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A Cardinal Virtue


What do you do when you are locked out of your campus dormitory and it is midnight and raining and your wife is not feeling well and all of the motels and hotels in the area are filled because it is a graduation weekend?

Peter Kodwo Appiah Cardinal Turkson

The dormitory in this instance was really an expertly converted barn over which St. Barnabas had been asked to preside. A weary Mary and Joseph, who could find no room in the inn, at least gained easy entrance to their barn.

What I did, in the absence of a doorbell, was rattle the outside door for a few minutes until a figure appeared on the second floor, slowly descended to my level, and unlocked the door that had been our final barrier to a good night's rest. "I'm sorry the door was locked," he said. Judging from his attire and his tired look, I thought I surely must have wakened him, and duly apologized. He politely brushed the matter aside. Then I asked him, in the most respectful tone I could muster under the circumstances, "Are you Peter Cardinal Turkson?" He nodded meekly. We shook hands and he asked if he could help me with my baggage.

Servant of Servants

In our world, where it is customary for people to scramble to the top so they can belong to an increasingly exclusive club, the virtue of graciousness takes on added luster. The gracious person, no matter what his title or station, never behaves as if he were higher than anyone else. Pope Gregory the Great coined the expression Servus servorum Dei ("Servant of the servants of God") to indicate that the Church hierarchy is really an inverted pyramid. The Pope, unlike the tycoon, is servant even to other servants.

A Prince of the Church, the Archbishop of Cape Coast, Ghana, Cardinal Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson, was gracious enough to descend two flights of stairs, unlock the door for me, offer a humble apology, and help me with my luggage. And yet, this is how Christ would have responded. While CEO's of major corporations regard it as their hard earned right not to return telephone calls or to be polite to strangers, Christ not only answers our prayers, but also makes house calls — indeed, house calls to the tabernacle in our heart.

Humility, Humility, Humility

In our world, where it is customary for people to scramble to the top so they can belong to an increasingly exclusive club, the virtue of graciousness takes on added luster. The gracious person, no matter what his title or station, never behaves as if he were higher than anyone else.

In this, the Year of the Eucharist, a passage from a hymn by Charles Gounod came to mind: "Jusqu'à moi vous pouvez descendre, humilité de mon Sauveur!" ("All the way to me, you have descended; such is the humility of my Savior!"). This same passage was a particular favorite of the great French novelist and Nobel Laureate, François Mauriac, who repeated it many times since he made his first Communion on the twelfth day of May in 1896. At the time he disclosed this to his readers in I Believe, Mauriac was regarded as the world's greatest living Catholic writer.

St. Augustine once said that the three most important factors in the spiritual life are humility, humility, and humility. The virtue of humility, indispensable for graciousness, is an attribute of God and an imitable characteristic of Christ. Joseph Ratzinger, now Benedict XVI, in his Introduction to Christianity, cites a remark of the poet Hölderlin to capture the Christian image of the true greatness of God: "Non coerceri maximo, contineri tamen a minimo, divinum est" ("Not to be encompassed by the greatest, but to let oneself be encompassed by the smallest: That is divine"). For God, nothing is too small. As Ratzinger stated, "Precisely this overstepping of the greatest and reaching down into the smallest is the true nature of absolute spirit." Teilhard de Chardin wrote poetically and rhapsodically about the cosmic Christ. Yet Christ is best understood not in relation to His cosmic grandeur or creative omnipotence, but in relation to His regard for the least of His little ones.

The Prince and the Pauper

Christ in the Eucharist and a Cardinal in the flesh make their descent, unlock doors, and carry away baggage. The Greek gods met on lofty Olympus. The Titans plotted to punish Prometheus. Aristotle's deity was wrapped in self-contemplation as a "thought thinking a thought." The "rat race" produces the "top dog." The corporate ladder is used exclusively for "climbing," never for descending. Christianity is the great exception: No one is all-important and no one is unimportant. The Mystical Body and the Communion of Saints attest to this. Graciousness gives it a personal touch. There is no moral distance between the prince and the pauper.

The next morning, after Mass, the Cardinal and I met over brunch. I was wearing a Fall River (Massachusetts) hat that my father had recently given me. It was cardinal red. I asked the Cardinal if he liked my hat. He laughed as he removed his scarlet zucchetto and pretended for a brief moment that he was exchanging hats with me. The gesture was humorous and profoundly Christian. No one's head should be bigger than anyone else's — one size hat fits all.



Donald DeMarco. "A Cardinal Virtue." Lay Witness (Sept/Oct 2005): 14-15.

This article is reprinted with permission from Lay Witness magazine. Lay Witness is a publication of Catholic United for the Faith, Inc., an international lay apostolate founded in 1968 to support, defend, and advance the efforts of the teaching Church.

The Author

Heart-of-VirtueMany Faces of VirtueDonald DeMarco is a Senior Fellow of HLI America, an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College & Seminary, and Professor Emeritus at St. Jerome's University in Waterloo Ontario. Donald DeMarco continues to work as a corresponding member of the Pontifical Acadmy for Life.  DeMarco is the author of twenty books, including The Heart of Virtue, The Many Faces of Virtue, Virtue's Alphabet: From Amiability to Zeal and Architects Of The Culture Of Death. Donald DeMarco is on the Advisory Board of The Catholic Education Resource Center.

Copyright © 2005 LayWitness
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