A Pastoral Letter on Courage

Author: John R. Keating


Bishop John R. Keating

Given on August 29, 1996 on Feast of the Martyrdom of John the Baptist

My brothers and sisters in the Lord:

At the heart of Jesus' message is His call to courage, a theme that dominates from the opening overture of the Christian era. The angel Gabriel, sent to announce the Incarnation 2,000 years ago, exhorted Elizabeth and Zachary, then Mary and Joseph: "Don't be afraid." The fearless witness of John the Baptist, Jesus' cousin and herald, dramatically set the tone of Christian courage, in his words and deeds, in his life and in his death.

From the outset of His public life, Jesus constantly challenged people to courage, whether He was addressing large audiences or dealing with an individual person suffering from a physical, emotional, or spiritual disability. Over and again He challenged His apostles to overcome fear in the face of physical danger (e.g., the storms on the sea), or in the face of spiritual trial (e.g., public ridicule in evangelizing). He told Peter, as leader of the nascent church, that he had to be the rock of courage, inspiring fortitude in his brothers.

Pope John Paul II, the successor of Peter, carries on the Christian challenge to courage in a remarkable way. Courage has been the hallmark and clarion call of his pontificate from the first day. "Do not fear" were the very first words he uttered to the world upon his election as pope on October 22, 1978. The Italian phrase "Non abbiate paura" reverberated across St. Peter's piazza that glorious day, inspiring the thousands present, and the millions watching on television worldwide. If you have read his Crossing the Threshold of Hope (1994), you know that the book begins and ends on that very theme. His closing words are:

"The Pope who began his papacy with the words 'Be not afraid!' tries to be completely faithful to this exhortation and is always ready to be at the service of man, nations, and humanity in the spirit of this truth of the Gospel."

It is not without foundation that the Holy Father refers to the challenge to courage as a "truth of the Gospel." Further, he suggests that in our day and age the strength of courage is needed more than ever:

"At the end of the second millennium, we need, perhaps more than ever, the words of the Risen Christ: 'Be not afraid!' Man who, even after the fall of Communism, has not stopped being afraid and who truly has many reasons for feeling this way, needs to hear these words. Nations need to hear them, especially those nations that have been reborn after the fall of the Communist empire, as well as those that witnessed this event from the outside. Peoples and nations of the entire world need to hear these words... [the Risen Christ] alone can give the ultimate assurance when He says 'Be not afraid!'" (Crossing the Threshold of Hope, pp.221-222)

Today's Cultural Intimidators

There is special need of spiritual courage among believers today because of the uncommon power of a number of cultural intimidators that surround us.

Political correctness can often inspire a powerful fear of ridicule, prejudice, or ostracism. It can cow a person into concealing or acting against his convictions. It can exercise its influence over a wide spectrum of daily life , from parish liturgy committees to state legislatures, from television network news to scriptural translations. The power of fashion , "O tempora, o mores!" , and the fear of not conforming, reduce personal freedom of choice and dictate not only externals like clothing and music, but also intellectual and spiritual values like truth and conscience. "It is not the world's applause," said Pope John Paul this past June in Germany, "but the faithful confession of Jesus Christ that is the sign of an authentic disciple of Christ."

Sexual permissiveness is another powerful intimidator. Since the so-called sexual revolution of the 1960's and 1970's, laws prohibiting adultery, fornication, sodomy, pornography, contraception, and abortion have been progressively lifted, spawning a general mentality that there is "nothing wrong" with such behavior, that such practices do not harm the common good of our society. The contemporary collapse of family life and values is unrelated, they say, and government should not attempt again to promote self control in matters sexual. In this kind of cultural climate, the courage to be chaste is a special gift indeed.

Radical feminism has demonstrated its ability to substitute the traditional "complementarity of roles" of men and women with "equality of roles." As radical feminism promotes, for example, the acceptability of cohabitation without marital commitment; as radical feminism demands that abortion be readily available as an exclusively female option to bear or to abort a child, it unwittingly justifies male abandonment and lack of commitment. In the secular square, in the world of ideas, it takes a great deal of courage these days to stand up to the sloganeering of radical feminism.

The culture of death, as Pope John Paul calls it, is extending its influence in our society in removing laws protecting the life of the unborn, the partially born, and the fully born who lack a requisite "quality of life." The advocates of assisted suicide are using the same methods used so successfully by the advocates of abortion: Justify the highly atypical case and you justify all cases. Yes, it now takes an added dose of courage in our day for the medical profession to stand up to those who are attempting to extend the role of the doctor from the culture of life and healing to the culture of death and dying.

