By Daniel Meloy
PLYMOUTH, Mich. – The greatest basketball players of all time aren’t remembered because they never committed a foul, but because of how they played the game, Father Mike Schmitz told an estimated 1,000 Catholics at a seminar in Plymouth.
Likewise, the greatest saints of the Catholic Church aren’t remembered because they never sinned, but because they played to win, he said.
“Father Mike,” as he is known from his wildly successful podcasts, including “The Bible in a Year” and “The Catechism in a Year,” kicked off the third season of a monthly speaker series in the Detroit Archdiocese with his address Aug. 8.
He stressed how, all too often, Christians dwell too much on the times when they have fallen or might fall, and not enough on the end goal.
“So many times we Christians act like we don’t know what it’s like to play to win,” said Father Schmitz, a priest of the Diocese of Duluth, Minnesota. “We know what it’s like to play not to lose, and there is a huge difference. Players who play not to lose, play scared. As opposed to those who play to win, who make an error and think, ‘OK, on to the next thing.’ Tonight, let’s have a radical mind shift to have the life of a Christian who plays to win.”
Father Schmitz said the goal in life isn’t to be perfect, but to fulfill the meaning God intends for each and every one of his creations.
“Why did God make you? To know him and love him and serve him in this life, so as to live with him forever in the next,” Father Schmitz said. “That’s the reason that ends up becoming the goal. … That is the point of being alive. That is the goal: to be with God.”
To reach this goal, Father Schmitz proposed an exercise: When a person dies and stands before the gates of heaven, and the angels ask the person why they should be let in, what should a person say?
“I ask middle schoolers this all the time, and the answers are what you expect,” Father Schmitz said. “‘Well, I’m a good person. I’m nice. I serve people. I went to Mass every single Sunday. Didn’t lie, cheat, steal. I’m not the worst person I know.’
“But there really is only one right answer,” he continued. “There are two versions of it. The one-word answer, ‘Jesus.’ That’s it. It’s impossible to work our way into heaven. It’s impossible to be good enough for heaven. It’s impossible to white-knuckle your way to heaven. The long answer, by the way, is, ‘Because Jesus died for me, and now I live for him.'”
Christ’s sacrifice on the cross is a gift that could never be earned, only received, Father Schmitz said. There are only two good ways to receive a gift, he added: One is to give thanks. The other is to use the gift, by living the life God wants his creation to live.
To use God’s gifts is to cultivate the cardinal virtues, Father Schmitz continued.
The cardinal virtues — “cardinal” coming from the Latin word for “hinge” — aren’t meant to be means unto themselves in the Christian life, but key components that allow people enter into a proper Christian understanding of life, he said. Those virtues are justice, prudence, temperance and fortitude.
“Justice means giving another what is owed to them,” Father Schmitz explained. “Directly under this virtue of justice is the sub-virtue of religion. Because who do I owe everything to? It’s God. I owe obedience to God because I owe him everything. Worship belongs to justice: I worship God because I owe it to him.”
Father Schmitz then moved to temperance.
“Temperance is doing the right thing at the right time in the right way,” Father Schmitz said. “To be intemperate is to not use the right thing, or not at the right time, or not in the right way. We live in a world with so many gifts; God has been so good to us. Yet, if I’ve been intemperate, then I have the tendency to take good things and make them idolatrous.”
Prudence, Father Schmitz said, has nothing to do with one’s attitude or how they dress. Rather, prudence is about knowing one’s goal in life and taking the appropriate measures to reach that goal.
Prudence takes its root from the word “priority,” meaning to be prudent is to live according to one’s priority in life, Father Schmitz said.
“What’s the goal of life? To get to heaven,” Father Schmitz said. “One of the reasons why I do these exercises is to get people to think: If it’s your funeral, and you are there in the box, what will people get up and say about you? What is it you want to be true about you? What will people remember?
“When I take my last breath, I want to have been a friend of God,” Father Schmitz added. “A prudent person knows the goal and takes the wise steps to reach the goal. No one gets to the Olympic podium and wonders how they got there. They knew their goal and took the wise steps to reach that goal.”
He finished with fortitude, joking — to groans — that fortitude is the fourth virtue because it is “fourth-ti-tude.”
Fortitude is doing what’s right and just, even when it’s difficult, Father Schmitz said. In many ways, fortitude is a prerequisite to any of the other virtues, he said.
“C.S. Lewis said (fortitude) is all the other virtues at the moment of testing,” Father Schmitz said. “It’s easy to be honest when telling the truth will not get you in trouble. It’s easy to be prudent when it’s what you wanted to do anyway. It’s easy to be temperate when it’s not in front of you. That’s why we need this virtue called fortitude. The reality is, if I don’t have fortitude, I don’t have any of the other virtues.”
These four virtues aren’t the means of being with God in heaven — it is grace and grace alone that brings about salvation — but these four virtues are how people can properly receive the gift Christ has won for us, Father Schmitz said.
“As Christians, we can fail, but failure isn’t final,” Father Schmitz said. “In these moments where I have failed, now I begin again. In those moments, I say, ‘I’m not playing alone, I have divine help.’ And I start anew.”