Patience a Spiritual Sign

Pope Francis and Tertullian on Patience

Pope Francis set forth the vision for his pontificate in his first apostolic exhortation Evangellii gaudium, a clarion call for evangelization through joy in the modern world. A fitting diptych to this first document is his most recent work: Gaudete et exsultate, or GE.1 With it, the Holy Father is charging the Christian populace to pursue holiness and to be lights to the world. Francis explains that his “modest goal is to repropose the call to holiness in a practical way for our own time” (GE 2). With this document, the Pope is “reproposing” a way to live out the call to holiness that is conducive both for the Christian and the contemporary world.

In the final part of GE Francis highlights some virtues that are especially relevant for today’s Christian: perseverance, patience, meekness, joy, humor, boldness and passion, community life and constant prayer. There are two reasons for presenting them; (1) they are signs of holiness in the world and are instantiations of God’s grace; (2) the Holy Father believes that these virtues are especially apt for today’s Christian because of contemporary challenges and difficulties. This study will focus more on these virtues as “signs of holiness,” reason (1), than as “needed virtues for today,” reason (2). Based on the content of the document, this also seems to be Francis’s emphasis as well. The Christian faithful, Francis explains, can edify others through their example of virtues and holiness: “Let us be spurred on by the signs of holiness that the Lord shows us through the humblest members” (GE 8). The Holy Father would like Christians to see holiness in their brother and sisters, which he believes will help them to walk the Lord’s straight and narrow path.

It should be noted that Francis categorizes the above-mentioned virtues as “spiritual attitudes (expresiones espirituales)” or “signs (notas)” of holiness. The Spanish phrase expresiones espirituales captures a little more the sense of these virtues as signs of holiness than the translated word “attitude.” So, this article will refer to them as expresiones or notas.

A virtue listed in the group of expresiones is patience. In fact, this is not the first time that the Pontiff has reflected on this virtue. It is a thread found in many of his addresses and interviews. Given this focus, the question is raised, why is patience a Christian sign or nota? Is the answer simply, or rather prosaically, that being patient is a humane act of kindness, a sign of good manners, a way not to “make a scene,” or can patience signal something deeper? How can patience edify other Christians to follow the message of the Gospel? To answer these questions, this article will draw from the first theologian to reflect on Christian patience: Tertullian (AD 160–220), whom many contend invented the Christian virtue.2

The structure of this work will be as follows. In the first part, this article will outline Pope Francis’s teachings on patience, which will include his reflections on patience within GE and his other written works and addresses. In the second part, Francis’s thoughts on patience will be put into dialogue with Tertullian to illuminate the unique Christian aspects of this virtue: specifically, that patience is an imitation of God and a sign of the resurrection.


Francis’s Understanding of Patience

Middle-class Saints

Before summarizing the Pope’s thoughts on patience, it is important to contextualize the type, form, or tone of holiness that Francis is presenting in GE. The Church’s pantheon of saints is filled with mystics, martyrs, confessors, popes, and theologians, to name a few, who are often found in the pages of history books. GE does not emphasize these types of saints, which the Pope might term “upper-class saints.” The Holy Father points towards a unique category of saints, at least within ecclesiastical documents, which he calls “the middle class of holiness” or the saints “next door” (GE 7). These “middle-class” saints are most likely not even found in their local newspaper. They live their Christian lives in an “ordinary way,” but can be just as heroic as the martyr or confessor. A central characteristic of the “middle class of holiness” is patience. In GE Francis writes,

I like to contemplate the holiness present in the patience of God’s people: in those parents who raise their children with immense love, in those men and women who work hard to support their families, in the sick, in elderly religious who never lose their smile. In their daily perseverance I see the holiness of the Church militant. (GE 7)3

This quotation reveals that the Holy Father would like the Christian people “to contemplate” the holiness of “middle class” saints, who often practice great patience in the midst of quotidian demands and exemplify “the Church militant.” The key point is that the Holy Father points towards the virtue of patience and does not necessarily explain why it is a sign of holiness.

