One characteristic of the age of chivalry was its focus on the past golden age of King Arthur as its ideal. The saints of the Bible and the martyrs of the Christian past, especially Sts. George and Sebastian, provided the religious models for the lords and knights. The medieval focus on the past established high ideals of behavior for the code of chivalry. This ideal had a very positive and civilizing effect on a population that had been the barbarian invaders of Europe not too many centuries before.
When I was growing up as a Catholic in the 1950s and '60s we were taught to look to the centuries of saints as our heroes and models. On one hand, we did not really expect to be as good as they or see their miracles and visions, but they still provided role models. We were taught their stories so that we would admire and emulate the saints. This pattern fit in with a general American culture of honoring past national heroes like George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and other great Americans. Their heroics in battle and wisdom in politics were models to emulate, too.
Today we have two trends that contradict these patterns of looking to past heroes as models. First, the heroes are frequently debunked. The media tell us more about their faults and weaknesses than about their great deeds. The stuff of public discourse today is the number of affairs and illegitimate children they had, or discussions about the less then noble motives that drove them. In other words, we make the heroes of the past into people just like ourselves. Instead of motivating greatness, they justify our lower appetites. We begin to think that everyone is human, i.e., everyone is petty, envious, lustful, and cowardly at the core of their person. Perhaps they may accidentally become heroes, like Forrest Gump, but they would never seek it out because they honestly had virtue.
Second, instead of looking to the real heroes of the past as models, we look to a not yet existent future as the model of our behavior. Of course, the future cannot really be a model for ideal behavior, since the future does not yet exist. However, we project present trends into the future, claim that this is the inevitable future, and proclaim that this projection is the cutting edge of evolution. Portraying the proposed future as evolutionary development means we should start living that future (though non-existent) ideal right now. Of course, this is still just a projection of the present trends.
These two patterns — exposing the human weaknesses of past heroes and the projection of the present as a future, evolutionary ideal — are, in fact, the same thing: a reduction of everyone else to what we already are. Our present state is all there is. Improvement is neither necessary nor desirable. We do not need heroes from the past because we have already arrived at our own ideals of ourselves. Who could ask for anything more?
I believe these two modern trends are faulty. Of course, I do not mean to say that we should be unrealistic about past heroes or fail to take note of how present trends are developing into the future. However, we do need the heroes of the past to offer us role models of how to be greater than we already are. We need the saints, who most readily admitted their own faults, to provide ideals for the future.
We Catholics can respond to the trend of debunking past heroes and projecting ourselves as heroes in two ways. First, we can unabashedly claim the Bible and the lives of the saints as the sources of our heroes. The Old Testament heroes of faith and family — Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, et al. — or those of courage and truth — the prophets and sages — are the models we choose for ourselves and our children. The martyrs for the faith, the holy virgins, the great pastors, the wise widows, and the married couples are the characters we can actively promote without fear of being called past-oriented, Euro-centric, or any other horrible name.
Second, we can take action. We can read books and seek out videos that tell us about the great deeds. If we have the resources, we can seek out-of-print lives of saints and rewrite or republish them for an audience who knows nothing about them. Grandchildren, nieces, and nephews can be given age-appropriate books and videos about the saints and Bible heroes. Oh, and if someone says it is naive to lift up the saints as goody-goody ideals whose holiness lies beyond the experience of the average American, we can turn to the saints for descriptions of their own sins.
Instead of letting modern revisionists dig up the dirt about past heroes, let the Bible tell us about Abraham's and Sarah's lies, David's adultery, or the apostles' cowardice. Let the saints confess that they were the greatest sinners who ever existed. Then let them tell us how God entered their lives and transformed them into the saints they would never be on their own. Let the saints tell about the role of God's grace in leading them to new depths of holiness far beyond their natural abilities. Perhaps we can do more than letting our weaknesses be projected into the future. Perhaps we can let transformed sinners model sanctity for the future instead.
Jesuit Father Mitch Pacwa is a professor at the Institute for Religious and Pastoral Studies at the University of Dallas.