In the account of the calling of the apostles in the gospel according to Saint Mark, we are presented with an important lesson in the Christian life. We know that the response of the fishermen, of Simon (who will be called Peter), Andrew, James, and John, was to leave their work and follow Christ, and we know that their action was immediate; they did not hear the call and consider it, but dropped everything to follow their Lord. But who are these men to be called by Christ? We know them of course by name, but why did the Lord call them to be his apostles, together, and so make them what we might call the four cornerstones of the Christian Church?
Names are rarely inconsequential in the scriptures; we know of the importance of the names of Adam and Eve, of Abraham, and even of Our Lord himself; the names of the apostles, Simon, Andrew, James, and John, are no exception. One commentator writes that ‘Simon means obedient; Andrew, manly; James, supplanter; John, grace’ (Catena Aurea). These are not personality traits, but a set of supernatural characteristics that themselves point beyond these men as individuals and toward Christ; providing by their life a sign of what we, in turn, are called to become.
Furthermore these characteristics are linked to what the Church identifies as the virtues of prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude; the Cardinal Virtues. The same commentator instructs that we can identify each of these virtues as the source of the characteristic of each of the chosen apostles: ‘for by prudence, we obey [that is Simon]; by justice, we bear ourselves manfully [that is Andrew]; by temperance, we tread the serpent underfoot [that is James]; by fortitude, we earn the grace of God’ [that is John]. It is for good reason, then, and not by chance that Our Lord calls these particular men, and does so together: to offer a definitive guide for the life that is required of all of us who wish to share with them the life of Christ, and so become his disciples and follow him.
What is the purpose of virtue in the Christian life? Saint Thomas Aquinas tells us that grace builds on nature and so our reception of the sacraments, and particularly Holy Communion, requires us to prepare the ground of our soul for its fruitful reception. This means we must constantly steer closer to the Lord, by growing away from our tendency to sin, and toward the perfection to which he calls us. We do this by building up in our lives habits which are virtuous, at the same avoiding habits which are sinful. By so allowing the Lord’s teaching and discipline to take root in us, we are made ready to receive the gifts he bestows on us through the sacramental mysteries of the Church: ‘Prepare ye a way for the Lord, make his paths straight’, says Saint John the Baptist; by living according to this way of virtue, we do just that.
Let us examine, then, the Cardinal Virtues which we find presented in these apostles. First, prudence, by which we learn to direct each action of our lives toward its lawful and proper means. In our moral lives this means a certain discernment; not working things out on our own, but ensuring that our decisions always side with the law of Christ. By this we grow in obedience, which is the characteristic given to Simon Peter. In the gospel according to Saint John we hear the Lord say to him, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you girded yourself and walked where you would; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go’ (Jn 21: 18). By Saint Peter’s death, and the subsequent witness of so many martyr-popes as his successors, we too learn the virtue of prudence which leads us to obedience; beyond ourselves and to Christ.
Secondly, justice, by which we learn to give that which belongs to each. This is not equality. As a saintly priest says, ‘God in his infinite and perfect justice and mercy treats with the same love, but in an unequal way, his unequal children’. Rather, it is fairness between men, and the giving of due worship by man to God. It is for this reason that justice is called ‘the virtue of religion’, and why we identify Saint Andrew as just; because he gave his very self as a sacrificial offering to God, crying out at his death, ‘O good Cross, so long desired, I come unto thee with confidence and joy’.
Thirdly, temperance, by which we moderate what gives us pleasure and find balance in the use of the things around us (CCC 1809). This is the means of overcoming temptation, particularly gluttony and lust, and conquering the advances of sin. Temperance does not simply permit moderation in all things—there are things that are always and forever evil—but rather limits our desire to sin, and so leads us back to the way of Christ. This is the particular attribute of Saint James, who is recorded in one account to have lived very simply, abstaining from meat and wearing only simple clothes. In this tempering of worldly pleasures he found refuge from sin and temptation in simplicity and poverty and simplicity, giving him the strength to give himself entirely to the service of the Lord (cf. Saint Epiphanius).
Finally, fortitude, by which we ensure firmness in difficulties and constancy in the pursuit of good (CCC 1808). In this we find a certain spiritual robustness which enables us to find the way to God. Saint John’s writings reveal this characteristic in his life, and he is said to have survived an attempted execution in boiling oil, such was his resolve to submit not even to death, but only to Christ. It is this virtue of fortitude which we hear in the words of the Lord in the gospel according to Saint John: ‘In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world’ (Jn 16: 33). This strength of mind and action is the essence and spirit of fortitude.
The gospel today provides a message worthy of our contemplation. The mystery of the life of Christ is not a mystery because it is incomprehensible, but because it continues to unfold before us each time we receive it, taking root in hearts prepared by lives lived in virtue, and thus in union with Christ. So let us allow this mystery to grow in us afresh, by imitating Christ and his saints in lives given over to the things that draw us closer to him. May the virtues laid before us be of encouragement to us that, with God’s grace, may we learn to live them with sincerity and resolve, growing in virtue in this life, and being made ready to receive the grace we require for the next.