Part 3: Fortitude

The following is the third in a seven-part series on the cardinal and theological virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude, temperance, faith, hope, and charity:

Four months deep into an illness that would eventually kill her, St. Faustina prayed, "O Jesus, my strength, You alone can help me; grant me fortitude" (Diary of Saint Maria Faustina Kowalska, 1066).

What is this fortitude of which she seeks?

The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines it thusly:

Fortitude is the moral virtue that ensures firmness in difficulties and constancy in the pursuit of the good. It strengthens the resolve to resist temptations and to overcome obstacles in the moral life. The virtue of fortitude enables one to conquer fear, even fear of death, and to face trials and persecutions. It disposes one even to renounce and sacrifice his life in defense of a just cause. (1808)

The Catechism passage then goes on to quote Scripture:

"The Lord is my strength and my song." (Ps 118:14)

"In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world." (Jn 16:33)

We all at times confront things in life that cause us to be anxious and even terrified. It could be a bad test result from the doctor or sudden loss of employment or some form of public humiliation or the onset of physical pain. Fear and anxiety are facts of life in a fallen world.

Still, to authentically live out our Catholic identity requires that we conquer fear, even (or especially) fear of death. But how? How do we confront fear with coolness and courage? How do we bear pain or adversity without falling into despair?

By practicing the virtue of fortitude.

We would do well to take a page from the life of St. Faustina, who writes, "I have nothing for my defense but only Your mercy; in it lies all my trust" (Diary, 1065).

On Oct. 5, 1938, St. Faustina, the great apostle of Divine Mercy, died at the age of 33 from complications from tuberculosis and other ailments, which included internal hemorrhaging. Firsthand accounts attest to the fact she suffered a physically agonizing death. In Maria Tarnawska's now-out-of-print book Sister Faustina Kowalska - Her Life and Mission Here, Sr. Crescentia, a nun who lived in the same convent as Faustina just outside of Krakow, describes the once-attractive Faustina just days before her death: "She was very ugly, very worn out, a real skeleton. She was breathing heavily."

Other sisters later said it was painful to even look at her. Yet, they reported that all the while Faustina was stoic, even cheerful and smiling - that she had fortitude.

"Sister dear, you are not afraid of death?" Sr. Crescentia asked her.

"Why should I be?" Faustina responded from her deathbed. "All my sins and imperfections will be consumed like straw in the fire of the Divine Mercy."

Saint Faustina's Diary gives us a fuller picture of her state of mind as she approached death. As her physical pain and exhaustion grew in intensity, so, too, did her mystical union with Christ.

She details a three-day retreat she took less than four months before her death (see Diary, 1753-1779).

During the retreat, led by Christ Himself, He assured her of the sanctification and salvation available through the sacraments of the Church, particularly the Holy Eucharist and Confession. He taught her to totally abandon herself to His will; to put her "self-love in the last place"; to shun gossip "like the plague"; to act kindly to those who sought to cause her harm; to hide in His Heart whenever confronted by temptation and discouragement; to trust He is always with her; to pray for the sick and dying; and to always be adorned by the virtues of humility, purity of intention, and love.

But He also minces no words with regards to the suffering ahead. He says He will "not delude" her "with prospects of peace," and tells her that her "body and soul will often be in the midst of fire."

"Although you will not feel My presence on some occasions," Christ says, "I will always be with you. Do not fear; My grace will be with You" (1767).

Jesus' words to Faustina are as much directed to her as they are to us. Her recording of the retreat reads like a crash course for anyone seeking fortitude.

United to God's will and prepared thusly, Faustina's happiness, spiritual strength, and glorification of Jesus became all the more pronounced. By then, she could no longer live a normal life in her community. Still, strengthened through the Holy Eucharist, she taught herself to put her sufferings to divine use, to transform them into a daily oblation for the salvation of souls.

Though undated, Faustina's final Diary entry is believed to have been in mid-June 1938. She no longer had the strength to continue. Save for a final Confession and Last Rites, she was fully prepared to die. In her final Diary entry she writes:

Today, the Majesty of God is surrounding me. There is no way that I can help myself to prepare better. I am thoroughly enwrapped in God. My soul is being inflamed by His love. I only know that I love and am loved. That is enough for me. I am trying my best to be faithful throughout the day to the Holy Spirit and to fulfill His demands. I am trying my best for interior silence to be able to hear His voice ... (1828)

As it was for a saint it is for ourselves. When we keep our eyes fixed on Jesus' Merciful Heart; when we have faith in the promises of God; when we put our hope in the happiness of eternal life; and when we are motivated by charity - by our love of God above all things and our neighbor as ourselves - we surely will find that our thoughts and actions are driven by the virtue of fortitude. We'll find that we can step forward in our faith without fear.

If you seek fortitude in your life, do as St. Faustina did - do as countless martyrs of the Church have done - and simply pray for it.

View other parts of the 7 Virtues series.

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