In my youth, I prayed the rosary with my grandmother or other ladies from the parish after daily Mass. Before the first three Hail Marys, the leader always announced a special intention: “We pray for an increase in the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity.” As one could imagine, this piqued the curiosity of a twelve year old boy to inquire more about these virtues. Two questions emerged: What do we mean by theological virtues? Why ask Mary to intercede for us in regard to these virtues? The theological virtues of faith, hope, and love are graciously given to us by God and orient us toward God, beyond our natural capabilities. It is fitting we ask for an increase in these three virtues through Mary’s intercession because she possessed and exemplified these virtues. As such, Mary encourages us on our journey toward holiness.
Pope Emeritus Benedict called for a Year of Faith to help Catholics better understand the beliefs of their faith. This month, our celebration of the Year of Faith will reach its culmination. The Year of Faith began by Benedict’s entrustment to Our Lady at her shrine in Loreto. In his motu proprio data, Porta Fidei, Benedict also addressed the role of Mary in the life of the Church. Additionally, Mary has been a vital part of the Year of Faith as evidenced by last month’s Marian Day of Faith at the Vatican. With this in mind, as we end Annus Fidei, let us look to Mary as an example of faith, and more specifically, as a model of the three theological virtues.
Faith is belief in God and things not visible to us (e.g. eternal life). We receive the gift or grace of faith at our baptism. If we were baptized at a young age, our parents made the decision for us to receive this virtue. The virtue of faith involves the intellect (knowing divine principles) and the will (consenting to belief). Our intellect helps us to assent to what is non-apparent. There are several vices or threats to the virtue of faith: unbelief, heresy, apostasy, blasphemy, and blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.
Mary was a woman of deep faith. When the Angel Gabriel appeared and announced that she would be the Mother of God, she expressed her faith by her fiat, her yes to God. She also had faith in her Son at the Wedding Feast of Cana, when she interceded for the couple because they ran out of wine. She believed Jesus could help the couple. Mary also helps us to have a greater understanding of Jesus. This is evidenced by one of the threats to faith: heresy. In the 400’s, a heresy called Nestorianism rejected the title Theotokos or God-bearer, a name attributed to Mary. Nestorius claimed that Mary was only the mother of Jesus’ humanity. In 431, at the Council of Ephesus, the Church rejected Nestorius’ claims and declared that since the second person of the Trinity took on a human nature through Mary, she could rightly be called Mother of God. By defining Mary’s role, we can better understand Jesus’ role in salvation. Mary leads us to faith.
The second theological virtue, hope, is defined as trust in God’s help to obtain our eternal happiness. The virtue of hope is centered on our goal of heaven and anticipating the world to come. In order to have hope for salvation and eternal happiness, it is first necessary to have faith! Hope also has its own set of vices: despair and presumption. Despair is having too little hope in God. Mary, at the foot of the cross, was the antithesis of despair. As she watched Jesus suffer and die, she could have despaired, asking God why her Son had to suffer and die. She could have lost her faith and hope in God, but instead she held out hope in her Son’s promises. She maintained hope that she would be united with Jesus again in heaven. There are two connected vices to despair: lust and sloth. Both are related to apathy. If I am lustful, my desire for the spiritual is hindered by my inordinate desires for pleasure. I despair by believing God does not give me the grace to turn toward Him. If I am slothful, I do not believe I can rise to the good, so why bother trying. It would be easy to look to Mary and say, “Mary was such a saintly person, and she was perfect; I could never be like her, so why should I even try?” We should try, because by imitating the virtues we see in Mary, we become closer to her Son, and have an even greater hope in God’s grace.
The other vice opposed to hope is presumption, either about one’s own power or in God’s power. Presumption places too much hope in God to the point of underestimating God’s mercy and justice. Mary’s Assumption and Coronation give us hope that we too may one day enjoy eternal bliss. This grace should not be presumed merely because of our devotion; instead, we must continue to live virtuous lives, filled with hope. Unfortunately, Marian devotion sometimes promotes presumption because of promises attached to specific devotions. For example, a person who wears the scapular is promised that he or she will not suffer eternal punishment. Mistakenly, the scapular could be seen as a “get out of jail free card,” in other words presumptuous if one relies solely upon the promises attached to wearing it. However, wearing the scapular entails fidelity to one’s vocation and persistent prayer. Salvation is not presumed; rather the scapular should help us deepen our faith and hope in God’s power to save us.
St. Paul wrote in his letter to the Corinthians: “So faith, hope, love remain, these three; but the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor 13:13 NAB). The third virtue, charity or love, is intimately connected with faith and hope. Of the virtues, love lasts the longest because its full attainment is union with God in heaven. Thus, when one experiences eternal life, faith and hope are no longer necessary, because only love remains. Consequently, love gives life to all the other virtues. Aristotle said to love is to will the good of others. Christianity sees charity as loving God and also one’s neighbor for God’s sake. True love is friendship with God which permeates and affects our relationships with others. Mary can be held as an example of love because after receiving the words of the Angel Gabriel, she went in haste to the hillside of Judea to assist her cousin Elizabeth. Elizabeth, who in old age miraculously conceived a son, required the assistance of others. Mary, filled with the love of God, went to serve and love others. The vices opposed to love are hatred, sloth, envy, discord, schism, offense, and scandal.
To grow in the virtues of faith, hope and charity, it is necessary to root out the vices specific to each virtue. In terms of the vices related to faith, it is important to study the faith and understand Jesus. Read the Church Fathers and other Catholic writers. Also, we need to be cognizant of our language, how we speak about God, so as to be careful not to blaspheme by taking His name in vain. For the vices related to hope, despair and presumption, it is crucial to continue fostering trust in God, even in difficulties, and then ask God for forgiveness when we fail through the Sacrament of Penance. Persevere in prayer, asking God for help. To rid ourselves of offenses against love, we must practice small acts of charity toward an enemy or refrain from speaking ill of someone in order to build up those around us. Lastly, we can pray that God will give us the grace to expel vice.
Those three opening Hail Marys for faith, hope, and charity, are important. In so doing, we express our faith that God will hear Mary’s prayers. We are hopeful that she will “pray for us now and at the hour of our death,” so that we may eternally love God in Heaven. May we continually seek the things of Heaven through the intercession and guidance of Mary, the model of virtue, by our words and actions.
This article was originally written for a class on moral theology and was modified for this online publication. The original article is also under consideration for publication in the Chicago New World. To read Edward’s published works, consider ordering one of his books from his online store.