What Is Heroism and Who Are the True Heroes?

A true hero is one who makes a habit of heroism.

Hans Holbein, “Thomas More,” 1527
Hans Holbein, “Thomas More,” 1527 (photo: Public Domain)

Although it is good to honor heroes in uniform it would be good to remember the uniformity of heroism itself. Heroism is the same in all ages because, in essence, it is synonymous with holiness. A hero is someone who lays down his life for others. No greater love has anyone, says Our Lord, than to lay down his life for his friends. And since Our Lord also commands us to love our neighbor, we can see that a hero is one who lays down his life for his neighbors.

If, however, acts of heroism can be seen to be self-sacrificial and therefore holy, are all heroes to be considered saints? Surely not. Isn’t history full of “heroes” who were certainly not saints?

Someone can show great courage in wartime but mistreat his own family members in times of peace. The question we need to ask is whether such people are truly heroes. Although, they can be said to be heroes at certain heroic moments in their lives, is this enough to make someone a hero in the fullest sense? The answer must be “no.”

A true hero is one who makes a habit of heroism. He is one who lays down his life for others on a daily basis. He is one who knows that such heroism is not possible without God’s help. This is why true heroes do not hold their heads high in pride but bow them in prayer. A true hero is one who admits to himself his failures and confesses them to God. A true hero knows that he is not always heroic. He knows that heroism is cooperation with the will of God.

This understanding of heroism animates my book, Heroes of the Catholic Reformation, which is a history of “true England.” It tells of those heroic souls who remained true to Truth himself even in the darkest times. These heroes of true England include St. Alban, the first English martyr, put to death during the Roman occupation, as well as the hundreds of English Martyrs put to death during the 150 years of tyranny and torture that followed Henry VIII’s establishment of a state religion to supplant the true Church. 

Does this mean that heroes must be martyrs? In one sense, it doesn’t; but, in a deeper sense, it does. Clearly it is not always necessary to die for the Faith in order to be truly heroic. Heaven is full of saints who died in ripe old age, peacefully in bed, having lived long lives of heroic self-sacrifice. Yet even these heroes were martyrs in the deeper and broader sense of the word, “martyr” meaning “witness.” Insofar as we are all called to be witnesses to the Faith in our daily lives, we are thereby embracing martyrdom. If we are willing to practice what we preach, putting our Christian principles into practice, we are witnesses and therefore martyrs. And this does indeed require that we die for the Faith. It is a laying down of our lives for Christ and His Church, and for our neighbors and enemies.

This is true heroism. It is the heroism to which Christ calls us. It is the heroism that takes up our own individual cross, carrying it with Christ’s help, as a way of helping others. 

Returning to the original questions, we can see that heroism is doing what Christ commands and that the true heroes are those who are trying to be saints. 

This article first appeared in Legatus Magazine and is republished with permission.