A while back I heard a homilist quote a cardinal who headed a major American archdiocese: “I will die in my bed, my successor will die in prison, and his successor will die a martyr in the public square.”

The homilist didn’t leave it at that. “The persecution of the Church in America isn’t coming,” he told the congregation grimly, “it’s already here.”

This is a man not much given to flamboyant rhetoric. His text was from St. Paul’s Second Letter to Timothy, with its exhortation to Christians to “bear your share of hardship for the Gospel with the strength that comes from God” (2 Tm 1:8).

Bearing hardship for the Gospel is central to fortitude. American Catholics soon may be called to practice fortitude by bearing more of it than many suppose.

Fortitude is the virtue that disposes people to stand up in defense of the good, to the point of being ready even to lay down their lives if that becomes necessary. It’s the virtue that moves men and women to fight the good fight. A sheriff confronting bad guys in the streets of a Western town. Soldiers fighting to defend their homeland against invaders. That’s fortitude.

The homilist that day was speaking of the secularist assault on institutions of the Church, to force them to accept, and even to support, secularist causes like abortion and same-sex marriage or suffer penalties if they refuse.

The best-known instance so far is the Department of Health and Human Services mandate pushed by President Barack Obama’s administration and requiring Church-sponsored colleges, hospitals, charities and other programs to make their employee health plans vehicles for the delivery of contraception, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs.

Defending the Faith

As similar cases multiply, as seems likely to happen, Catholics will increasingly face the need to practice fortitude in defense of the Faith.

But there are many other ways besides resisting aggressive secularism in which people are called to do that. Here’s one I won’t soon forget.

It was Feb. 20, 2005, shortly before noon. I was standing along with a few thousand others in St. Peter’s Square in Rome, waiting for Pope John Paul II’s weekly Sunday Angelus. The crowd was comparatively small but that wasn’t surprising. This was one of those raw winter days when a damp chill seeps into your bones, and many people understandably prefer to stay in and keep warm.

Thus the question on the minds of many in the square was whether there would even be a papal Angelus that week. Earlier in the month, the pope, far advanced in Parkinsonism, had been hospitalized for what was officially called bronchitis. No one would have blamed him for skipping today’s routine ceremony.

Nevertheless, promptly at noon, the window of the papal apartment overlooking the square opened, and there stood the familiar figure in white. After a pause, he began to speak.

It was agony for him and agony for those listening as he struggled through his short prepared remarks, gasping for breath after nearly every syllable.

“It’s like hearing a voice from the tomb,” I thought. And then: “I wonder if it’s a good idea for him to be doing this on a such a cold, nasty day.”

It wasn’t. Four days later Pope John Paul was rushed to the hospital and an emergency tracheotomy was performed to allow him to breathe. That was the beginning of the end. He died April 2.

Now, some people might call the pope’s action that Sunday in February bad judgment, even foolhardy. I call it fortitude. If I read the man correctly, this was one more way for him to do what he’d done for years — accept God’s will and live out his personal vocation as Christ’s vicar regardless of the cost, including, if it came to that, the cost of his life.

In the eyes of the world, that’s foolishness. Seen with the eyes of faith, it’s something vastly different — a form of fidelity backed by fortitude. Its supreme model is Christ on Calvary. Its supreme expression on the part of his followers is martyrdom.

Reflecting on martyrdom

Today, though, you have to be careful about that word martyr. Everyone who suffers a bit is likely to be called a martyr, even if the suffering is self-inflicted. There’s a good account of real martyrdom in St. John Paul’s encyclical on moral principles, Veritatis Splendor (“The Splendor of Truth”).

In honoring the martyrs, he writes, “the Church has canonized their witness and declared the truth of their judgment, according to which the love of God entails the obligation to respect his commandments, even in the most dire of circumstances, and the refusal to betray those commandments, even for the sake of saving one’s own life” (No. 91). The witness of martyrdom, he says, makes a hugely valuable contribution to the common good by resisting “the most dangerous crisis which can afflict man: the confusion between good and evil” (No. 93).

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI added his contribution to this discussion in the first volume of his “Jesus of Nazareth” trilogy. Reflecting on the Sermon on the Mount and the Beatitudes, he recalled the bitter contempt for this way of thinking expressed by the 19th-century philosopher of nihilism Friedrich Nietzsche.

Nietzsche’s thinking about morality focuses on the “will to power.” In time past it guided Adolf Hitler, and it guides many today.

In profound conflict with it is the morality of Christ, with fortitude a central part of it. Pope Benedict wrote: “Behind the Sermon on the Mount stands the figure of Christ, the man who is God, but who, precisely because he is God, descends, empties himself, all the way to death on the Cross. … [Here is] the correct image of man and his happiness.”

Guiding principles

Few are called to be martyrs or popes, but everyone is called to practice everyday fortitude. Two principles stand out.

One is that fortitude should be guided by the virtue of prudence. This is important to avoid errors of rashness — such as the sort of intemperate, self-defeating apologetics in which “winning” the argument is actually losing it.

Recently I had occasion to read some religion texts from before the Second Vatican Council that erred this way. So preoccupied were the authors with showing that Protestants were wrong that they missed seeing where Protestants had worthwhile insights. Catholic faith as they presented it came across as harsh and defensive.

The second principle is that where fortitude is lacking, toleration easily deteriorates into cowardice. That happens with people who don’t oppose what they recognize as wrong because they might suffer for opposing it.

Take the case of a man who is physically brave yet consistently fails to discipline his children and leaves that to his wife. Hassling with the kids upsets him, it seems. That’s a failure of fortitude.

Still, many people do routinely practice fortitude. Women who bear children in the face of dire warnings concerning the harm that may do to their health. People who speak up against unethical policies and practices at work. Teachers who refuse to shade the truth in the classroom for the sake of political correctness.

Particularly strong today, as noted, are the challenges aggressive secularism poses to the fortitude of Catholics and other religious believers. But although they’ve grown worse lately, such challenges aren’t new.

An incident a half-century ago illustrates that. Newly graduated from a premier secular university with a doctorate in philosophy, a friend of mine was looking for a job. He hoped to introduce the philosophical tradition of St. Thomas Aquinas into a similar environment and was pleased to be invited for an interview at a large secular school in the Midwest.

It went well. When it was over, the chairman of the philosophy department volunteered to drive him to the airport to catch his plane home. Arriving early, the chairman suggested a cup of coffee.

After a few minutes’ chitchat in the coffee shop, the chairman made his move. “You don’t really believe all that Catholic stuff, do you?”

“You bet your life I do,” the young man replied.

The department chairman looked sad. “Then I’m afraid there’s no place for you here.”

More American Catholics may face experiences like that in the years ahead. One option is conformity. The other is fortitude.

Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor. This is the seventh part of a series on virtues.