It seems that “contemplating the holiness of patience” has been a part of Francis’s story. In a 2013 interview, Francis revealed that he had contemplated patience from the time of his youth. His grandmother and parents had embodied this virtue: “This [holy patience] was the sanctity of my parents: my dad, my mom, my grandmother Rosa who loved me so much.”4 Rosa in particular had a profound influence on the young Jorge.5 She cared for him during his first five years and became his first catechist and a transmitter of culture. Jorge listened to the great Italian epic I Promessi Sposi (The Betrothed) at her feet. A number of the novel’s themes marked Jorge’s soul including: “the mercy of God offered to the worst sinners; the contrast between the cowardly worldliness of some priests and the fearless austerity of others; the corruption of wealth.”6 In particular, a theme pertinent to this study is “the virtuousness of ordinary people.”7

Hypomoné: A Key to Francis’s Thoughts on Patience

When discussing patience in his sermons, addresses, and interviews, Francis often cites the koine Greek word hypomoné, which literally means “to remain under” and is often translated as “endurance or patience.”8 It should be noted that Francis does not use this word in GE, but repeats it in a number of different forums; thus, exploring its significance will provide some insights into Francis’s overall understanding of patience.

Hypomoné is found mostly in the New Testament and its usage in classical Greek is rare.9 There are several different Koiné Greek words for patience, and hypomoné has a unique flavor. In fact, William Barclay, in his book New Testament Words, explains that no English word captures all its texture.10 Sometimes the Holy Father explains the significance of this word and sometimes he does not. In the latter case, in his sermons or addresses he might stress the importance of patience and repeat the word hypomoné as almost a drumbeat or refrain, without explaining its significance, since he is speaking extemporaneously.11

While addressing the Focolare movement in Loppiano, Italy, however, Francis did reflect on the significance and meaning of hypomoné as used in Romans 5:3–5: “With this term [hypomoné] the Apostle Paul expresses perseverance and steadfastness in carrying out God’s choice and new life in Christ. It is about holding firm to this choice even at the expense of difficulties and setbacks, knowing that this perseverance, this tenacity, and this patience produce[s] hope.”12 Here, Francis has outlined several meanings of hypomoné: endurance, commitment, perseverance, and hope. The meanings of “endurance, commitment, and perseverance” harmonize with the word’s etymology, “to remain under,” which emphasizes its grit. A surprising nuance is “hope” or “renewal,” which is actually a central component of Francis’s understanding of patience.

Patience and Hope

When the Holy Father speaks of patience, he often connotes that the patient person is in some ways renewed or energized by its practice. In fact, in a 2013 homily, he connected these ideas: “going in patience renews our youth and makes us younger.”13 At first blush, patience and renewal seems counterintuitive, especially since patience derives from the Latin verb pati: “to suffer.” This article will now present several examples of this juxtaposition in Francis’s thought and then comment on their important features.

In a conversation with Francesca Ambrogetti and Sergio Rubin, Francis said, “Christian patience is not quietist or passive. It’s the patience of Saint Paul, which means enduring, bearing history on one’s shoulders. It’s the archetypal image of Aeneas, who, as Troy burned, took his father on his shoulders (et sublato montis genitore petivi), took history on his shoulders and walked toward the mountain in search of the future.”14 Aeneas carrying his father, walking towards the mountain, encapsulates well Pope Francis’s understanding of Christian patience. Aeneas carries his crippled father, Anchises, who will die before reaching the promised land. “This burden” is the weight of love. Aeneas sacrifices and toils for a definite reason: love of his father, family, and future city. He walked toward the mountain “in search of the future.” In a similar vein, the Apostle toils and works for the sake of all the churches, but he does this for the sake of Christ and the sake of the Gospel.

When connecting patience and hope, Francis often cites the example of the elderly. In a 2013 daily homily, Francis preached, “Think of the elderly in retirement homes, those who have endured so much in their lives. Look into their eyes; they have young eyes, they have a young spirit and a renewed youth. This is what the Lord is calling us to: to this Paschal youth that has been renewed by the way of love, of patience, of enduring tribulations.”15 In GE, in a similar manner, he exhorts the reader to consider “the elderly religious who never lose their smile” (GE 7). With these reflections, Francis conveys that patience is difficult; it is hard to grow old and to endure the minutia of each day, but a patient heart focused on God will be rewarded and renewed.

