During my fifth year with D.C. United, the team brought in a nutrition specialist. The specialist gave his presentation and then looked toward a table in the middle of the locker room that held about 40 pill bottles of vitamins, supplements, mild pain relievers, gels, powders, and who knows what else. The nutritionist then walked over to the table, looked back to us, and said, “you know, if you just eat well you can throw all of these out. In fact, you’d be better off doing that.” He left the locker room five minutes later and never came back.
For my first five years at DCU, I had been taking those vitamins and supplements at the recommendation of our strength and conditioning coaches and athletic trainers. Now a certified nutritionist deemed the whole thing a waste of time and had even said they could hinder our performance—I wondered what exactly to do. Who should I listen to?
This memory has stayed with me because it matters a lot for an athlete what you do with your body. It matters how you train, eat, sleep, relax, and recover. You need to know what is helpful for your athletic development and what is unhelpful. I wanted to know if the pills and supplements helped me or hindered me.
This all applies to athletic prudence in the natural realm. Prudence is the ability to judge rightly and act according to that knowledge. It is being able to think through things correctly and then make the right choice. Thus, athletic prudence is the ability to choose and act rightly in the realm of an athletic pursuit.
We make decisions and then act based upon what we have concluded is actually helpful or unhelpful in relation to our goal.
I would like to apply this same line of thinking to the virtue of prudence in the supernatural realm. We should be asking what is helpful or unhelpful in terms of our spiritual lives. Just like the nutritionist condemning our pill vault and making me wonder what was actually helpful for my soccer career, we should ask what in our lives helps or hinders us from going to God. In order for us to do this, of course, we must acknowledge that God is both our goal and a worthy (the most worthy!) goal at that.
When I got to the height of my playing career I was devastatingly depressed for a very concentrated span of time (only several days). For months I pondered why I hit such a low point amidst more success than I had ever expected. Eventually, through the help of the Holy Spirit, I realized that God allowed me to feel the weight of my success without Him. It was an incredible grace—but also one that was difficult to really learn. Over time the truth that my soul was more important than my sport sunk in. I realized that much of what I had made my life about was, in the end, unhelpful for reaching the ultimate Goal who is God.
I started applying my athletic thinking to my spiritual life. I started asking the right questions—is this helpful or unhelpful for my spiritual life? Should I be hanging out with this group of friends so much? Are my weekend habits really bringing joy to my life? Am I living as the person I want to be? Do I know who I want to be?
These questions led—and continue to lead—me to Jesus, and I find myself needing to ask them again and again. Do the decisions I make help me become who I want to be? Or are my decisions hindering me from being that person?
Athletic prudence helps athletes maximize their potential and use their God-given gifts to the best of their ability. This same principle can—and should—be applied to our spiritual lives. Are the decisions, actions, and principles that guide my life helpful? Are they leading me in a good direction?
Prudence, says St. Thomas Aquinas, is the mother of the virtues. You cannot possess any virtue without the virtue of prudence because prudence is what enables us to recognize what is truly good (helpful) and then act according to that good. No athlete can become great apart from athletic prudence because athletic prudence enables the athlete to recognize and act upon what helps him or her become a good athlete. Far more important, however, is the realization that no person can become who they were created to be apart from supernatural prudence. It is not possible to follow Christ without first asking yourself what exactly it is you’re already following—what is it that shapes your decisions? It may be a desire for comfort, power, status, honor, wealth, success, popularity, or any number of things. But they all fall short. To be prudent you must know the end goal. You cannot attain the virtue of prudence in the whole of life without knowing that “it is Jesus in fact that you seek when you dream of happiness.”
Taylor Kemp is an instructor for the Denver Catholic Biblical School as part of the St. John Vianney Seminary Lay Division in the Archdiocese of Denver. He is a former professional soccer player, amassing over 100 appearances over six-years in Major League Soccer (MLS) for D.C. United, and playing for both the youth and full United States Men’s National Team. Taylor holds an MA in Theology from the Augustine Institute and BS in Business Management from the University of Maryland, College Park.
From October 3rd until the 28th, 2018 bishops from around the globe are gathering in Vatican City for the 15th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops. The Synod is an assembly of the world’s bishops who assist the pope by offering insights on important questions the Church is facing in a manner that preserves and promotes her teachings. A General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops is called “Ordinary” if its topic is “for the good of the universal Church” and seems to require the “learning, prudence and counsel” of all the world's bishops. For October’s historic meeting, Pope Francis dedicated the theme to “Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment.” Although the young adults invited to participate were not voting members of the Synod, they had the opportunity to address the Order of Bishops as presenters and auditors. It can be useful to consider the gathering as a conversation that included involvement from bishops and small group sessions. These activities were a beautiful continuation of the dialogue and collaboration characteristic of the Second Vatican Council: of a Church embracing renewal throughout the Body of Christ.
Yet the vast majority of the Church was not in the Vatican participating in small groups, sharing experiences, or making presentations. While the meeting has been significant in its own right, it may not be on the forefront of most people’s minds a city—let alone an ocean—away. As we wait for the working documents of the meeting to be finalized and published, we may be asking how we can best support the work of the Synod from afar. As a young person myself, I think it is incredible that this demographic is being discussed and studied at length by the Church. The Synod inspires a unique opportunity to ponder young people’s place in the Church and world.
The typical young person is preoccupied with studies or work, family and social obligations, and sorting out his or her place in an ever-changing world. Thanks to technology, the world is better connected in some senses, though what occurs daily in our physical sphere tends to represent the extent to which a young person may physically engage with the outside world. Why think about faraway gatherings when there is plenty to deal with right in front of you? You may also wonder, Why would anyone care about little ole me and what I do?
