If a believer were asked to nominate the most essential Christian virtue, the obvious and most popular answer would no doubt be the virtue of love. After all, St. Paul clearly teaches that love is the fulfillment of the law. He writes elsewhere that, of the pre-eminent virtues, love is the “greatest.” Jesus himself gives the nod to love when he instructs his disciples, “By this all men shall know that you are my disciples when you have love for one another.” Still, Scriptural citations notwithstanding, an argument might be made that faith is the indispensable Christian virtue. After all, Trent proposes the virtue of faith as “the root and foundation of all justification.” And the author of Hebrews writes that without faith “it is impossible to please God.” Yet again, those with a modernist bent might suggest that justice is the crowning virtue for the Christian soul. After all, faith and love that do not begin to affect daily human relationships are not very praiseworthy. Justice is a valid test of authentic spirituality. Would that any of these virtues were exercised to the maximum! Why quibble with the truly faithful or the truly loving or the truly just person?
Contemporary models of faith, love and justice are happily not lacking. Saint Pius of Pietrelcina, known as Padre Pio, was a Franciscan Capuchin friar, priest, stigmatist, and mystic. He also was a man of intense faith in God. His life from a young age was beset with illnesses that often stalled his priestly ministry. He was just as often misunderstood by his fellow friars and Church authorities. Pope St. John XXIII noted in his diary that he saw Father Pio as a “straw idol.” Eventually Pope St. Paul VI dismissed all accusations against Padre Pio. However, besides maintaining his faith throughout these trials, Padre Pio also displayed great charity. He converted an old convent building into a medical clinic for people in extreme need. The ministry grew, even receiving funding from the United Nations. This hospital today is considered one of the most efficient scientific research hospitals in Europe. Padre Pio is a fine example of faith, love and social justice.
In 1979, St. Teresa of Calcutta received the Nobel Peace Prize “for work undertaken in the struggle to overcome poverty and distress, which also constitutes a threat to peace”. In her Nobel lecture, she said: “I found the poverty of the West so much more difficult to remove. When I pick up a person from the street, hungry, I give him a plate of rice, a piece of bread, I have satisfied. I have removed that hunger. But a person that is shut out, that feels unwanted, unloved, terrified, the person that has been thrown out from society – that poverty is so hurtful.” At the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, Teresa said: “We can destroy this gift of motherhood, especially by the evil of abortion, but also by thinking that other things like jobs or positions are more important than loving.” In his first encyclical, Pope Benedict XVI mentioned St. Teresa three times, using her life to clarify one of the encyclical’s main points: “In the example of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta we have a clear illustration of the fact that time devoted to God in prayer not only does not detract from effective and loving service to our neighbor but is in fact the inexhaustible source of that service.” Again, faith, love and social justice meet in a single soul.
In 2015, Pope Francis addressed a joint meeting of the United States Congress. Servant of God Dorothy Day was mentioned by the Pope in that speech noting, “Her social activism, her passion for justice and for the cause of the oppressed, was inspired by the Gospel, her faith, and the example of the saints.” Miss Day’s legendary work for justice extended from hands-on meal sites to federal legislation. Yet she also noted in her writing, “I had a conversation with John Spivak, the Communist writer, a few years ago, and he said to me, “How can you believe? How can you believe in the Immaculate Conception, in the Virgin birth, in the Resurrection?” I could only say that I believe in the Roman Catholic Church and all she teaches. I have accepted her authority with my whole heart. I feel my own unworthiness and can never be grateful enough to God for His gift of faith.” Again, faith, love and social justice unite in a single life.
In this coming Sunday’s Gospel reading, St. Luke cites the need for an effective Christian life: “There once was a person who had a fig tree planted in his orchard, and when he came in search of fruit on it but found none, he said to the gardener, ‘For three years now I have come in search of fruit on this fig tree but have found none. Cut it down. Why should it exhaust the soil?” God expects results on all levels of the Christian life. He wants men and women of deep faith, caring love and practical justice. Let’s get to work!