Heroic Virtue

The following is an excerpt from the Marian Press book 52 Weeks with St. Faustina by Donna-Marie Cooper O’Boyle:

“[The] saints have always been the source and origin of renewal in the most difficult circumstances in the Church’s history." — St. John Paul II

This week’s spiritual exercise involves heroic virtue in our lives. We will delve into heroic virtue and what we can learn from Sr. Faustina’s realization that she needed to strive for heroic virtue and not just ordinary virtue. She also learned that as weak as she was, God would support her. Let’s begin with a bit of background on what exactly heroic virtue is in the spiritual life. Ready? Set? Go!

Servant of God Archbishop Fulton Sheen said the difference between Judas and Peter is that Peter became a saint “because he overcame his weakness with the help of God’s grace.” In other words, Peter responded to grace and so became capable of heroic virtue. Every one of the saints canonized by the Church has been raised to the honors of the altar because of a life of heroic virtue. The Catholic Dictionary defines heroic virtue as: “The performance of extraordinary virtuous actions with readiness and over a period of time. The moral virtues are exercised with ease, while faith, hope, and charity are practiced to an eminent degree. The presence of such virtues is required by the Church as the first step toward canonization. The person who has practiced heroic virtue is declared to be Venerable, and is called a ‘Servant of God.’”

Father John A. Hardon, SJ, regularly taught the importance of practicing heroic virtue. He said it was a matter of survival. “For Catholic parents to live good Catholic lives in our day requires heroic virtue. Only heroic parents will survive the massive, demonic secularization of materially super-developed countries like America.”

What does “heroic virtue” have to do with us? Well, plenty. We are all called to lives of holiness. We are all called — every single one of us — to become saints. The Church teaches: “By canonizing some of the faithful, i.e., by solemnly proclaiming that they practiced heroic virtue and lived in fidelity to God’s grace, the Church recognizes the power of the Spirit of holiness within her and sustains the hope of believers by proposing the saints to them as models and intercessors ... ‘Holiness’ is the hidden source and infallible measure of her [the Church’s] apostolic activity and missionary zeal’ [Saint John Paul II, Christi deles Laici, no. CL 17, 3]” (CCC, 828, emphasis in original).

Saint Faustina recorded in her Diary that she “felt the gaze of God” in her soul. She was immediately filled with love and understood that God was drawing close to her heart because of her virtues and heroic efforts. She wrote, “It is from this that I have come to understand that it is not enough for me to strive only for ordinary virtues, but that I must try to exercise the heroic virtues” (Diary, 758).

Depending on God, Not Ourselves

Sister Faustina learned that it was essential to lean on God for everything and not to depend upon her own strength. She knew she was weak — sometimes extremely weak. During some of the times when doubts and discouragement battled within her heart and soul, she became aware that God strengthened her will, which she said protected her against “the attempts of the enemy,” which were then “shattered as if against a rock.” She explained, “I see how many actual graces God grants me; these support me ceaselessly. I am very weak, and I attribute everything solely to the grace of God” (Diary, 1086). In a sense, her weakness and God’s strength humbled her even more.

One time, Sr. Faustina was working hard on a particular virtue. She wrote, “I lapsed into the vice opposed to that virtue ten times more frequently than on other days.” Later that evening, she reflected on why that might have happened. As she pondered, she heard Jesus tell her, “You were counting too much on yourself and too little on Me” (Diary, 1087). She then understood her problem. We can certainly benefit from this too!

Finally, a Priest Who Believes Her!

In the last chapter, we discussed that as Sr. Faustina was approaching her final vows, she was sent to the convent in Walendow for a three-day silent retreat. Just before this, Jesus told Sr. Faustina to tell the priest at the retreat about all of her doubts. “I will answer you through his lips,” Jesus said. “And then your fears will end” (Diary, 169). He also told her to keep strict silence. It is difficult for anyone to keep complete silence, especially when sisters whom Sr. Faustina hadn’t seen in some time were there. One of them enticed her to speak aloud when she showed up unannounced at Sr. Faustina’s cell. The saint in the making kept quiet. Not getting a peep out of Sr. Faustina, the other sister whirled around in a huff and left, but not before she shot a few choice words at Sr. Faustina.

