Bottom line: Our founding fathers, St. James, Moses and Jesus all emphasize the importance of striving for virtue.
Our Scripture readings address a difficult topic. It can be stated in a single word, but it’s a word which makes some people nervous. And others don’t quite know what the word means. The word is virtue. It makes people nervous because it conjures up the image of being prim and proper - maybe even looking down on others. That is a misunderstanding of the word virtue, which I hope this homily will make clear.
Virtue can be defined as a habit which leads to good activity. The Catechism defines it as a “firm disposition” to do the right thing.* That's what Jesus speaks about today. He tells us what matters is not following a bunch of minute regulations, but what comes from the inside. He gives a pretty specific examination of conscience. He mentions things like unchastity, greed, deceit and arrogance. He wants us to ask God’s help to root out vice and replace it with virtue. For example unchastity needs to be replaced by purity of heart; deceit with honesty, greed with stewardship and arrogance with reality. Those are virtues we can ask God for.
This weekend is a national holiday. It’s a good time to remember that the founders of our country placed a great emphasis on virtue. They were convinced that a democratic form of government couldn’t last unless the citizens practiced virtue. Here is how they said it: Every form of government encourages a specific passion in its citizens. A dictatorship tries to inspire fear, a monarchy wants honor, but a democracy requires virtue. The talked about founding a “republic of virtue.”**
This striving for virtue can be illustrated by one of the stories told about our first president, George Washington. When he was boy, his father was walking in their orchard and noticed that someone had cut down the cheery tree. He asked young George if he knew who did it. Washington replied, “I cannot tell a lie. I did it.” It might be a bit of a legend, but it underscores what everyone knew about Washington. He was a man of character, a man of virtue.
Our society has lost that emphasis on character. I have been thinking about it this weekend as I celebrate my 60th birthday. I am part of a generation that thought it could get by without emphasizing virtue. What mattered was having the right technique, getting one’s act together. The important thing was to affirm each other. I’m OK, you’re OK. Some smart alec replied, “Well, I’m OK, but you are not so hot.”
The truth is that none of us are really "Okay." We need forgiveness and redemption. But there is another problem with the "I'm OK philosophy. The truth is God did not create us to be Okay. He made us for excellence. He wants us to become saints. Either we strive for excellence, that is for God - or we wind up spiraling downward. We have to make a choice: heaven or hell. There is no middle ground called Okay or Good Enough.
One of the encouraging things today is that many people, especially young people, are recognizing the importance of virtue. Instead of books like I’m OK, You’re OK, we now have books like “The Seven Habits..” They emphasize developing virtues, the habits of doing the right thing.
This is not easy. All of us stumble. What matters is that we get back up. In sixty years I have made my share of mistakes. I can’t change that, but I am grateful for each new day. To make a new start with God’s grace.
St. James said, “Be doers of the word and not hearers only, deluding yourselves.” He says that religion pure and undefiled involves caring for the most vulnerable. In his day, that meant fatherless children and widows. Today we can add the unborn, the terminally ill, immigrants and others.
Moses tells us, if we keep God’s commandments, we can become a great nation. I worry about our country - what kind of society we have created for our children. I am concerned about the direction we are going. At the same time, I see reasons for hope, especially in our young people. We can become a great nation - if we turn to God and strive for virtue.
This week we begin a new school year. The top priority in our parish school is formation in faith, in moral values. We want our children to do well in this life - but most important is to reach the one life which matters - eternal life.
For people who have children this is the beginning of a new year. All of us, whether we are sixty or sixteen or eighty-six, with God’s grace we can make a new beginning.
*To the question "What is a virtue?" the Compendium of Catechism gives this answer: "A virtue is a habitual and firm disposition to do the good." It then gives a concise summary of human and theological virtues. For a lucid explanation of the virtues, I highly recommend Mere Christianity.
**In the Great Courses series, Professor Daniel N. Robinson has a fine set of lectures on this topic: American Ideals: Founding a "Republic of Virtue".
From Archives (Homilies for 22nd Sunday, Year B):
Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C
Bulletin (Plan B: Effective for what?, Melanie's Progress, Best Birthday Present)