The Painful Re-Definition of Heroism

Our children need heroes. Our children deserve heroes.

St. Maximilian Kolbe in 1940.
St. Maximilian Kolbe in 1940. (photo: Register Files)

We live in an age of lesser — lesser goods, lesser men, and a widespread acceptance of lesser evils among the great evils of the age.

To make matters worse, we’ve become much too accepting of that fact. Regarding their personal vices as harmless irrelevancies compared to what we think are favorable political agendas, we neither require nor expect chastity or charity from our leaders. Instead, we’re eager to deem men “heroes” without feeling required to cite their practice of a single moral virtue as evidence.

But the insistence on seeing heroism in unvirtuous men and women is a dangerous hallucination. If we fail to choose heroes for their virtues, it’s only a matter of time before we fail to demand virtue of ourselves. Beyond the effect that the dumbing-down of heroism has on us, this scandalizes our children by sending a message that virtue is either unattainable, unimportant or both. That is tragic.

As a father of nine, I can assure you of this: boys and girls need heroes. They need heroes who practice real virtues. Our hope is to raise them to be faithful Catholics; therefore, our children need examples of men and women who courageously and joyfully embrace the Faith, regardless of difficulty and circumstances. Where our “culture” fails to present these heroes to our children, we need to look back in time to another world — the world of saints.

In his book Heroes, Paul Johnson suggested that heroism was easier to recognize than define, and while the Catholic Church has never formally defined the term “heroism,” it has recognized thousands. As to the question of what constitutes true heroism, the canonized men and women unite to form a powerful answer. They form a diverse group: virgins, martyrs, soldiers, priests, teachers, mothers and fathers — men and women of virtually every walk of life and every calling appear in the canon.

Even non-Catholics would concede that some saints’ stories were breathtakingly heroic. Saint Joan of Arc rose from illiterate peasant girl to gallant military leader who inspired her nation in life and inspired the world in death. Saint Athanasius was hunted by seemingly every high-ranking prelate and government official for decades; it is often said that it was Athanasius contra mundum (“Athanasius against the world”). Saint Maximilian Kolbe stepped forward to offer his own life at Auschwitz so that another man might live.

We should take note of something else: many of the Church’s saintly men and women stand out, ironically, by not standing out. Many of the saints have lived very quiet, almost silent, lives. They did little or nothing that the world would consider superhuman. What they had was a love of God that further inspired them to love their neighbor.

Love was their superpower.

The lesson here is clear: you and I can — and must — aspire to the heroism of sainthood. But to do so, we must recognize that there is no heroism without love and the necessary virtues that accompany love. Further, this message must be communicated to our children. We must raise saints. Because eternity knows but two destinations — Heaven and Hell.

And in an age that witnesses the painful re-definition of heroism, our children need men and women to look to with admiration and aspiration, whenever or wherever they lived.

Our children need heroes.

Our children deserve heroes.

There are heroes among us, but they receive scant attention in a culture that views anything and everything through the cracked lens of politics. There are mothers and fathers who devote their lives to their families. There are priests and religious sisters who reject the empty promises of wealth. There are soldiers who lay down their lives for their friends.

Chances are, you know some heroes in your own life. Maybe it’s your husband. Maybe it’s your wife. Celebrate them as heroes. Better still, live a virtuous life and become a hero to your children and to the rest of us.