By: Rick Hernandez
Once during my travels, I sat at the bar at a local restaurant. A man was sitting there, alone at the end of the large counter and with a big smile on his face. I remember being intrigued by this man, and I engaged him in conversation. He was very personable, had a quiet dignity about him, and you could tell life had taught him a thing or two. He told me his name was Justin, and we proceeded to talk about life, faith, politics, and everything else we could think of. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Over the few years, whenever I was in town, I would spend time with Justin. In time we began talking about our youth, where we came from, and Justin opened up about his past and the drug addiction and escapism that ruled his teenage years. “Here is a life lesson for you,” he said and told me his story.
Once, Justin was a teenager with a good caring family, a girlfriend he loved, and a bright future ahead of him. He considered himself a good person; he always wanted to be of help, mindful of the needs of the ones around him. He was a good student, well-liked at his school, where everyone thought he was to continue the family tradition of public office. But Justin suffered from crippling private anxiety.
From a young age, Justin suffered from “carrying everybody’s dreams about his future.” He wanted to fulfill his family’s expectations, but that anxiety kept eating at him in secret. At a party, Justin was introduced to cocaine, the street drug of choice at the time, and he was hooked. The drug became his refuge from anxiety, his effort to escape from his reality; little by little, he stopped caring about others.
On a fateful day, Justin attempted to rob a store. The attempt went badly, and the store clerk was hurt. The police arrived quickly, and Justin was arrested. Eventually, he was tried as an adult and thrown into prison.
While in prison, Justin thought, “This is all wrong. This is not me; I am supposed to be a good person”, but he had made many mistakes and had to acknowledge them and make amends. He took his prison sentence as an opportunity to learn, to know himself, to combat his anxiety, to understand where he went wrong.
Justin found solace in the Bible, specifically “Though the just fall seven times, they rise again, but the wicked stumble from only one mishap” (Proverbs 24:16). Justin thought, “If I am a just man, I shall rise again. I have to learn what it is to be a just man…” And that started a lifetime of trying to understand the virtue of justice and how it relates to his life and the ones around him.
Justin said to me, “You see, I have a good life now. I am a just man, and this I have learned. When we make mistakes, we have to repent and own up to them, fix them the best we can. Act towards everyone justly. Work with people to the best of your ability, provide what you can, not what you can’t. Give of what is there to be given, not of what is already allocated. Ask in humility; do not demand. Receive in gratefulness; do not take forcefully. The world will still try to kick you down for your mistakes, sometimes savagely. It will attempt to make you relive your worst mistakes and tell you that you are still that man who did not know better and that you have not changed. It will tell you that you have no worth, even to yourself. That is a lie. That is misguided justice. Yes, the world will kick you down, but a just man RISES regardless. Live your life rightly. Give to the people what is theirs, to you what is yours, to God what is His. Our actions are meant to reflect His. Live justly, love freely.”
I remember Justin’s lesson often. I do believe he does understand catholic justice better than most. The Catholic definition of justice is “the moral virtue that consists of the constant and firm will to give their due to God and neighbor.”
We are called to be just with everyone, and that includes ourselves. Even when we sin, when we are at our worst, we still have infinite value. Even at our lowest point, we still have the power to change with God’s help. We repent, confess, and make retribution. That is justice. Once restored, we have to continue to act justly because our actions have to honor our dignity, given to us by God.
Practicing the virtue of justice will help keep us in a proper relationship with God and others. Justice allows us to love fully. Live justly, love freely.
Let us pray: Our Lord of Heaven, please grant us wisdom, that we may learn how to live a just life and apply discernment to our actions, that we may always act pleasingly to You. Amen.