The Courage Of The Wedding Vows

The sacrament of matrimony requires two great forms of courage: (1) the courage to bond exclusively and irrevocably with a partner; (2) the courage to remain open with one's partner to the gift of children. Love is the source and support of both of these forms of courage.

Those without the requisite courage, hoping to soften the pain of eventual breakup, lower their expectations in entering marriage and hold back from total self-giving in the indispensable commitments to permanence, fidelity, and openness to new life. Some shrink from making wedding vows at all, preferring a marriage-like arrangement of cohabitation without an exchange of mutual rights and obligations. Some convince themselves that they are safeguarding their long-term happiness by remaining unencumbered by the heavy personal commitments of the marriage covenant.

The truth of the matter, however, is that a partner's long-term happiness is promoted not by non-entanglement, but by the totality of one's self-giving in the irrevocable and exclusive bonding of marriage. Is it natural to fear the self-sacrifice required in marriage? Of course it is. Is it normal to have serious second thoughts when it dawns on you that marriage and childbearing will radically alter your life style and personal priorities? Of course it is. But one of the strongest sacramental graces of matrimony is the ability to overcome fear, and to realize that love can actually make it easy; and perfect love can make it a joy.

The angel Gabriel was sent by God to bring a message to a virgin named Mary in the village of Nazareth:

"Do not be afraid, Mary. You have found favor in the eyes of God. You are to become a mother, and to bear a son, and to call him Jesus."

Who of us is unfamiliar with the story of the birth of Jesus, the story of Christmas, the rejoicing of the angels and the shepherds...and then the menace of Herod, the slaughter of the innocents, the hasty exile of Joseph and Mary into Egypt in order to protect the life of their infant. Who of you parents cannot easily relate to the trauma of learning that your child is lost, and you do not know whether he's dead or alive? Who of you cannot relate to Mary's utter relief and joy in finding her twelve-year-old son after three days of searching.

In the gospel narrative of the simultaneous pregnancies of Elizabeth and Mary, and of the birth of John and then of Jesus, there are some striking similarities and repeated themes. In both instances there was concern over the impending pregnancy. The basis of concern for Elizabeth was her age; for Mary it was her virginity. "Don't be afraid," said the angel Gabriel to Elizabeth's husband, Zachary. "Don't be afraid," he said to Mary of Nazareth a little later. "Don't be afraid," he repeated to Joseph.

In every pregnancy, there is bound to be concern and worry. It is only natural that there be an element of fear involved in a pregnancy, perhaps an initial fear of conception itself, and then, once the pregnancy is known, fear of the impending delivery, fear of a birth defect, fear of the long-term responsibilities involved. Sure, there is fear, for both the mother-to-be and the father-to-be. And sadly, the secular culture that dominates in this age is adept at exploiting those fears for its own ends, disseminating a powerful anti-life ethic.

Of course, there is the natural fear of the father when he begins to think of the financial responsibility this child will entail, the emotional demand the child will make, the educational commitment involved. Fear? Of course. But the angel has relayed a message from God: "Zachary, don't be afraid." And the mother-to-be, fear? Of course. There's bound to be an element of worry for the well-being of her child, an element of burden when she begins to visualize the years ahead and the subordination of her own desires to those of her child. Fear? Of course. But the angel has relayed a message from God: "Mary, don't be afraid!"

The trouble with present-day promoters of the anti-life ethic is that they simply fail to take into account the capacity of the human heart to love. They fail to grasp the wisdom of ages, that the deepest and most lasting joys and consolations of the human heart are found precisely within the heaviest responsibilities we undertake. The obvious example? Childbearing and childrearing. "Zachary, don't be afraid....Mary, don't be afraid."

The Courage To Answer The Call

Social scientists have observed that our contemporary culture, so markedly different from that of 35 years ago, has conditioned our young people to avoid long-term commitments. This would explain, for example, why we have witnessed the growing phenomenon of cohabitation without benefit of marriage, the practice of copulation without personal consequence (through contraception and abortion), the increasing incidence of divorce, and the decreasing incidence of religious vocations.

