“Noble and great characters are all made so by the constant repetition of virtuous actions…Those who really succeed in life can find no other way but the way of self-discipline and self-control, which is also the way to the greatest happiness possible on earth.” (Garesche, Ch. 3)
“Human virtues acquired by education, by deliberate acts and by a perseverance ever-renewed in repeated efforts are purified and elevated by divine grace. With God’s help, they forge character and give facility in the practice of the good. The virtuous man is happy to practice them. (CCC 1810)
To build a character that is truly noble and Catholic, we must pray, seeking God’s grace, and faithfully receive the Sacraments, by which God gives us these graces.
Jesus says: “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” The fruit referred to in this saying is the holiness of a life made fruitful by union with Christ. When we believe in Jesus Christ, partake of his mysteries, and keep his commandments, the Savior himself comes to love, in us, his Father and his brethren, our Father and our brethren. His person becomes, through the Spirit, the living and interior rule of our activity.”(CCC 2074)
In these brief essays, however, we will focus on “our part,” inasmuch as we are cooperators in God’s plan for us. “God is the sovereign master of his plan. But to carry it out he also makes use of his creatures’ cooperation. This use is not a sign of weakness, but rather a token of almighty God’s greatness and goodness. For God grants his creatures not only their existence, but also the dignity of acting on their own, of being causes and principles for each other, and thus of cooperating in the accomplishment of his plan.” (CCC 306)
“It requires plenty of courage and honesty to be sincere with oneself. There are many men and women who, their whole lives long, are afraid to stand face to face with their own mistakes and with the defects of their own character…It is only by seeing ourselves as we are that we can remake and perfect our own character.” (Garesche, Ch. 6)
We ought, then, to practice regularly the examination of conscience. There are many ways of doing this, to include going through the Ten Commandments or looking at the Beatitudes or even all the major points in the Sermon on the Mount. We might also, however, do so by examining the cardinal virtues, seeing where we have failed to be prudent, just, temperate, and where we have lacked fortitude. We should likewise examine ourselves in the light of the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity.
“…by learning from our mistakes, we cooperate with God in building up a noble character.” (Garesche, Ch. 6)
“…you can choose what to imitate. On that choice depends, to a great degree, your character and your destiny…by taking all the good characteristics of those around you, you can build up the ideal of a perfect character…you need not confine yourself to the people you actually know. Through the magnificent works of literature, you can associate with marvelous familiarity with the great minds, the noble hearts, and the shining characters of all history.” (Garesche, Ch. 7)
We, therefore, have no excuse if we say that we are not amongst other noble and virtuous people. Even if this be true, we have at our disposal the greatness of those hero’s of virtue, whether factual persons of the past, or even fictional characters. As Christians, we certainly have the witness of the great saints of the past.
Of course, in building what we call a “Catholic character,” there is no greater example than that of Christ Jesus Himself. Building a Catholic character, then, will be to imitate the virtues of first of Christ, but also of those who most imitated Him (“I urge you, then, be imitators of me,” says St. Paul in 1Cor4:16).
We are creatures of habit. But we are also responsible, to a great degree, for the habits we have. “Now, a habit is nothing more or less than an inward tendency to a certain line of action, which springs from the fact that we have often acted that way in the past, and that we are by nature inclined to do what we have often done before and in the way in which we have done it before.” (Garesche, Ch. 8)
We must, then, in building a noble character, focus on the four cardinal virtues, which are prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude. We must rightly understand them, but also strive constantly to build them. Indeed, in many ways, forming our character through the virtues is analogous to training our minds through study and our bodies through exercise. We will grow weaker or stronger in a large degree by whether we exercise or neglect to exercise these faculties.
“By studying these four good habits, or virtues, and by cultivating them diligently, we are able to lay the foundation of a strong, good character in a secure and permanent way.” (Garesche, Ch. 8)
Briefly, the four cardinal virtues are as follows (as described in the “In Brief” section of the Catechism):
1833 Virtue is a habitual and firm disposition to do good.
1834 The human virtues are stable dispositions of the intellect and the will that govern our acts, order our passions, and guide our conduct in accordance with reason and faith. They can be grouped around the four cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance.
1835 Prudence disposes the practical reason to discern, in every circumstance, our true good and to choose the right means for achieving it.
1836 Justice consists in the firm and constant will to give God and neighbor their due.
1837 Fortitude ensures firmness in difficulties and constancy in the pursuit of the good.
1838 Temperance moderates the attraction of the pleasures of the senses and provides balance in the use of created goods.
“The greatest of all historical examples of fortitude is, of course, the example of Christ, whose whole life was an exercise of this virtue, as it was of prudence, justice, and temperance…all these virtues, with a faithful balance, depend on one another, and if you succeed in cultivating any one of them to a notable degree, you will possess them all…” (Garesche, Ch. 12)