In one of his exhortations, Pope John Paul II asked Catholics to celebrate the great Jubilee Year of 2000 by honoring their heroes, especially those many brave believers who have given their lives for the faith during the 20th century.
And, while extolling the memory of those who have actually shed their blood, the Roman pontiff suggested that we also honor those “dry martyrs” who have been willing to accept isolation, humiliation, rejection and social opprobrium for their beliefs.
Such great people as these were not surprised at encountering hostility in the world. On many occasions Jesus clearly warned His followers that they would face persecution. Indeed He extorted them to "rejoice and be glad,” when they were so treated.
The Holy Father’s call for heroes has long been echoed in the literary world. Samuel Johnson, for example, said: "Almost every man...will be found to have... some hero or other, living or dead,…whose character he endeavours to assume, and whose performances he labours to equal. When the original is well-chosen and judiciously copied, the imitator arrives at excellences which he could never have attained without direction.
Thomas Carlyle taught that hero-worship is a natural human tendency. All people look for heroes because of inadequacies in their human nature. That people often tend to complete themselves vicariously is really not unreasonable. Social beings look to those whose lives and examples provide clues about life’s questions. When such persons are identified, they become authentic heroes.
Hero-worship is so ingrained in the human psyche that failure to find one can result in the discovery of pseudo-heroes and that can and often does lead to disastrous consequences.
Pope John Paul reminds us that the Catholic Church has a treasury of admirable people where everyone can browse for heroes. In the Church heroes are called saints most of whom have never been formally canonized. By imitating the heroes of holiness, people can achieve ultimate completeness.
There are saints for every temperament. Eric Schekse observed that there is a saint suited to each person’s situation. The tough guy in the mold of Jean Claude Van Damme can take the example of St. Ignatius Loyola, a nobleman and a soldier, who was transformed into a valiant “soldier” of Christ and His Church”, the quiet, withdrawn type can imitate St. Simeon Stylites or any cloistered saint. For the wealthy, there are many saints of royalty, like St. Louis of France or St. Stephen of Hungary. The young woman caught in a web of sexuality and disrepute can turn to St. Margaret of Cortona. The intellectual, to St. Thomas Aquinas; the middle-class person, to St. Therese of Lisieux. For the sensualist seeking sanctity, there's St. Augustine and for the professional looking to practice holiness, there's St. Thomas More. The diplomat seeking a balance between two kingdoms can look to St. Catherine of Siena and the poet to St. John of the Cross. There are patron Saints or heroes for almost every calling, condition, and event in life.
The rejection of saints for veneration, a practice begun during Reformation times, deprives people of their heroes and causes them to seek out pseudo heroes. Thomas Carlyle, who was there at the beginning of the modern age, viewed heroes as a solution to modern society’s evils. Authentic heroes helped society in earlier centuries and they can help society today. A society that rejects its saints in spiritually doomed.