Patience: A Call and A Sign

In GE, Francis explains that patience is especially relevant for the contemporary world, which is marked by “certain dangers and limitations” (GE 111). Francis diagnoses the world today as often impatient: “fast-paced, noisy and aggressive” (GE 112). He explains that Christians are able “to give a witness of holiness through patience and constancy in doing good” (GE 112).16 In the midst of the contemporary rush, impatience is all too easy. Christians are called to be patient so that they can “give a witness of holiness” (GE 112). In a similar manner, as mentioned at the start of this article, Francis holds that patience is a sign or expresiones espirituales. These remarks emphasize that patience is a sign and a witness, but they do not explain why it is a witness. As noted, patience could also just be a sign of good manners. So why is patience an important sign, expresione espiritual, or nota?

Summary of Francis’s Teaching on Patience

This article has presented three different aspects of Francis’s reflections on patience. First, within GE, Francis proposes that patience is an important sign and expresión espiritual in today’s world, which the “middle-class” saints embody. Second, in other documents and addresses on this issue, Francis explains that patience is a type of dedication that renews its adherent. It is intimately connected to hope and renewal. Hypomoné, a favorite word of the pontiff, contains this dynamic of patience. Third, the Christian today is especially called to manifest this virtue because of the overall impatience of society. On the whole, Francis holds that patience is a sign, but often he does not explain why it points to God. So why is patience an important expresión espiritual, nota, or sign? Why is it necessarily Christian? To answer these questions, this article will turn to Tertullian.


What Makes Patience a Christian Sign?

Tertullian the Trailblazer

Tertullian was a trailblazer and he accomplished many firsts as a leading Latin theologian, such as helping to develop a Latin theological vocabulary.17 According to Robert Lewis Wilken, Tertullian also wrote “the first treatise in the history of the Church on a specific virtue,” De patientia.18 The Fathers, of course, had commented on various virtues and how they applied to the Christian moral life, but prior to Tertullian no father had dedicated a single treatise to a specific virtue.

Not only did Tertullian inaugurate a new Christian genre, but he also shaped the Christian concept of patientia. Prior to Tertullian, patientia was considered a virtue especially by the Stoics.19 In its most frequent usage, it described a person who persevered in limiting circumstances such as sickness, hunger, or the elements. This virtue would be ascribed to the most common of Roman occupations: the farmer or the solider. In such conditions, the person is subject to external forces outside of his or her control — heat cold, hunger, thirst — and perseveres through them.20 In general, this type of patientia can be termed the “patientia of the solider or farmer.” Wilken explains that the Stoic understanding of patientia connoted a sense of endurance.21

Kaster explains, however, that an additional usage of patientia described a more pejorative situation, in which most likely “the patient person” would not be considered even virtuous. A slave, female, or child was often dubbed patientia, i.e., subordinate to another. This usage described “a complete absence of will on the part of someone at the rock bottom of the social hierarchy.”22 Hierarchy grounded and formed the Roman world; thus, the “patient slave” would be staring up at a plethora of superiors.

Summarizing the two usages of patientia, i.e., of the solider and the slave, patientia was ascribed to a subordinate, i.e., a person subject to nature or another. This generalization harmonizes with the word’s etymology: “Most obviously, most literally, and most generally, patientia is the quality entailed in being the recipient, not the generator, of action or experience. . . . It is an abstract noun derived from the verb pati [to suffer], the opposite of agere or facere.”23 The verb pati connotes one who must endure something from without. This basic meaning generalizes the range of meanings that patientia could have.

Patience the Nature of God

With the pre-Christian understanding of patientia in mind, Tertullian’s statement that “patience is the very nature (natura) of God” jumps off the page.24 How could God, who is omnipotent, be subject to anything? Why does Tertullian make such a claim? Surveying the history of salvation, Tertullian discerns that patience is a golden thread in the weaving of divine providence. God patiently allows the sun to shine both on the “just and unjust.”25 He permits the deserving and undeserving to enjoy the benefits of creation.26 He endures idol worshipers.27 God’s radical patience, Tertullian conjectures, might even impede people’s belief in Him: “There are many, you see, who do not believe in the Lord because for so long a time they have no experience of his wrath against the world.”28 God might be too patient for Tertullian, but this is his nature.

