Saints and Heroes

With the canonization of Popes John Paul II and John XXIII this Sunday morning, many have written about sanctity and what it means not only to the Church but to the world, both secular and sacred.

As Peggy Noonan wrote in her Saturday “Declarations” (Wall Street Journal, April 26-27, 2014):

Saints are not perfect, they’re human. A saint is recognized for heroic virtue in the service of Christ, but saints have flaws, failings and eccentricities. It is because they are not perfect that they are inspiring (italics mine). They remind you what you could become.

So these two priests, elevated to the papacy, had their failings like all of us. But they impacted our world in powerful ways, good ways, ways that made the world safer, better. Pope John presided over Vatican II, saying he “wanted to throw open the windows of the Church,” and soon reform followed, freshening spirits and opening hearts. Pope John Paul presided over the fall of communism embodied in the Soviet regime responsible for the slaughter of over twenty million people of faith and freedom.

Daniel Henninger, also in the Wall Street Journal, observed that institutions are the pillars of society, holding the parts together. These institutions, I would add, such as the Catholic Church, are able to raise up and nurture heroes, men and women who become the face of social goodness, cultural cohesion. We ordinary folks need tangible images, icons, to understand our world and our place in it, who we are, who we are meant to be. The Church gives us those images in her saints. We learn through the saints how to practice our faith, how to be truly human.

Other institutions – governments and schools – once gave us heroes to emulate; not so much today with the decline of the study of history, the decline in the ideal of charity, the decline in giving of oneself for another. Despair works to replace hope, nihilism tries to destroy faith, selfishness seeks to banish selflessness. Anarchy threatens the rule of law as every man looks out for number one and the resulting disorder trumps order. When we lose the stories of goodness, these good icons, these holy heroes, these great men and women of the past, we become smaller for it, we slowly lose ourselves. As W. B. Yeats wrote after the horrors of World War I, “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold.” What would this great poet write today?

This is not to say that there are not islands of faith and practice, of law and order, communities of belief where heroes sacrifice for others.  It is good when our world recognizes these lives of love, and even better when we do not forget these saints as we travel in our own journeys through time.

And so history holds civilization in its palm, protecting it by telling its stories again and again to its children, stories about who we are and who we are meant to be. It is difficult but hopefully not impossible to put things back together in a world disdainful of Judeo-Christian belief, faith, and freedom. It is difficult but hopefully not impossible to create a public square where the pillars of civilization may once again hold things together, may once again rise from strong historical foundations to build a house not of sand but of stone, build a strong future together as a free and good society.

So I am so very thankful for the sanctity of these two popes. I am thankful for their heroic contributions to our time and culture. I am thankful that millions streamed into St. Peter’s Square this morning to witness this event, to this island of sanity in Rome, in Italy, in Europe, in the world. I am thankful that the center is still  holding.

To see some ring-side photos of the canonization, visit the Facebook page of my friend in Rome, Sister Emanuela of the Missionaries of Divine Revelation: https://www.facebook.com/missionariesdivine.revelation?fref=photo

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