If young Catholic men and women today are not stepping forward in adequate numbers to embrace the priesthood or religious life, it is not because they lack the God-given capability to make a lifelong religious commitment. Rather, in my judgment, it is because our culture openly questions that "God-given capability" in our young people, thereby intimidating them, confusing them, and sapping their self-confidence.

Confusion is a prelude to timidity; clarity is a condition for courage.

When young men, for example, are able to see clearly what the mission of the Church really is, see clearly what the authentic message of Jesus and His Church really is, see clearly what the demands of the priestly life really are , they will more likely take that critical first step of contacting the right person: the vocations director of a Diocese, or the vocations director of a religious community.

When young women are able clearly to see through the hapless stereotypes of religious life created by the media and entertainment industries, able to be awed by the powerful counter-cultural witness of religious life, able to appreciate deeply the focused corporate charism of a particular religious community that is faithful to the essential elements of religious life, they will more likely have the courage to take a step forward and see for themselves. Clarity breeds courage; confusion breeds fear and hesitation.

Young people respond to initiative, directness, honesty, and candor. Young people today, as before, have an uncommon generosity to "dream the impossible dream." They have the élan to aim for the highest goals, to give themselves to the most sublime challenges, and to think little of the cost. That is the kind of stuff that sparks a religious vocation and makes the Holy Spirit's action come alive in people.

In recent years I have met scores of young people who unmistakably have all the personal qualities to make them outstanding priests or religious. They have an unforced sense of self, an untroubled faith, an unselfish spirit. They are respected by their peers and relate easily to elders and youngsters alike. They are blessed with good health and good humor.

They have no phony illusions about the world or about themselves. They sense the sacred as quickly as they sense the ridiculous. They know that they depend upon others as much as others depend on them. In a word, they are solid in the faith and solid in themselves as persons.

In the years that I have been a priest, the question most commonly put to me is not: "Is there really life after death?" or "Is there really a God who cares and forgives?" No, the most common question has always been: "What ever made you decide to become a priest?"

The quizzical look on the questioner's face always baffles me. I can never tell if (a) he or she thinks that dedicating your life to religion is absolutely crazy, or if (b) at one time he or she was thinking along these lines and is now curious about what was missing to take the step.

In this day and age, too often the missing ingredient is self-confidence, that crucial kind of courage that springs from clarity. When young people take the step to commit themselves for life to the priesthood or religious life, they exhibit an extraordinary measure of courage. The burst of applause in the ceremony of priestly ordination, for example, is a spine-tingling expression of public admiration for such courage.

There was no applause, of course, for the rich young man of the gospels whom Jesus called to become his follower. The call was personal and direct. The young man demurred; he counted the cost and gave in to the fear of letting go. (Mt.19:16-22)

On the other hand, the Blessed Virgin's fearless "fiat" ("Let it be done to me according to your word.") will forever be the paragon of answering God's call with consummate courage, total generosity, nothing held back.

The Courage To Confess

One of the strongest steps in the spiritual life is to go over to church and go to confession. The faith of Catholics is that God's forgiveness of our sins is certified by the words of absolution given by the priest. Knowing through an audible, visible sign that our sins are truly forgiven is one of the purest and surest joys of our faith.

Getting to confession, however, can take a good deal of courage. First, there is the cultural justification that can persuade us that whatever we've done is not really worthy of personal guilt, since it's permissible on television, permissible under the law, or permissible until someone catches me doing it. Our modern era that rushes to anesthetize the sense of guilt, that recommends a "not guilty" plea no matter the truth, would make confession an unneeded and unwanted exercise.

Secondly, it takes some spiritual spunk to admit sincerely to another that we are indeed sinners who are in need of graces far beyond our own resources.

Thirdly, expressing to a priest what one dare not express to anyone else on earth can be an intimidating prospect, except for the fact that the need of spiritual resurrection, the unfailing compassion of Jesus, and the seal of confession converge to make this sacramental encounter something extraordinarily uplifting for the human spirit.

One might say, in a nutshell, that the basic two-pronged courage we need as sincere believers is simply the courage to profess and the courage to confess...to profess one's faith, and to confess one's sins.