Despite that awkward moment and also feeling a bit odd after seeing the sister who had opposed her attending the retreat, Sr. Faustina would finally experience a sense of relief in the course of the retreat. Jesuit Fr. Edmund Elter, a professor of ethics, homiletics, and rhetoric at the Gregorian University in Rome, would lead the retreat. An experienced spiritual director, he would be the first priest to discern Sr. Faustina’s mystical states and acknowledge that her experiences were not illusions. Knowing what Jesus expected of her, Sr. Faustina decided she must confide in the priest during the retreat and reveal her secret inner spiritual life to him. However, before she could tell him, the evil one showed up to torture Sr. Faustina with doubts and confusion. A battle raged in her brain as Satan plagued her with doubt. “Jesus!” she cried out in her soul. The priest walked in at that moment. He gave a short conference and then Sr. Faustina made a beeline for the confessional.

In words that were music to her ears, Fr. Elter confirmed her in her spiritual mission and reassured her that the revelations came from God. “Sister, be completely at peace. Jesus is your Master, and your communing with Him is neither daydreaming nor hysteria nor illusion. Know that you are on the right path,” he said (Diary, 174). He told her to be faithful to the graces Jesus was bestowing upon her, and that she was not free to shun them. He advised her to be unswervingly dedicated to the holy mission entrusted to her and urged her to pray for a good spiritual director. He told her that she did not have to tell her superiors about the interior graces unless Jesus were to tell her to do so. Even then, she was to first consult with her confessor. It was the very first time that a priest had confirmed the authenticity of Sr. Faustina’s mission. As she left the confessional, she was filled with peace and immense joy. The immediate peace of soul was just as Jesus had said it would be, and Sr. Faustina felt surprised that she had doubted in the first place. She quickly withdrew to a quiet area of the garden to pour her heart out to God in secret. “God’s presence penetrated me and, in an instant, all my nothingness was drowned in God; and at the same moment I felt, or rather discerned, the Three Divine Persons dwelling in me” (Diary, 175).

Something to Ponder

Imagine if every one of the faithful stepped up to the plate and strove to grow in the virtues! To be able to practice heroic virtues, according to Benedict XIV, we must be “already purified from all attachment to things worldly, and solidly anchored in the love of God.” I’d say we have our work cut out for us — each one of us in our own state of life. God is sure to provide plenty of opportunities for us to strive for holiness and to allow Him to purify us so that we are able to exercise the heroic virtues. You must have noticed already, but I believe as you continue on in your pilgrimage with St. Faustina, you will surely observe again and again this young sister’s practice of the heroic virtues. Take time this week to reflect on your spiritual life. Are you striving for heroic virtue? Do you lean on God for strength and not on your own abilities? Why or why not?

A Merciful Action

Ponder ways you can grow in virtue yourself and how you can impress upon others the need to grow in virtue. Could you be a gentle teacher in steering others away from gossip at home or in the workplace? Could you possibly help others to be more attentive to the needs of the poor around you? Countless opportunities surround us. Pray about immediately carrying out your merciful actions. Ask our Mother of Mercy and St. Faustina to help you.

A PRAYER OF MERCY FOR THIS WEEK

(To be prayed each day this week.)

Dear Merciful Jesus, help me to lean on You and not upon my own strength. Open my eyes to see that You provide opportunities in my daily life to turn to You and to practice heroic virtue. Mother Mary, pray for me. Saint Faustina, please pray for me. Jesus, I trust in You! Amen.

You can order 52 Weeks with St. Faustina by Donna-Marie Cooper O’Boyle here:

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