God in his humility deigns to subject himself to the world. And, in an inverse process, patience is elevated to something divine. It is no longer the virtue of the subordinate, but rather it is “the very nature (natura) of God.”29 As mentioned above, the pre-Christian understanding of patience connoted subordination. Since Tertullian ascribes patientia to God, the meaning of patientia must also shift. Instead of meaning “enduring a superior power,” patientia now connotes, as Wilken summarizes, a “long-suffering.”30 It now characterizes the careful waiting of a parent with his or her child: God “by his patience . . . hopes to draw them [i.e., wayward humanity] to himself,” Tertullian explains.31 By surveying creation and human maturation, it seems that God delights in slow and steady growth. The sapling, the infant, and even the Christian take time to grow, develop, and mature. All creation reflects in some ways the patience of God as it advances towards its end.

Jesus, God incarnate, during his earthly sojourn also exhibited a radical patience. Tertullian meditates beautifully on Christ’s patience in his treatise, which is worth quoting at length:

In his [Christ’s] mother’s womb he awaits and after his birth suffers himself to grow into manhood, and when an adult, shows no eagerness to become known. . . . He even kept in his company the one who would betray him and did not firmly denounce him. . . . I say nothing about his crucifixion; it was for this that He had come.32

Jesus deigned to submit himself to human growth, to the sinfulness of humanity, and to the Father’s will, just to name a few superiors. He exhibits a long-suffering love on account of the love of the Father. Because of this pattern, Tertullian discerns that the dominant feature of Christ’s life was patience: “Patience such as this no mere man had ever practiced.”33 When the Christian practices patience, he or she imitates this golden thread found in the life of Christ and, for Tertullian, manifests the Christian virtue.

Returning to a question which began this article, how is patience necessarily a sign of holiness or a spiritual sign? For Tertullian, patience witnesses to the very nature of God and the practice of Christ on earth. God exhibited a “long-suffering love,” and Jesus lowered himself and lived in a finite condition, which entailed growth, hunger, thirst, suffering, and betrayal. Therefore, when the Christian practices patience, he or she imitates God and Christ. This understanding of patience provides an answer of why patience is a spiritual sign of God.

Patience and the Resurrection

The next section will also provide an additional reason of how patience can provide an explicitly Christian witness, and it will explain how patience can renew its adherent, which is, as mentioned, an important feature of Francis’s thought. In De patientia, Tertullian insists that Christians follow the exemplum of God’s patience, which He has exhibited throughout salvation history.34 “Let us . . . love the patience that is of God, the patience of Christ.”35 How is a Christian to follow God’s patience when human beings are marked by impatience, darkness, and sin? Impatience, Tertullian explains, even characterizes postlapsarian humanity.36

All Christians are called to practice patience since God has proven that he will come again and redeem and restore all of creation: “If we believe in the resurrection of Christ,” Tertullian explains, “we believe in our own.”37 The patient Christian knows that God will redeem and fulfill all his efforts. Therefore, the resurrection, for Tertullian, is an additional motive for the practice of patience. In the last section of the treatise, he explicitly connects the practice of patience and the resurrection: “let us offer him [i.e., God] both the patience of the spirit and the patience of the flesh, we who believe in the resurrection of the flesh and the resurrection of the spirit.”38 The Christian can exhibit both “patience of spirit” and “patience of the flesh,” since he or she believes in the resurrection of both.39 What does the “patience of the soul” and “patience of the body” consist in? The former encompasses “soul acts,” such as loving, forgiving, and praying. The latter consists in “corporal acts”: mortification, chastity, and martyrdom.40 Therefore, they are meant to encompass the entirety of Christian behavior.

Tertullian explains that “patience of flesh” and “patience of spirit” manifest themselves most clearly in difficult circumstances. “Patience of soul” is found most clearly in the disregarding of riches,41 in grieving well,42 and in curbing vengeance.43 It undergirds these Christian actions. For example, consider the example of a Christian who lives simply and disdains the siren song of material wealth. Believing in the resurrection, he trusts the pattern of the Paschal mystery and that his death to the world will be redeemed. Therefore, the resurrection provides an additional motive to aid the Christian in his or her struggle; he or she is not only imitating God and Christ, but knows that all his or her efforts will be redeemed, which instills the Christian with hope. As Wilken writes, “For Tertullian the singular mark of patience is not endurance or fortitude but hope. . . . Patience is grounded in the resurrection.”44

The resurrection is the aspect of patience that renews its adherent. As mentioned above, Francis pointed towards the example of Aeneas bearing his father on his shoulders and walking towards the mountain full of the future. Every patient person bears something or someone on their shoulders, but also traverses towards the mountain of the future: Christ’s promise that he will renew all things. Thus, the patient person gazes at the mountain, which steadies his feet and strengthens his arms.