"Awareness of our own sinfulness, including that which is inherited, is the first condition for salvation; the next is the confession of this sin before God, who desires only to receive this confession so that He can save man. To save means to embrace and lift up with redemptive love, with love that is always greater than any sin. In this regard the parable of the prodigal son is an unsurpassable paradigm." (Crossing the Threshold of Hope, p.58)

The Courage Of Conviction

In recent years adversity has deepened and clarified one of the hallowed convictions of the ages , the humanity of the child in the womb. Governments which traditionally provided protection for innocent human life, yet unborn, now promote a woman's "right" to abort her baby, sometimes even engaging or paying others to dispose of it for her. In a culture that "sees nothing wrong" in destroying a pre-born individual, it takes an added dose of courage to live one's conviction that human life is sacred, standing at the very summit of all visible creation.

Yes, nowadays it takes a special strength of character to stand fast against a culture of death, whether you are speaking of a distressed expectant mother, a medical professional tempted to indulge in destructive "reproductive services," or a legislator whose role is to create the laws that protect our rights and indicate our common obligations one to another.

The Catholic legislator who votes to enact laws to legitimize access to abortion is sometimes referred to as a "pro-choice" Catholic politician. Many fellow Catholics have wondered aloud how a public person can simultaneously profess to be Catholic and "pro-choice," since the Church's constant teaching is unambiguously "pro-life," that is, consistently recognizing the sacredness and inviolability of all human life, from conception until death.

Some Catholics in public life have rationalized the apparent incongruity of their public stand with this argument: the First Amendment does not allow a legislature to impose religious beliefs on the citizenry. But the humanity of the child in the womb is a religious belief. Therefore...

The trouble with this argument is simply that the humanity of the child in the womb is not a religious belief, anymore than your humanity or my humanity is a religious belief. It is a natural, observable, verifiable fact of life. We don't need to make an act of faith to know that the life in the womb is human, individual, and composed of all the elements of humanity that you and I have. The fact that the Catholic Church has reaffirmed this obvious piece of observable data thousands of times over the past two millennia does not therefore make it a "religious belief." Even Roe v. Wade did not resort to this specious First Amendment argument in legalizing abortion across our country.

Catholics in political life who are "pro-choice" have a kindred spirit and forerunner in one of Jesus' own acquaintances and admirers, a man by the name of Nicodemus. John's gospel tells three stories about Nicodemus, who was one of the 71 members of the Jewish government, the Sanhedrin, which exercised legislative, judicial, and executive power from its chambers in Jerusalem. In each of the three episodes narrated in John's gospel, Nicodemus is seen as an honest believer in Jesus who nonetheless, because of his distinguished position in government, gave in to the pressure of political correctness (or "human respect" as we used to say) and hid his personal convictions about Jesus from public view.

In the first episode (John 3) Nicodemus wanted dearly to meet Jesus but he made sure that nobody saw him associating with him. He visited Jesus late at night "under the cloak of darkness." In the second episode (John 7), in the chambers of the Sanhedrin where the debate that day was mercilessly vilifying Jesus and was leading to a plot to destroy him, Nicodemus, in an effort to defuse their enmity, rose to address his colleagues, but only on a point of order, without revealing his personal convictions about Jesus.

In the third episode (John 19), after the crucifixion and death of Jesus, Nicodemus inconspicuously came to the wake bringing an expensive gift of embalming herbs. Once again, he came "under the cloak of darkness," lest he be recognized as a believer.

Nicodemus, as honest and generous as he was, has never been canonized by the Church. Why? Because, in spite of his faith and generosity, he lacked that all-important virtue in the believer who serves in public life , the courage of his convictions.

Courage At The Core Of Community

The characteristics that Jesus imbued in His church, the features that would enable it to be recognized as his church, have traditionally been called the four "notes" of the church , unity, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity. Each Sunday in the creed we affirm together: "We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church."

Outsiders sometimes marvel at the unity of the Catholic Church, a worldwide society that exhibits incredible oneness of structure, belief, worship and law. The publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church in dozens of languages around the world is a recent example of that remarkable unity.

Because of that characteristic unity, when internal voices of dissent and discord are heard within the church, this "uncharacteristic" phenomenon therefore appears quite newsworthy, and is often highlighted by the news media.

The binding, unifying force of community is love. Where love prevails, there you will find that oneness of the ecclesial community that Jesus prayed for before his death. On the other hand, where dissent and dissension prevail, where Catholic attacks Catholic, where love is lacking, the life of the community is injured and the whole body suffers.

As in Jesus' time, present-day attacks can come from opposite sides, from those who think that church life or leadership is too strict, and from those who think that church life or leadership is too lax. Jesus suffered the slings and arrows on one side from the Pharisees, on the other side from the Sadducees.

