Heroic Virtue. — The notion of heroicity is derived from hero, originally a warrior, a demigod; hence it connotes a degree of bravery, fame, and distinction which places a man high above his fellows. St. Augustine first applied the pagan title of hero to the Christian martyrs; since then the custom has prevailed of bestowing it not only on martyrs, but on all confessors whose virtues and good works greatly outdistance those of ordinary good people. Benedict XIV, whose chapters on heroic virtue are classical, thus describes heroicity: “In order to be heroic a Christian virtue must enable its owner to perform virtuous actions with uncommon promptitude, ease, and pleasure, from supernatural motives and without human reasoning, with self-abnegation and full control over his natural inclinations. “An heroic virtue, then, is a habit of good conduct that has become a second nature, a new motive power stronger than all corresponding inborn inclinations, capable of rendering easy a series of acts each of which, for the ordinary man, would be beset with very great, if not insurmountable, difficulties.
Such a degree of virtue belongs only to souls already purified from all attachment to things worldly, and solidly anchored in the love of God. St. Thomas (I-II, Q. lxi, a. 4) says: “Virtue consists in the following, or imitation, of God. Every virtue, like every other thing, has its type [exemplar] in God. Thus the Divine mind itself is the type of prudence; God using all things to minister to His glory is the type of temperance, by which man subjects his lower appetites to reason; justice is typified by God‘s application of the eternal law to all His works; Divine immutability is the type of fortitude. And, since it is man’s nature to live in society, the four cardinal virtues are social [politicae] virtues, inasmuch as by them man rightly ordains his conduct in daily life. Man, however, must raise himself beyond his natural life unto a life Divine: ‘Be you therefore perfect, as also your heavenly Father is perfect’ (Matt., v, 48). It is, therefore, necessary to posit certain virtues midway between the social virtues, which are human, and the exemplary virtues, which are Divine. These intermediate virtues are of two degrees of perfection: the lesser in the soul still struggling upwards from a life of sin to a likeness with God—these are called purifying virtues [virtutes purgatoriae]; the greater in the souls which have already attained to the Divine likeness—these are called virtues of the purified soul [virtutes jam purgati animi]. In the lesser degree, prudence, moved by the contemplation of things Divine, despises all things earthly and directs all the soul’s thought unto God alone; temperance relinquishes, as tar as nature allows, the things required for bodily wants; fortitude removes the fear of departing this life and facing the life beyond; justice approves of the aforesaid dispositions. In the higher perfection of souls already purified and firmly united with God, prudence knows nothing but what it beholds in God; temperance ignores earthly desires; fortitude knows nothing of passions; justice is bound to the Divine mind by a perpetual compact to do as it does. This degree of perfection belongs to the blessed in heaven or to a few of the most perfect in this life.”These few perfectissimi are the heroes of virtue, the candidates for the honors of the altar, the saints on earth.
Together with the four cardinal virtues the Christian saint must be endowed with the three theological virtues, especially with Divine charity, the virtue which informs, baptizes, and consecrates, as it were, all other virtues; which associates and unifies them into one powerful effort to participate in the Divine life. Some remarks on the “proofs of heroicity” required in the process of beatification will serve to illustrate in detail the general principles exposed above.
As charity stands at the summit of all virtues, so faith stands at their foundation. For by faith God is first apprehended, and the soul lifted up to super-natural life. Faith is the secret of one’s conscience; to the world it is made manifest by the good works in which it lives, “Faith without works is dead” (James, ii, 26). Such works are: the external profession of faith, strict observance of the Divine commands, prayer, filial devotion to the Church, the fear of God, the horror of sin, penance for sins committed; patience in adversity, etc. All or any of these attain the grade of heroicity when practiced with unflagging perseverance, during a long period of time, or under circumstances so trying that by them men of but ordinary perfection would be deterred from acting. Martyrs dying in torments for the Faith, missionaries spending their lives in propagating it, the humble poor who with infinite patience drag out their wretched existence to do the will of God and to reap their reward hereafter, these are heroes of the Faith.
Hope is a firm trust that God will give us eternal life and all the means necessary to obtain it; it attains heroicity when it amounts to unshakeable confidence and security in God‘s help throughout all the untoward events of life, when it is ready to forsake and sacrifice all other goods in order to obtain the promised felicity of heaven. Such hope has its roots in a faith equally perfect. Abraham, the model of the faithful, is also the model of the hopeful “who against hope believed in hope … and he was not weak in faith; neither did he consider his own body now dead … nor the dead womb of Sara” (Rom., iv, 18-22).
Charity inclines man to love God above all things with the love of friendship. The perfect friend of God says with St. Paul: “With Christ I am nailed to the cross. And I live, now not I; but Christ liveth in me” (Gal., ii, 19-20). For love means union. Its type in heaven is the Divine Trinity in Unity; its highest degree in God‘s creatures is the beatific vision, i.e. participation in God‘s life. On earth it is the fruitful mother of holiness, the one thing necessary, the one all-sufficient possession. It is extolled in I Cor., xiii, and in St. John’s Gospel and Epistles; the beloved disciple and the fiery missionary of the cross are the best interpreters of the mystery of love revealed to them in the Heart of Jesus. With the commandment to love God above all Jesus coupled another: “And the second is like to it: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. There is no other commandment greater than these” (Mark, xii, 31). The likeness, or the linking of the two commandments, lies in this: that in our neighbor we love God‘s image and likeness, His adopted children and the heirs of His Kingdom. Hence, serving our neighbor is serving God. And the works of spiritual and temporal mercy performed in this world will decide our fate in the next: “Come, ye blessed of my Father, possess you the kingdom … For I was hungry, and you gave me to eat . Amen I say to you, as long as you did it to one of these my least brethren, you did it to me” (Matt., xxv, 34-40). For this reason the works of charity in heroic degree have been, from the beginning to this day, a distinctive mark of the Catholic Church, the pledge of sanctity in countless numbers of her sons and daughters.
Prudence, which enables us to know what to desire or to avoid, attains heroicity when it coincides with the “gift of counsel”, i.e. a clear, Divinely aided insight into right and wrong conduct. Of St. Paschasius Radbert, the Bollandists say: “So great was his prudence that from his mind a bourn of prudence seemed to flow. For he beheld together the past, the present, and the future, and was able to tell, by the counsel of God, what in each case was to be done” (January 2, c. v, n. 16).
Justice, which gives every one his due, is the pivot on which turn the virtues of religion, piety, obedience, gratitude, truthfulness, friendship, and many more. Jesus sacrificing His life to give God His due, Abraham willing to sacrifice his son in obedience to God‘s will, these are acts of heroic justice.
Fortitude, which urges us on when difficulty stands in the way of our duty, is itself the heroic element in the practice of virtue; it reaches its apex when it overcomes obstacles which to ordinary virtue are insurmountable.
Temperance, which restrains us when passions urge us to what is wrong, comprises becoming deportment, modesty, abstinence, chastity, sobriety, and others. Instances of heroic temperance: St. Joseph, St. John the Baptist.
In fine it should be remarked that almost every act of virtue proceeding from the Divine principle within us has in it the elements of all the virtues; only mental analysis views the same act under various aspects.