The resurrection also provides an additional answer to the question: why is patience a witness of holiness and a spiritual sign? When a Christian practices patience in all but impossible circumstances, this ultimately witnesses to his or her belief in the resurrection, i.e., that death and sin have been overcome. For example, a migrant who lacks food, shelter, family, and a future, but continues to be patient with the world and those around him or her, displays a heroic trust in God’s redeeming work. N.T. Wright, in his latest work, St. Paul: A Biography, makes a helpful distinction between optimism and hope that can illuminate the point that the patient Christian witnesses to something.45 Optimism, Wright states, is a sentiment or a feeling. It is a sense that things will turn out well. It can be very hard to maintain in trying circumstances. In early Christian belief hope is not just a feeling, but a virtue. The Christian must practice it and cultivate it through prayer and liturgy. As Wright emphasizes, “You have to practice it [i.e., hope] like a difficult piece on the violin or a tricky shot at tennis.”46 When one views an accomplished pianist or a tennis pro, it is clear that they have cultivated their respective disciplines. In a similar manner, a person who remains patient despite arduous circumstances witnesses to something. One can tell that he or she has grounded his or her life in something other than the needs of the moment. In the most impossible circumstances, the patient person shows for his or her belief in the resurrection.

To clarify further the link between patience and resurrection, Tertullian warns his readers of a “pagan patience” masquerading as a virtue. “The devil,” Tertullian cautions, “also taught his own a special brand of patience.”47 A person might be patient simply in order to receive an earthly reward, such as a wife waiting for her husband to die so that she might enjoy the inheritance, or a person who negotiates with panderers, or a man who marries only for the sake of a dowry. In such cases, the desires of the flesh grounds or fortifies this “false patience.”48 On the contrary, the resurrection of Christ grounds Christian patience.



This article has placed the Holy Father’s and Tertullian’s thought on patience into dialogue. This study began with the Pope’s encouragement to the Christian faithful to observe and contemplate the holiness of patience in “middle-class saints.” It then asked why patience itself is a spiritual sign. In this regard, I developed three main points: (1) Patience witnesses to God and Christ’s patience, which is the golden thread throughout salvation history. (2) Holy patience witnesses to the resurrection that all things will be well. (3) Finally, patience renews its adherent with his or her eyes on the resurrection. As noted above, Francis exhorts the Christian populace that this virtue is especially needed today. Technology has in some ways contributed to the impatience of society, since people receive information instantly. As a society, we have grown impatient. Patience, especially in trying circumstances, points towards a person being centered in something other than the fast-paced demands of the moment. Patience thereby witnesses to something divine.

