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The Cardinal Virtues - Prudence

Catechesis by St John Paul II      
General Audience, Wednesday 25 October 1978 - in English, French, Italian, Portuguese & Spanish

"When on Wednesday 27 September the Holy Father John Paul I spoke to the participants at the general audience, no one could have imagined that it would be for the last time. His death — after 33 days of pontificate — surprised the whole world and filled it with a deep sadness. He who had given such great joy to the Church and such great hope to men has, in such a short time, consummated and completed his mission. In his death the words so often repeated in the Gospel have been confirmed: "... be ready because the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect" (Mt 24, 44). John Paul I always kept watch. The call of the Lord did not surprise him. He followed it with the same trembling joy as on 26 August he had accepted his election to St Peter's throne.

Today it is John Paul II who, for the first time, presents himself to you. Four weeks after that general audience, he desires to greet you and speak with you. He desires to follow the themes already begun by John Paul I. We remember that he spoke about the three theological virtues: faith, hope and charity. He ended with charity. This — his ultimate teaching — is the greatest virtue here on earth, as St Paul teaches (1 Cor 13, 13); it is the one that crosses the threshold of life and death. Because when the time of faith and hope ends, Love continues. John Paul I has already passed through the time of faith, hope and charity, which has been expressed so magnificently on this earth and whose fullness is revealed only in eternity.

Today we must speak about another virtue, as I learned from the notes of the late Pontiff that he had intended to speak not only about the three theological virtues, faith, hope and charity, but also of the four so-called cardinal virtues. John Paul I wanted to speak about the "seven lamps" of Christian life, as Pope John XXIII called them.

Well, today I want to continue this scheme, which the deceased Pope had prepared, and to speak briefly about the virtue of prudence. The ancients have already spoken a great deal about this virtue. For this we owe them deep recognition and gratitude. In a certain dimension, they have taught us that the value of man must be measured with the yardstick of the moral good, which he realises in his life. It is precisely this that ensures first place to the virtue of prudence. The prudent man, who seeks all that is really good, endeavours to measure every thing, every situation and all his activity according to the yardstick of moral good. Thus the prudent man is not the one who — as is often thought — knows how to arrange things for himself in life and to draw the greatest profit from it; but the one who knows how to construct his whole life according to the voice of right conscience and according to the demands of just morality.

Thus prudence is the key for the realisation of the fundamental task that each of us has received from God. This task is the perfection of man himself. God has given to each of us his humanity. We need to respond to this task by programming it consequently.

But the Christian has the right and the duty to look at the virtue of prudence also from another perspective. It is like the image and likeness of the Providence of God himself in the dimensions of concrete man. Because man — we know from the book of Genesis — has been created in the image and likeness of God. And God realises his plan in the history of creation and above all in the history of humanity. The purpose of this design is — as St Thomas teaches — the ultimate good of the universe. In the history of humanity, this same design becomes simply the design of salvation, the design that embraces us all. At the centre of its realization is Jesus Christ, in whom was expressed the eternal love and solicitude of God the Father himself, for the salvation of man. This is at the same time the full expression of divine Providence.

Well, man who is the image of God, must — as again St Thomas teaches — be in some way providence. But in the measure of his life. He can participate on this great pathway of all creatures towards the purpose which is the good of creation. To express ourselves even more in the language of faith — he must participate in the divine design of salvation. He must walk towards salvation, and help others to save themselves. By helping others, he saves himself.

I pray that, in this light, those who are listening to me will think now of their own lives. Am I prudent? Am I living consequently and responsibly? Does the programme that I am realizing serve the true good? Does it serve the salvation that Christ and the Church want for us? If today a student, a son or a daughter is listening to me, look in this light at your own homework, your reading, interests, pastimes, circle of friends. If a father or a mother of a family is listening to me, think a little about your marital and parental commitments. If a minister or statesman is listening to me, look at the range of your duties and responsibilities. Are you seeking the true good of society, of the nation, of humanity? Or only particular and partial interests? If a journalist, a publicist, someone who exercises an influence on public opinion, is listening to me, reflect on the value and end of your influence.

I too who am speaking to you, I the Pope, what must I do to act prudently? There come to my mind the letters of Albino Luciani, then Patriarch of Venice, to St Bernard. In his reply to Cardinal Luciani, the Abbot of Clairvaux — a Doctor of the Church — recalls emphatically that the one who governs must be "prudent". What then must the new Pope do in order to act prudently? Certainly he must do a lot in this sense. He must always learn and always meditate on these problems. But beyond this, what can he do? He must pray and strive to have that gift of the Holy Spirit which is called the gift of counsel. And may all those who desire the new Pope to be the prudent Pastor of the Church, implore for him the gift of counsel. And for themselves, may they also ask for this gift through the particular intercession of the Mother of Good Counsel. Because it is indeed so desirable that all men behave prudently and that those who hold power act with true prudence. May the Church — prudently strengthening herself with the gifts of the Holy Spirit and, in particular, with the gift of counsel — participate effectively on this great pathway towards the good of all, and show to everyone the road to eternal salvation."