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Fatima - July 12, 2006

The catechetical theme of the Sanctuary of Fatima this year is “The 6th Commandment: Protecting Chastity”. The sixth commandment calls the baptized to the practice of the virtue of purity. The commandment encompasses the whole of human sexuality and is intimately related to the ninth commandment which directly addresses the purification of the heart. Both commandments insist that absolute continence is a duty of those who are not united in the bonds of lawful marriage.

I will explore something uniquely Christian about the virtue of purity. It is the most mysterious of the virtues. Christians would never have thought of it if they had not looked forward to the resurrection of the body.

In 1956 Flannery O’Connor, a Catholic writer from the American South, developed this point of view. She shared in a letter to a friend her remarkable views on the virtue of purity. By purity she meant chastity both among the married and unmarried. Purity, she claimed, involves more than renunciation, “I don’t assume that renunciation goes with submission, or even that renunciation is good in itself. Always you renounce a lesser good for a greater; the opposite is what sin is.” Then she goes on to admonish persons not to boast of their purity, “And along this line I think the phrase ‘naive purity’ is a contradiction in terms. I don’t think purity is mere innocence; I don’t think babies and idiots possess it. I take it to be something that comes either with experience or with Grace so that it can never be naive. On the matter of purity we can never judge ourselves, much less anybody else. Anyone who thinks he’s pure is surely not.” In her last point O’Connor was applying the more general teaching of St. Paul, “Therefore, let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Cor 10:12). And in another passage St. Paul wrote along similar lines, “If any one thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself” (Gal 6: 3).

Many who are still influenced by 19th century mechanism believe that the Church’s teachings on virtue are hideous and they especially reject her teaching on the virtues of chastity and purity. They deride the observance of the sixth commandment as emotionally disturbing, even downright repulsive and against nature. In her vigorous defense of the virtue of purity, Flannery O’Connor revealed her profound understanding both of faith and of imitation of Paul of Tarsus who imitates Jesus Christ (1 Thes 4; 1 ff). She defends rigorously her own conviction that the evangelical life of virtue is inseparable from the core of the Christian faith. In a 1955 letter she reveals the depths of her faith by boldly and brilliantly founding the origins of the virtue of purity in the resurrection of the body. “For me it is the virgin birth, the Incarnation, the resurrection which are the true laws of the flesh and the physical. Death, decay, destruction are the suspension of these laws. I am always astonished at the emphasis the Church puts on the body. It is not the soul she says will rise but the body, glorified. I have always thought that purity was the most mysterious of virtues, but it occurs to me that it would never have entered the human consciousness to conceive of purity if we were not to look forward to a resurrection of the body, which will be flesh and spirit united in peace, in the way they were in Christ. The resurrection of Christ seems the high point of the law of nature....”

O’Connor is saying here that it is primarily the remembrance of Christ’s Paschal mystery and of one’s own baptism that provide the foundation and motivation for the practice of the virtue of purity and of all other virtues. St. Paul taught exactly this norm when he wrote,”“Finally, brethren, we beseech and exhort you in the Lord Jesus, that as you learned from us how you ought to live and to please God, just as you are doing, you do so more and more.......For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from unchastity” (1 Thes 4: 1, 3). In the entire New Testament the practice of virtue was based on the appearance of the eschaton, that is, of Jesus’s saving work in his death and resurrection.

The reading we have heard this evening from the Letter to the Hebrews speaks of the virtues which should inform the relationships between Christians. The author enumerates the following form of Christian moral conduct: the baptized are to love one another, show hospitality, remember those in prison, and the ill-treated. Finally, the author underscores the catechetical theme chosen for the year 2006 at the Sanctuary of Fatima mentioned earlier: The Sixth Commandment, Protect Chastity. He elaborates on marital purity, “Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled; for God will judge the immoral and adulterous.”

The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews has placed these moral exhortations clearly within a new and total form of life into which human seeking has been forged under the tutelage of faith in the God of Jesus Christ. He introduces the moral part of his letter with the proclamation of the indivisible unity of faith and life, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb 12: 1-2).

The inviolability of marital chastity is likewise a prominent theme in the early Church. St. Ignatius of Antioch writes to Polycarp. “Tell my sisters to love the Lord and be contented with their husbands in body and spirit. In the same way charge my brethren also in the name of Jesus Christ to love their wives as the Lord loves the church ” (5).

St. Ignatius counsels the virtue of virginity while he gives a strong admonishment not to make a display of it: “ If anyone is able to maintain chastity to the honor of the flesh of the Lord, let him maintain it without boasting. If he boasts of it, he is lost, and if anyone besides the bishop knows it, he is ruined.” St. Ignatius is applying the importance Jesus placed on the quiet way in which Christians should go about various ascetical practices like praying, fasting and almsgiving, “But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing so your alms may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Mt. 6: 4).

There can be no doubt that St. Ignatius here understood that Christian doctrine and marital chastity are mutually interdependent. He used the politically dangerous word, “Christian”, in his letter to Polycarp as he did in others. From the time of the Emperor Hadrian, Roman Law used christiani to mean members of Christ’s band of conspirators against the state. To be a Christian was a crime against the state punishable by death. Christians were considered traitorous criminals. In his letters Ignatius used the word with theological irony. As a matter of fact, fellowship with Christ is a participation through baptism in Jesus’s death and through death in his life. Married Christians, Ignatius was saying, make Jesus’s way of living and dying their own. The Roman legal term, ‘Christian’ meant, ironically, that such a person was involved in fellowship with Christ. Thus Roman criminal law expressed precisely the meaning of the word ‘Christian’: the Christian vocation was punishable by death precisely because it meant participation in the ‘con-spiratio’ of the Spirit of Jesus Christ.

I recall how deeply I was affected by the canonization on June 24, 1950 of the youthful virgin-martyr, Maria Goretti. Present in St. Peter’s Square on that occasion were both her mother and her murderer, Alessandro Serenelli. At the time of her martyrdom in defense of her purity, I was seventeen years of age. Her witness to purity and courage became the polar star of my generation.

Her martyrdom began on July 5, 1902. The family of her assailant shared the same house with the Gorettis . It was located above an old barn among the poor farmers of the Pontine Marshes south of Rome. Her assailant, Alessandro, was twenty years old at the time of the attack on the 12 year old Maria. He later testified that Maria appealed to him to stop his assault for the safety of his soul and urged him not to commit such a grave sin. Before dying of stab wounds the following day, she forgave him and prayed that God would forgive him.

Like Flannery O’Connor, St. Maria Goretti, whose memorial the Church just celebrated on July 6,understood that purity was intimately connected with the dignity of the human body. She was aware that the Church taught that it was not the soul but the body which will arise, glorified. With the Church she confessed each Sunday, “I believe in the resurrection of the body.” She witnessed to the mystery that the Incarnation and resurrection of Jesus are the true laws of nature, of the flesh and of the physical.

St Maria Goretti, Pray for us!

J. Francis Cardinal Stafford
Major Penitentiary