Eighteen years ago as I was coming back into the Church, my mother gave me an out-of-print book that my late grandfather had owned, written by Monsignor Fulton J. Sheen, later archbishop.
The book, The Seven Last Words and the Seven Virtues, was transcribed from Sheen's radio talks in 1940 and is a meditation on the seven last statements ("words") that Jesus spoke from the Cross, corresponded with the seven virtues of fortitude, hope, prudence, faith, temperance, justice, and charity. After 27 years of banal homilies and fluffy catechesis, I was blown away by Sheen's simple, profound way of exploring and explaining the Faith.
It made sense when I later learned that Archbishop Sheen had been a household name in America for decades, hosting his own national radio and television shows, and even winning an Emmy. Non-Catholics admired and loved the man as much as Catholics, and my own wonderful aunt (a Protestant) still talks of him so fondly and watches his videos when she comes across them.
Archbishop Sheen died in 1979, and recently his cause for canonization was opened.
Anyway, in cleaning out my dusty bookshelves for Lent, I stumbled again upon the book, and I knew that I had found my Lenten reading. Eighteen years later, the material is as rich and stirring as I remember.
I would like to share the Venerable Fulton J. Sheen with you over the next weeks, by posting brief excerpts from each chapter, for meditation, though the excerpts surely do not do justice to the whole.*
The First Word:
"Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."
The Corresponding Virtue:
Fortitude is that virtue which enables us to face undismayed and fearlessly the difficulties and dangers which stand in the way of duty and goodness. It stands midway between foolhardiness, which rushes into danger heedlessly, and cowardice, which flees from it recreantly. Because Fortitude is related to bravery, it must not be thought that bravery is devoid of fear; rather it is control of fear …. It is in the presence of the fear of death that Fortitude reaches its peak; that is why the highest peak of supernatural Fortitude is martyrdom.
[Jesus'] first word from the Cross is not in self defense, not a protestation of His own innocence, not a fear of death nor a plea for deliverance, nor even a fear of enemies. Fear of death makes most men turn away from doing good. It makes even innocent men thoughtful of themselves as they proclaim their innocence to their executioners. Not so with Him. Fortitude reaches the peak of self-forgetfulness. On the Cross He thinks only of others and their salvation. For his first word is not about death, but about the good it will accomplish; it is directed not to His friends, His Apostles, or His believers who will proclaim His gospel, but to those who hate Him and His Apostles and His Church …. Often during his life He preached: "Love your enemies: do good to them that hate you" (Matt 5:44). Now that He is strong enough to ignore death, He the Conqueror bestows on His momentary conquerors the very thing they had forfeited by their sins -- forgiveness.
Of all the nonsense our modern world has invented nothing surpasses the catch-words or claptrap we give the unfortunate or the sick: "Keep your chin up" or "Forget it." This is not solace, but a drug. Consolation is in explaining suffering, not forgetting it; in relating it to Love, not ignoring it; in making it an expiation for sin, not another sin. But who shall understand this unless he looks at a Cross and loves the Crucified?
There is no challenging the fact that Catholics could get on better with the world if they were less Catholic. Not a single sentence can be found in the words of our Divine Lord promising you the love of the world because of your faith. But you can find a golden string of texts warning you that the world will hate you because you are His….
[I]f Catholics will not be strong in their love of Christ because of Christ, then let them be strong out of fear of the scandal of their weakness. The example of a bad Catholic is most often appealed to as a justification for evil. Why is it that the world is more scandalized at a bad Catholic than a bad anything else, if it be not because his fall is rightfully measured by the heights from which he has fallen?
[E]ntering into the Church lifts us into another world -- the supernatural world. It gives us a new set of values, a new objective, new ways of thinking, new standards of judgment, all of which are in opposition to the spirit of the world. The world with its hatred of discipline, its courtesy to the flesh, and its indifference to truth, cannot tolerate a life based upon the primacy of Christ and the salvation of souls.
Peace, we are just discovering, is in the identity of our will with God who wills our perfection. When we disobey His will we are not asserting our independence; we are mutilating our personality as we might mutilate a razor by using it to cut a tree. Being made for God, we can be happy only with Him. All our misery is traceable to that rebellion. All our peace is traceable to training the lower part of ourselves in service to Him. Hence the Cross, the symbol of that sacrifice inspired by love.
*Note: The whole of the chapter discusses three types of souls who need the virtue of fortitude in order to have peace: "Those who suffer and mourn, saying 'What have I done to deserve this?'; those who possess faith, but who through a love of the world deny their faith or hide it; and those who do not possess the faith, but are convince of its truth and yet refuse to pay the price."