Heroism For the Masses?

(photo: Wikipedia Commons)

No one who saw it was unmoved by the suffering of John Paul II.  I will not forget the last time I heard him preach.  It was 2004.  He was barely audible, his words a slur.  He was seated.  But he radiated a kind of serenity.  It was clear to me that Pope John Paul II was a living saint.

Two years earlier, at World Youth Day in Toronto, I’d heard him say that “holiness is not a question of age; it is a matter of living in the Holy Spirit.”  Those who watched the last years of John Paul II watched a man alive in the Holy Spirit.

St. John Paul was holy.  He was heroic.  And legions of Catholics, young and old, modeled their lives after him: desiring to be like John Paul II, desiring to be holy.

Saint John Paul was intentional in calling Christians to greatness.  To holiness.  When he said that “the pursuit of holiness is urgently needed in our time”, he was undertaking the teaching function — the munus docendi — of the pontificate.  John Paul’s witness and message were an intentional reflection of the Second Vatican Council’s universal call to holiness.

“In the Church,” teaches Lumen gentium, the Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church,  “everyone whether belonging to the hierarchy, or being cared for by it, is called to holiness…. all the faithful of Christ of whatever rank or status, are called to the fullness of the Christian life and to the perfection of charity.”

It was in the spirit of Vatican II that John Paul II inspired holy priests, holy religious, and holy men and women—husbands and wives—who understood that they could follow after him, and Jesus Christ, in the context of their own vocations.  John Paul made clear that holiness was for every man and women, no matter what kind of life God called them to. 

For those of us inspired by him, the call of John Paul II was not a call to a particular way of life. It was a call to courage. “Young people of every continent,” he called the world, “do not be afraid to be the saints of the new millennium!”

The ministry of John Paul proclaimed the universal call to holiness.  His life manifested the promise that each of us can become saints — each of us is set free by our baptism to practice “heroic virtue.”

My own life was inspired by the witness and the words of John Paul II.  My wife could say the same.  So could many of our friends, and neighbors, and our pastor.  None of us is someone extraordinary; we are all ordinary Christians, striving for heroic virtue and perfect charity.  We are average Catholics, striving to be saints.

It was thus discouraging, as a Catholic inspired by Pope John Paul II, to read the words of a member of the Church’s hierarchy, a cardinal, who said last week: “heroism is not for the average Christian.”  The context was the question of divorce, and remarriage, and the cardinal was explaining that the kind of chastity divorced people are called to is often very difficult.  “But I would say that people must do what is possible in their situation,” he said, “We cannot as human beings always do the ideal, the best.”

For those of us striving to always do the best — to live out the Second Vatican Council, and its universal call to holiness—this sentiment was deeply disheartening.

“Heroism,” said the cardinal, “is not for the average Christian.”  Of course one wonders who heroism is for?  The cardinal evoked a troubling kind of clericalism — the sense that difficult things are for a higher class of Christians — for priests and nuns, perhaps — and that laity need only do what is comfortable, supporting the Church and going to Mass, but never being challenged.

Of course a clericalism like that is rooted in a fundamental disbelief in the transformative power of baptism.  A person who believes in baptism believes that each of us can be a great saint — can be perfect, as our Father in heaven is perfect.

The cardinal made his comments in a context of the ongoing debate about divorce, remarriage, and communion. And his remarks explained just what is at stake in this debate.  On one side are those who think that all of us should be challenged to holiness, to greatness, and to virtue.  On the other side are those who just don’t believe much can be expected of people, even people graced with baptism.

I know what side of that debate St. John Paul II fell on.  And I know what side the Second Vatican Council fell on.  And I can guess what side Our Lord, who commanded us to be perfect, would fall on.

Baptism makes it possible for us to become great saints.  Let us be, like Saint John Paul II, “heroic” for Jesus Christ.