Oddly, it sometimes happens that those who sow disunity, whether in a parish or in a diocese, believe that they are demonstrating courage by standing up "on principle" and attacking fellow believers. But virtue, as St. Thomas Aquinas pointed out so sagely, "stands in the middle," neither deficient nor excessive in its reach, but balanced and reasonable. Bravery ceases to be virtuous if it overreaches into bravado; courage ceases to be virtuous when it soars to rashness and recklessness.

No, real courage is found in those who quietly work for unity in the church, who endure the attacks of the discordant with patience and charity. Where charity prevails, unity ensues, and the community of God's people can get on with the work of achieving salvation as brothers and sisters in the faith.

"Be Not Afraid"

If courage is the strength to overcome fear in order to do what is right, then I pray that the Holy Spirit, in delivering the great gift of courage He promised you in your Confirmation, will sear into your soul a recurring refrain to sustain you the rest of your life: "Be not afraid."

Parents, don't be afraid to engage your children at any age in religious dialogue, and to challenge them to a stronger Catholic life. Don't be afraid to discuss their possible religious vocation.

Husbands, don't be afraid to love your wives as Christ loves His church...unconditionally, magnanimously, irrevocably.

Wives, don't be afraid to serve your husbands' highest calling and quest, eternal life after death.

Teachers, don't be afraid to show the witness and example of your own Catholic faith to your students.

Principals of Catholic schools, don't be afraid to promote a solidly Catholic moral climate in your school.

Presidents of Catholic colleges, don't be afraid to insist on the Catholic identity of your institution in its purpose, its policies, and its personnel.

Fellow priests, don't be afraid to preach the "hard sayings" of Jesus' message. At the same time, don't be afraid to show compassion for the pain of the human condition. Always remember what Jesus said to his 12 apostles as he was sending them out to preach:

"Do not let them intimidate you. Nothing is concealed that will not be revealed, and nothing is hidden that will not become known. What I tell you in darkness, speak in the light. What you hear in private, proclaim from housetops." (Mt.10:26-27)

College students, don't be afraid to be "practicing Catholics" before the eyes of your classmates.

High school students, don't be afraid to be chaste, and to be known as such.

Elementary school students, don't be afraid of those who can bully and bait you, but only of Him who has power to judge your soul.

Doctors, don't be afraid to confront the "culture of death" that promotes or condones abortion and euthanasia.

Legislators and judges, don't be afraid as Nicodemus was, to act openly with the courage of your convictions.

Parishioners, don't be afraid to respond to the voices of dissent and disunity with a chorus of harmony and unity.

My friends, don't be afraid to stand up for Christ and his bride, the Church.


I will never forget that glorious Sunday morning in Oriole Park, Camden Yards, Baltimore , Oct. 8, 1995 , when Pope John Paul II celebrated Mass with 50,000 people alternating between rapt devotion and boisterous exhilaration.

He was offering this Mass, he said, "for a strengthening of that vitality and Christian courage at every level of the Church in the United States: among the laity, among the priests and religious, among my brother bishops...This is what the successor of Peter has come to Baltimore to urge upon each one of you: the courage to bear witness to the Gospel of our redemption."

In his homily the Holy Father continued:

"There is no evil to be faced that Christ does not face with us. There is no enemy that Christ has not already conquered. There is no cross to bear that Christ has not already borne for us, and does not now bear with us... 'The Spirit God has given us is no cowardly spirit...Therefore, never be ashamed of your testimony to our Lord' (II Tim. 1:7). Thus wrote St. Paul to Timothy, almost 2000 years ago; thus speaks the Church to American Catholics today."

Uniquely, powerfully, here was the world's consummate profile in courage speaking to us about courage.

I pray daily for you, that the gift of courage which the Holy Spirit promised you on the day of your Confirmation grow deeper and more pervasive in every facet of your life, especially as you face the hardest decisions and heaviest crosses on your path to eternal life.

As for me, your bishop, I can only say, in the words that St. Paul wrote in the final lines of his letter to the Christian community at Ephesus:

"Pray for me that I may courageously make known the mystery of the gospel...Pray that for its sake I may have the courage to speak as I ought." (Eph.6:19-20)

Devotedly yours in Christ,

John R. Keating
Bishop of Arlington