But that’s exactly what—and who—the Holy Father is interested in hearing about. Over a year before the Synod was scheduled to meet, Pope Francis released his Letter to Young People and invited youth to “Make your voice heard, let it resonate in communities and let it be heard by your shepherds of souls.” To help facilitate gathering the input of young people, the Vatican Synod Office launched a special website and survey which invited responses that were incorporated into a working document. Furthermore, Pope Francis issued his latest Apostolic Exhortation, Gaudete et Exsultate, on the call to holiness in today’s world, which directly relates to the vocational aspects of the Synod.
Seeking for something more concrete? Look no further than your own parish! The walls of a church are not designed to keep persons out, but to gather them in to live more actively in Christ and the Church Universal! Never doubt the awesome power of prayer: interceding for not only the participants of the Synod, but those around you whose needs you may know personally. Go a step further and offer your gifts, talents, time, and presence as a young person and give witness to charity. Show the world that young people are not self-absorbed but active and invested in promoting the good of humanity. Find others who want to make a difference. Invite them to pray with you, to volunteer in service, to catechize, and even just to share in the joys and fun of youth. Demonstrate that youth is not just a period of transition, but an opportunity to channel passion and energy in a meaningful and responsible way for the Church and world.
A lesson from the 2018 Synod is that the Church wants to better minister to young people! Recognizing young people as a treasure not merely for the future, but for the Church here and now signifies their potential and important state in life. Instilling the values of the Faith in young people inspires them to more actively discern God’s call for them in holy vocations. The world is not perfect—neither is the Church—but recognizing the good that can be brought about and the ability to pick oneself up after falling short is a great gift God has uniquely given young people to witness! By growing in our vocation to holiness, we fulfill the mission and dream of this year’s Synod. What a joy it is to see young people take to heart the holiness that God has called them to.
To learn more about the recent Synod on Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment, please click here.
Many hope to journey through Lent having experienced a true transformation in their spiritual life. But sometimes, innocently enough, we don’t take full advantage of our time when we give up something that we have every intention of picking right back up (or indulging in on Sundays). Don’t get me wrong—it can be spiritually edifying and purifying in a lasting way to give up normally enjoyable things (e.g., chocolate, Netflix, alcohol) for just a period.
A few years ago though, inspired by centuries-old Catholic theology I learned from some introductory college classes, I tried a different approach to Lent. I found the saints were all talking about Lent as a time to grow in virtue. In the Catholic tradition, a virtue is “an habitual and firm disposition to do the good” (CCC 1803). You might think of virtues as character traits that describe a holy and happy life. Here are some of the “human virtues” that play a prominent role in the Catholic life:
The Cardinal Virtues: Prudence, Temperance, Justice, and Fortitude.
The Cardinal virtues have a special role in the Catholic tradition, and make possible other important virtues like…
The Capital Virtues: Humility, Generosity, Chastity, Meekness, Temperance, Kindness, and Diligence.
The seven Capital virtues are meant to counteract the Seven Capital Vices, or ‘Deadly Sins.’
One of the best teachers about virtue is the famous Dominican St. Thomas Aquinas, who lived from 1225-1274. Growing in virtue helps us grow more like Christ, so we can, in St. Thomas’ words “recover the completeness and distinction of mind” that gets lost through sin and vice (Meditations for Lent, 22).
Lent is also a great time to focus on developing a virtue that has become weak in your life. St. Thomas Aquinas teaches that we grow in virtue by forming good habits and receiving grace.
Habits are important because they tend to shape our overall character and moral decision-making process, and therefore have a role in our relationship with God, others, and our self. Lent is an excellent opportunity to form new habits that we can then carry forward into Easter and beyond. In order to grow in virtue, we need to develop good habits, and we develop habits through repeated actions (See also CCC 1810).
Repeated good action --> Good habits --> Virtue
It’s a little simplistic here, of course. And although it’s a simple concept, admittedly, it’s not always easy in practice. Building good habits can be difficult because we often find ourselves already stuck in bad habits (vices) that may be tough to break. That’s why giving something up isn’t always enough; we need to replace it with a good action.
It also takes focus and developing discipline, which is exactly what we see in the desert experiences found in Scripture as well as the Early Church (CCC 1434).
Interestingly, contemporary psychology reinforces to some degree what theologians have understood about habits. Scientists report that it generally takes between 21 and 66 days to turn a new behavior into a habit. So over the forty days, why not consider choosing a Lenten practice that’s not just temporary, but one you hope will stick?
Take some time in prayer before Lent begins to identity one specific virtue that will help you draw closer to God. Then, consider some actions can you take toward growing in this virtue.
Think in terms of the traditional Lenten practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. For example, fasting can help transform habits associated with our appetite for things, the virtue of temperance. An appetite doesn’t necessarily mean food or drink, though it may. It really covers anything we use to fill our mind and body, like TV and the Internet. Lent is a desert experience where we learn to pursue and subsist on the Word of God rather than our perceived needs.
Or maybe you want to grow in the virtue of kindness. Commit to going out of your way to doing one kind action each day by giving of your time, talent, or treasure. Or you might pray for someone you don’t get along with.
At its heart, Lent is not a course in self-improvement; it is a disciplined journey toward deeper communion with our crucified and risen Lord Jesus. Ultimately, the help we need to grow in virtue comes from God’s gratuitous gift of grace. We say yes to this journey as we respond by developing habits of holiness.
For more resources to help you develop your Lenten habits, please click here.