September 2016 Print

Building Strength

Interview with Fr. Michael McMahon, SSPX

Angelus Press: Fr McMahon, having been in charge of a boys boarding school for over a decade, you seem to be the right person to speak of the virtue of fortitude, ​would you agree?

 Fr. McMahon: After 20 years of priesthood, the majority of which being spent teaching high school boys, the great virtue of fortitude has been absolutely necessary. Every parent, priest and educator knows well the need to be strong when forming children, especially when helping boys become Catholic gentlemen. Just getting out of bed sometimes to face the trials of the day—and 90 teenage boys—can require heroic fortitude!


Angelus Press: Would you distinguish between fortitude, courage, and discipline?

 Fr. McMahon: That is an excellent question ​as it​ permit​s us to be Thomistic and define and distinguish. Fortitude enables a person to withstand difficulties, even great ones that might prevent him from attaining his goal. The infused virtue of fortitude, the cardinal virtue, is a supernatural habit which allows a man to overcome all obstacles and difficulties to attain his true and ultimate goal, Heaven. Being a fundamental virtue, it is meant to support and help the other virtues to attain their ends and ​overc​om​e that which might hinder or deter them. While not the greatest of the virtues it is critical and necessary...both for teacher and student. Saint Thomas says that there are two principal acts of fortitude: to attac​k (aggredi)​ and to endure (sustinere).

Courage is the common appellation of fortitude. It means the strength of character and firmness in the face of danger or difficulties. To this basic meaning, one can add the sense of ardor and energy in accomplishing tasks; or even the nuance of panache, meaning the valiant and heroic heart.

Discipline, etymologically, is the virtue of the disciple towards the master. It is the docility and obedience of the disciple to rules. It refers rather to the outer structure and anything which supports the practice of virtue. It is the outer protection, the bark and the vein within which virtue runs freely.


Angelus Press: Can we speak of fortitude as being a “male virtue”?

 Fr. McMahon: As the headmaster of a boys school preparing young men to venture forth into this crazy world, my first impulse is to shout “yes!” However, we all know that the virtues are for both men and women, boys and girls. Saint Thomas does speak of fortitude as the soldierly virtue which prepares one to ​willingly face danger, even the danger of death. Soldiers of Christ are necessarily both ma​le and fem​ale. Virtue is truly for all; the inculcating of which is the very basis of education and formation. As we approach another academic year, parents and teachers alike must put on the hard hat of fortitude themselves in order to properly form our children. As the old axiom says: nemo dat quod non habet. We must acquire and practice the virtues, and perseveringly so, in order to ​also ​provide the necessary example so that our children will then practice them in turn. 

We must be completely balanced in understanding this great virtue. According to Saint Thomas, endurance (sustinere) or suffering is the chief act of the virtue of fortitude. It is not the machismo of Schwarzenegger or whomever the latest Hollywood ​tough guy​ might be, mindlessly and irrationally striking out with witty cynicism and weapons of mass destruction, flying fists and breaking bones. Well do I remember years back the shock of one father when I punished his son for unreasonably punching another boy. He had carefully instructed his son to strike if he were teased and was quite surprised that I did not agree.


 Angelus Press: So, Father “Teddy Bear,” you are saying that we should be punching bags for the world?

 Fr. McMahon: Dear God, no! Rather fools for Christ as S​aint​ Paul would say, who by the sacramental grace and character of ​Confirmation are meant to endure, bear up, and see the work through to the end as valiant ​and faithful ​soldiers. Rome was not built in a day, and a year of forming a child is quite the same. Clearly there are highs and lows, but the grind, the daily grind, must rather be sustained and endured more than attacked. This is not weakness, but actually rather great strength, and a very sane and virtuous understanding of and accommodation to reality. By no means does this preclude aggression or the attack, nor even the use of anger​, which can be necessary at times. According to S​aint ​John Chrysostom, one can even sin by not becoming angry in given circumstances​; while Aristotle teaches that anger helps the brave and Saint Thomas tells us that anger will find its place in the acts of fortitude. Let us remember though that there are two acts of fortitude, and the greater is to endure. The two are complementary and make fortitude what it is. As always virtue will stand in the middle of extremes.


Angelus Press: Is implanting this virtue in your students the main purpose of education at La Salette?

 Fr. McMahon: According to a certain caricature, perhaps, but the reality is much different. A solid Catholic school, true to her name and mission, will be ordered and sane, holy and healthy. If peace is the tranquility of order, this order and peace must start with the teaching and formation in virtue. Charity then must be queen, gloriously reigning both toward God and neighbor, emphasized and taught at every turn. A boarding school is like a family, albeit a quite large one, and fraternal charity is a constant demand with opportunities to practice it almost endless: from chapel to class, meals to recreation. This religious practice allows us to love the neighbor whom we see (and sometimes see too much!), to allow us to love the God whom we do not see. Even among the cardinal virtues, those moral virtues upon which all others hinge, the great Aquinas places fortitude third behind prudence and justice, with only temperance following. That being said, it is a manly virtue, and very much needed today. For our boys to sally forth and conquer the world for Christ the King, they must be well armed with this supernatural strength.


