Fortitude. Do you see yourself as courageous or cowardly? Are you strong in facing pain or soft and shrink from it?
On the other hand, are you reckless or foolhardy, putting yourself in situations you should not be in, doing things that you rightly ought to be afraid of?
The virtue of fortitude means a lot to me and I have written about it recently in Catholic Stand. I think the reason I’m attracted to this virtue which consists of courage and toughness is that I know my need, see its value and have taken some steps to acquire it. Some of the best things that have happened to me have happened because with the help of grace I acted with some courage or endured some hardships.
There could be another beatitude:
Blessed are those who know their need for fortitude, for they shall become stronger.
Can we be full human beings or can we really live our Catholic faith without fortitude?
What is fortitude?
Fortitude is the virtue of courage in the face of danger and toughness in the face of pain. It is one of the cardinal virtues. It is necessary for us in both our natural and supernatural lives.
Jacklyn Lucas’ heroic fortitude
Here is a true story about a man who lived the natural virtue of fortitude to a heroic degree.
Even though Jacklyn Lucas had what sounds to us like a girl’s first name, he was not effeminate. As a freshman, “Jack” Lucas was captain of his high-school football team, played all the other team sports, and wrestled and boxed. Like most small-town boys of his time, he hunted and could handle a shotgun and rifle. Although he only stood 5 feet 8 inches tall, he weighed a muscular 180 pounds.
In the August before his sophomore year, without his mother’s permission, Jack enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps. He claimed to be seventeen. He was still only fourteen. The year was 1942 and America was at war.
In the Marines, Jack did just fine. He qualified as a sharpshooter and then as a heavy machine-gun operator. In 1945, stationed on the cushy Hawaiian Islands, Jack walked out of camp and boarded a troop transport headed for the South Pacific. His commanding officer listed him as a deserter and put up a reward for his capture. In time of war, a deserter could be executed, so this was a very serious offense.
Believing himself safely out of danger of being returned to Hawaii, Lucas turned himself in to the Marine troop commander on board and was allowed to remain. The ship was going to Iwo Jima, where the Marines were about to engage in one of the toughest and deadliest battles of the entire war. The Marines would suffer approximately 25,000 casualties, including almost 7,000 killed. The vast majority of the 18,000 Japanese Imperial troops holding the island would fight to their deaths. Jack was unknowingly but voluntarily stepping into a hell on earth.
On the second day of the invasion of Iwo Jima, just six days after his seventeenth birthday, Jack and three of his buddies were creeping “through a treacherous, twisting ravine” near the front lines, when they were
suddenly ambushed by a hostile patrol which savagely attacked with rifle fire and grenades. Quick to act when the lives of the small group were endangered by two grenades which landed directly in front of them, Private First Class Lucas unhesitatingly hurled himself over his comrades upon one grenade and pulled the other one under him, absorbing the whole blasting force of the explosions in his own body in order to shield his companions from the concussion and murderous flying fragments.
Miraculously, Lucas survived. For the rest of his life he would set off metal detectors in airports due to the 200 pieces of shrapnel still in his body that the twenty-one surgeries he endured couldn’t remove. As his official citation recounts,
By his inspiring action and valiant spirit of self-sacrifice, he not only protected his comrades from certain injury or possible death, but also enabled them to rout the Japanese patrol and continue the advance.
For this action, Private First Class Lucas was awarded the Medal of Honor, the youngest Marine to ever receive it.
Jacklyn Lucas showed tremendous courage in being willing to sacrifice his life for his friends.
A “military” virtue
Lucas can be for us a model of the virtue of fortitude. The word fortitude comes from the Latin word fortis, which means strength. The English words fort and fortification come from this same root and mean stronghold or place of strength. Physical courage is one important dimension of the virtue of fortitude. The saying, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going” refers to this virtue.
Soldiers in combat need fortitude more than any other virtue. They may have to put up with freezing cold and burning heat, gnawing hunger and parching thirst, prolonged lack of sleep, clothing so filthy it has to be cut off them and burned, extreme physical exertion and exhaustion, constant noise, and the unrelenting threat of imminent death. They can experience misery which we can only imagine. They have to keep going no matter what, enduring hardships and taking initiatives. Their lives are marked by long periods of intense boredom interrupted by brief moments of complete terror. This is one reason why we should honor and respect our men and women in uniform and all veterans.
A virtue for all of us
My wife and I are very proud that one of our sons is currently as a United States Marine on active duty in the Pacific. But even though fortitude is the preeminent military virtue, all of us need it. Think of these examples:
- Your mother enduring morning sickness for the first three or four months when she was pregnant with you.
- A student, evening after evening, sitting at a desk doing boring Spanish language drills and memorizing vocabulary and verb tenses in order to master that language.
- A father getting out of bed every morning to go to work no matter how lousy he feels.
- A student deciding to run for a student council office against more popular kids.
- A young person moving away from home for the first time or an immigrant arriving in a new land.
- A student standing up in front of a class to give an oral report.
- A girl’s “no” to her boyfriend’s repeated request to have sex with her or her “good-bye” to him when she realizes sex is all he really wants from her.
- A follower of Christ facing disapproval, hostility, or even violence for just being a Christian.
- A parent whose grown child has a problem that the parent is helpless to ameliorate.
- Anyone willing to contemplate death and any person facing death-come-near either because of an illness, an injury, violence, or old age.
A tiny but important way I live the virtue of fortitude just before going into the confessional is making a quick plea to Our Lady to give me the courage to confess my sins.
The Cross and fortitude
Jacklyn Lucas lived the natural virtue of fortitude to a heroic degree but we have to go even further. We are to take up our cross daily in order to be worthy of Christ and the kingdom of heaven. As Our Lord instructed his disciples in no uncertain terms, “he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it” (Mt 10:38-39).
Losing one’s life in this context means being willing to endure the fear or pain, whether it is physical or mental, and offering it up to God as a sacrifice, just as Christ himself did, just as the martyrs did in following him.