April 13, 2011
Remarks at the Cardinal Leadership Celebration
John Garvey, president
The Catholic University of America
Greetings, and welcome to the Cardinal Leadership Celebration. We are especially honored to have, along with our honorees, the families and friends of those we recognize tonight. This evening’s event represents another chapter in our campus-wide exploration of the cardinal virtues, an initiative of my inaugural year as president here at Catholic University. As a Catholic institution, our mission is not only the formation of the intellect, but the pursuit of the virtues as well. Among those is the virtue of fortitude, about which I’d like to say a few words.
Fortitude is a virtue with something of an eclectic history. In the ancient Greek world, especially the Spartan world, it enjoyed a regal status among the virtues. It was associated with bravery in battle, and willingness to die for one’s people. It was the measure of a soldier, in a culture where soldiers were king.
Centuries later the virtue of fortitude was absorbed into the Christian tradition. It retained some of its original meaning of courage in battle. But it also expanded its territory, so to speak. While Christians, for better or for worse, have seen many battlefields, we are not a warrior people. As the Gospel of Matthew tells us, “He who lives by the sword shall perish by it.” True fortitude, we learn from the gospel narrative, does not belong to the soldier at the foot of the cross, but to the victim who hung upon it. Christian fortitude came to mean the courage to live the Christian life, even unto martyrdom.
Today when we speak of Christian fortitude, we usually refer to it as the key to our “white martyrdom.” It is the courage to take up our daily crosses and challenges. No longer constrained to the battlefield, fortitude flourishes in many contexts: the family, the workplace, the political arena, the university, the monastery, the playing field, the sick bed. It belongs not only to those with outward strength, as the ancient Greeks insisted, but to those with outward weakness as well.
Let me offer an example. On Saturday we celebrate the feast a saint who was the farthest thing possible from a Spartan soldier. Bernadette of Lourdes had all the appearance of weakness. She was a 14-year-old girl in mid-19th-century France to whom the Blessed Virgin appeared. Bernadette was a child, a female, and of low birth. She suffered from cholera and asthma, and lived in extreme poverty. The only home her family could afford was a one-room basement called le cachot, meaning “the dungeon.” She couldn’t have been more different from a robust, well respected soldier. And yet Bernadette showed greater fortitude than most soldiers. When faced with the opposition of her parents, the scrutiny of the Church, and the persecution of the government, Bernadette persevered in the truth.
I’m reminded of another woman from the story of Bernadette whose fortitude we might especially remember as we approach Good Friday. I’m thinking of the Blessed Mother herself. The Passion of the Christ, a movie depicting the events of Good Friday, movingly portrays Mary’s fortitude. On the way to Calvary, Mary sees her Son fall, and for just a moment, hesitates to rush to his side. She knows that to see him, to choose the Christian life, means to suffer at this moment. She can choose to run away. Or she can act in fortitude. She can hide from death, and from the truth of what her Son is suffering. Or she can embrace her own cross and suffering with courage.
Today’s honorees share this with Mary and with Bernadette. They have chosen to persevere in the Christian life, many of them in the face of difficult challenges. They have taken up the cross of illness, suffering, or loss. And they have exercised fortitude in facing these challenges. In doing so, they have offered our Catholic community a special gift. They witness to the integrity of the Christian life. They remind us that the mark of a Catholic university, like the mark of the Church itself, is not merely what we think, but how we live. For this very special contribution to the life of Catholic University, I would like to extend my sincere gratitude, on behalf of the Catholic University community, to this evening’s honorees.