Angelus Press: You mentioned order?

 Fr. McMahon: Order brings tranquility and peace. This is the place of discipline. Discipline is nothing other than the ordered context within which one is able to function properly and prudently, enabled to attain one’s goals whether athletic, academic or spiritual. Regardless of the size of your school or family, discipline is crucial. The first line of discipline is simply a reasonable schedule. Saint Francis de Sales famously claimed that our salvation hinged on our bedtime​, meaning that ​by going to sleep at a prudent hour, ​one would rise refreshed and ready for the day, ready for his morning prayers and meditation, spiritual reading and the duties of state as they present themselves. This seemingly exaggerated statement is actually quite profound and clearly illustrates the need for a schedule.​ In the end, discipline is the great aid or instrument in forming the will, an essential component of education.​ 


Angelus Press: So a schedule then will take care of all?

 Fr. McMahon: If only it were that simple. Once in place, the schedule must then be enforced, must be lived, must be willingly embraced along with the rules, regulations and customs of the home, classroom, or school. This is where the leadership of parents, priests and teachers becomes crucial and presents a heavy cross. Constant vigilance in the area of correction and constructive criticism exacts a great toll upon those in charge. A habit is acquired only by repeated action—if well done, you have a virtue; if poorly, then a vice. If I only had $1 for each time I have corrected a boy on his table manners, all my fundraising worries would be over! Adults must fight the temptation toward laxity and at times the fatigue which repeated correction entails, being sure to punish when necessary. Many adults have repudiated their authority, preferring to please their sons in order to be loved. The old school parental axiom when punishing “this will hurt me more than it hurts you” is so very true. The effort and energy involved in such diligent parenting and educating can be overwhelming at times. Duty demands to correct, sanction, and punish “in season and out.”


Angelus Press: Do you think this too hard? 

 Fr. McMahon: Not at all. This is not a personal opinion but the wisdom of the ages. We must demand excellence, demand it daily, demand it constantly, and first of all from ourselves! Our children deserve this as heirs of heaven, for they are meant to be saints and heroes, they are called to be “sons of God.” We simply do not challenge our young men enough! The renowned educator Andre Charlier said that the most striking point in the youth of his time over 50 years ago was its lack of virility; the principal cause of which was that parents did not demand from their children. They did not form them for life, for reality, for things the way they really are—in a word difficult; difficult because we live in a fallen world, a valley of tears. Rather than prepare our children for this world and the great work of sanctification, we tend to gratify and spoil. All joys have a cost and the nobler they are, the more effort required to obtain them. Our ultimate goal, the final end, is eternal, everlasting joy. 


Angelus Press: Do you have examples to illustrate this?

 Fr. McMahon: Absolutely. Just pull out your missal or any book on the saints—martyrs, confessors, doctors and virgins. Although not a saint, an example I have used through the years is Sir Roger Bannister the first man to run a sub 4-minute mile, thought humanly impossible at the time. Remarkably, Bannister was not a professional nor even a full time runner but a true student-athlete who practiced after studies while in medical school. His coach frequently exhorted him to “thrust against pain and be contemptuous of it.” Bannister did, earning fame and renown to this day...doing this for a perishable crown. This quote does nicely capture the two acts of fortitude—thrusting (aggredi) against pain (endurance).


Angelus Press: Is that merely natural?

 Fr. McMahon: Perhaps, but Saint Paul saw fit to use basically the same comparison, and a true educator will never content himself to remain at that level, but will dispose and guide so that grace may build upon it. The spiritual life, building the interior castle, is the most noble and thus most difficult of works. To illustrate how difficult one need only consider the efforts demanded to remain after Mass for the relatively easy act of a proper thanksgiving, so infrequently done well by most of us. A Catholic gentleman is simply a man grounded in reality and common sense with a flowering of the virtues both natural and supernatural. 


Angelus Press: Is this possible today with the youth of Facebook and YouTube?

 Fr. McMahon: All things are possible, as we know. This is our great hope. God has not changed. His grace remains the same, as powerful today as ever. Same Almighty God, same grace, same means, same end. Of course the process is long, slow and gradual and we must be prepared to “persevere to the end.” It is a transmission of knowledge, culture, and strength of will to the next generation. That is our glory as teachers and educators. One of the greatest compliments I ever received from a former student, now a friend, and soon to be ordained a priest was the following: “He demanded excellence of us, so that we might learn to demand it of ourselves.” If we can accomplish that, we have done something grand.