  1. Pope Francis, Gaudete et exsultate – Rejoice and Be Glad: Apostolic Exhortation on the Call to Holiness in Today’s World (March 19, 2018),
  2. Robert Louis Wilken, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 283–85; Marcia Colish, The Stoic Tradition from Antiquity to the Early Middle Ages (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1985), 2:26.
  3. The emphasis is mine. See also GE 16.
  4. Antonio Spadaro, SJ, “A Big Heart Open to God: An Interview with Pope Francis,” America, September 30, 2013, 22.
  5. For more information on this topic, see Austen Ivereigh, The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope (New York: Henry Holt, 2015), 13–16.
  6. Ivereigh, Great Reformer, 16.
  7. Ivereigh, Great Reformer, 16.
  8. See, for example, Spadaro, “A Big Heart Open to God,” 22; Pope Francis, “Prayer, Poverty, Patience: An Address to the Participants of an International Conference on Consecrated Life,” L’Osservatore Romano, May 11, 2018, 6–7.
  9. William Barclay, New Testament Words (Westminster John Knox Press, 2000), 144.
  10. Barclay, New Testament Words, 144.
  11. Francesca Ambrogetti and Sergio Rubin, Pope Francis: Conversations with Jorge Bergoglio: His Life in His Own Words (New York: Penguin, 2014), 72; Pope Francis, “The Bishops We Want: An Address to the Congregation for Bishops,” L’Osservatore Romano, March 7, 2014, 8–9.
  12. Pope Francis, “For a global civilization of coalition: An Address to the Focolare Movement in Loppiano,” L’Osservatore Romano, May 25, 2018, 8–9. Rom 5:3–5: “Not only that, but we even boast of our afflictions, knowing that affliction produces endurance, and endurance, proven character, and proven character, hope.”
  13. Pope Francis, Encountering Truth: Meeting God in the Everyday (New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2015), 57.
  14. Ambrogetti and Rubin, Pope Francis, 76.
  15. Pope Francis, Encountering Truth, 57.
  16. Focusing on a particular virtue is an essential characteristic of Ignatian Spirituality. The Founder of the Society often repeated the maxim agere contra, which means that if one is struggling in a particular area of the Christian life, one should cultivate the opposite virtue. For instance, the proud person should humble himself.
  17. Geoffrey D. Dunn, Tertullian (New York: Routledge, 2004), 7.
  18. Wilken, Spirit of Early Christian Thought, 283. See also Jean-Claude Fredouille, introduction to De la patience, by Tertullian, SC 310 (Paris: Éditions du Cerf, 1984), 21.
  19. Prior to the Stoics, the Latin schools hesitated to consider patientia an important virtue; see Jean-Claude Fredouille, introduction to De la Patience, 26.
  20. Robert A. Kaster, “The Taxonomy of Patience, or When Is ‘Patientia’ Not a Virtue?,” Classical Philology 97 (2002): 135–38.
  21. Wilken, Spirit of Early Christian Thought, 283.
  22. Kaster, “Taxonomy of Patience,” 139.
  23. Kaster, “Taxonomy of Patience,” 135.
  24. Tertullian, On Patience 3.11, as found in Disciplinary, Moral, and Ascetical Works, vol. 40 (Washington, DC: CUA Press, 2010). The quotations from On Patience are taken from this translation; when they are modified, it is noted; the quoted Latin text is from De la patience (Éditions du Cerf, as above).
  25. Tertullian, On Patience 2.2.
  26. Tertullian, On Patience 2.2.
  27. Tertullian, On Patience 2.
  28. Tertullian, On Patience 2.3.
  29. Tertullian, On Patience 3.11.
  30. Wilken, Spirit of Early Christian Thought, 283.
  31. Tertullian, On Patience 2.1.
  32. Tertullian, On Patience 3.2–9.
  33. Tertullian, On Patience 3.10.
  34. Tertullian, On Patience 16.5.
  35. Tertullian, On Patience 16.5.
  36. Tertullian, On Patience 5.3; 5.7; 5.15, 18.
  37. Tertullian, On Patience 9.2–3.
  38. Tertullian, On Patience 16.5; see also Wilken, Spirit of Early Christian Thought, 284.
  39. Tertullian, On Patience 16.5: “offeramus patientiam spiritus, patientiam carnis, qui in resurrectionem carnis et spiritus credimus.”
  40. “Patience of soul” is treated in in chapters 7–12. “Patience of body” is discussed in chapters 13–14. Tertullian makes this division clear at the beginning of chapter 13. The distinction between these two types of patience will become a trope in the later Latin treatises on the virtue; see Harned, Patience, 47.
  41. Tertullian, On Patience 7.2–7.
  42. Tertullian, On Patience 9.
  43. Tertullian, On Patience 10.
  44. Wilken, Spirit of Early Christian Thought, 284.
  45. N.T. Wright, Paul: A Biography (New York: HarperCollins, 2018), 45.
  46. Wright, Paul, 45.
  47. Tertullian, On Patience 16.2.
  48. Tertullian, On Patience 7.12.
Fr. Brendan Lupton About Fr. Brendan Lupton

Fr. Brendan Lupton is a priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago and an assistant professor at University of St. Mary of the Lake: Mundelein Seminary, where he has been teaching patristics and historical theology since 2013.


  1. “Pope”e Francis has a lot of patience for abusers that for sure.

  2. Avatar Frederick Dempsey says:

    With Francis, I have lost all patience! He is an occasion of sin, at least for me, and seems to be so for many others as well.