possible goodness in heaven and on earth and the standard by which all virtue can be judged. Even the cumulative holiness of all the saints, including the Virgin Mary, is nothing more than a spark from the raging bonfire of Christ’s Life, and it would be impossible for us to attain any virtue at all if He did not generously share His virtue with all who ask. More than even the greatest saints, the Lord Jesus inspires us to love virtue and gives us the grace to attain it in our lives. If staying close to truly virtuous people makes us want to be more virtuous, then closeness to Jesus makes us want to be Christ-like in virtue. That is the comprehensive meaning of His title, “Example of Virtue.”
As a priest for more than fifty years and a therapist for nearly as many, I have come to see that virtue is one of the most neglected areas of modern education, even in the Church. More to the point, I believe our contemporary world has simply replaced the practice of virtue with the practice of psychology which has a very schematic understanding of human virtue at best. But truly, those who ignore the teaching of virtue in schools and in Christian education are literally ignoring thousands of years of human wisdom, and without it the human race is tremendously impoverished. While not denying that psychology can at times help people, it has often provided new justifications for sin and has redefined as “neurotic” many behaviors that for centuries have been seen as virtuous. In short, psychology like everything else in the world needs a Savior, specifically, One who can bring virtue back to the center of human formation.
In the short space available to me here, it would impossible to describe the whole scheme of Theological, Cardinal, and Moral virtues of the Christian life. If you are interested in that, you may wish to look at my book called, The Virtue Driven Life, published by OSV in 2006, where I treat of these more extensively.
Those of us who have tried to develop virtue in our souls know how very difficult that project can be. The pagan philosophers used to say that if you want to know what virtue is, you only need to find a virtuous man to teach you. I have met thousands of truly virtuous people in my life and have learned virtue from these models more than from any book learning I have done. Nothing gives us as full a “picture” of virtue as the living-breathing-practicing virtuous person standing right in front of us and showing us the way to live. If “a picture speaks a thousand words,” then surely a virtuous life teaches a thousand lessons, and because the virtues come from God, we naturally learn from virtuous people even without their trying to show us anything. Their virtue teaches us how to be virtuous. We are naturally “programmed” by God to absorb their example.
Allow me to give one clear example of what I am getting at. In the 1980s I had the immense privilege of knowing Bishop John Walsh, the founder of the Maryknoll Order, before he died. As a missionary to the Far East he had languished in Chinese and Indian prisons for almost twenty years, but the astounding thing was that this man, who could have been so bitter about what he suffered, would never under any circumstances speak an uncharitable word about another person—including his tormentors. Even when he saw the disillusioning changes that were taking place in his beloved Maryknoll order, his critiques or comments were always directed to ideas and never toward people. I often wondered just how it was possible for a man to have such a spotless record of never speaking a critical word about anyone. Yet, the charity that exuded from him overflowed into my soul because he showed me exactly what true Christian charity looks like. Despite my own deficiency in this virtue, knowing him made me want to be more charitable every day.
Virtue is the substance of good living and the essence of Christianity. Are you struggling to live a virtuous life? Are there virtues you need in order to manage a difficult situation? Let us not hesitate to ask Jesus Christ for everything we need! If I could be so bold, I would say that Jesus’ greatest virtue is His desire to share all Virtue with those who ask.
O heavenly Source of everything that is good, Jesus Christ, “Example of Virtue,” grant to us the overwhelming grace of virtue and the desire to live as You have asked. Give to our virtue the radiance of the saints so that we may touch many souls and lead them to Your Kingdom where You live with the Father and the Holy Spirit, forever and ever. Amen.
[Excerpted from: Fr. Benedict Groeschel, Jesus and Mary: In Praise of their Glorious Names, Our Sunday Visitor, Inc.: Huntington, Indiana, 2012.]