Where Have All the Heroes Gone?

The just-passed feasts of Michaelmas and Our Lady of the Rosary, redolent with their memories of the bright Archangel who cast Satan out of Heaven and the great Captains (Don Juan of Austria and Prince Eugene of Savoy) who crushed the Turks at Lepanto and Belgrade have me thinking about heroism and heroes. Just what does the former really mean, and where — in this time seemingly ruled by a coalition of morons whose malice is equaled only by the tedium they arouse in the minds of their hapless subjects — have the latter gone?

Now, I have to admit that I am a bit spoiled. I grew up in a time when, thanks to the relatively recent Second World War, there was a surfeit of men about called — rightly or wrongly — heroes. The older fathers (including my own) had served in that conflict and the younger ones had fought the Reds in Korea. Everyone’s grandpa (again, including my own) had been in World War I, and there were even a fair number of Spanish-American War vets wandering around. To honour them we had Memorial and Veteran’s day observances, and we proudly wore the “Buddy Poppy” (as do even now our British, Canadian, Australian, New Zealand, and South African brethren — though in that immense garden of remembrance I think the version worn by our northern neighbours is the prettiest). We treasured the memories of such folk as the “Four Chaplains” and General Patton, while the French, Germans, Italians, Poles and the rest treasured those of the countrymen who had fought in the Resistance (and the Spanish who fought in their Civil War), and individual heroes like Leclerc and Stauffenberg. Commemorative activities — from Arlington National Cemetery to the smallest local war memorial — completed, these veterans of bygone battles would repair to American Legion or VFW halls to reminisce and forget.

So it was for the first few years of my life. But this kind of heroic cultus collapsed during my childhood, as national displeasure with the Vietnam War led to the growth of an anti-war movement; this in turn dovetailed with the rise of the hippies and various other amusements. The result was to render the homecoming of so many young men — many damaged physically or mentally — into a nightmare. The suspicion of things military lasted a long time; only with 9/11 did the antipathy so many Vietnam era vets face subside. Of course, even that period’s flag-waving has passed with our current endless series of wars, but at least veterans and serving military do not seem to be the object of disgust they were.

Nevertheless, perhaps because of the age of the clergy involved (many of whom remain firmly planted mentally in the Age of Aquarius), a number of priests and nuns remain suspicious of anything remotely military — going so far as to forbid the drawing of swords in churches by Knights of Columbus and the presentation of arms by ROTC units at the Elevation of the Host. Of course, this view is in stark contrast to such militaristic feast days as the before mentioned Our Lady of the Rosary and those of the Holy Name of Mary (which in its present form honours exploits by King Jan III Sobieski of Poland) and Our Lady of the Snows (upon which feast the redoubtable Prince Eugene beat the Turks at Peterwardein); the Feast of the Transfiguration, which commemorates the victory of the Crusaders at an earlier battle of Belgrade; and the plethora of military saints. It calls into question such institutions as the Military Ordinariates and the Catholic War Veterans, and at least obliquely condemns past popes with their Zouaves and Corsican Guards, their awarding of such titles as “Athlete of Christ,” “Captain General of the Holy Roman Church,” “Gonfalonier of the Holy Roman Church,” and their longtime Christmas custom of bestowing a hat and sword upon a particularly good knight or soldier.

But heroism is not merely about military prowess. Back in my childhood, political leaders were expected to be larger than life — and they often were, albeit often enough with gigantic flaws to match their equally gigantic successes. Still at the helm or else recently retired when I was born were De Gaulle, Chiang Kai-Shek, Churchill, de Gasperi, Eisenhower, Franco, Salazar, de Valera, and Adenauer, to name a few — folk who had led their peoples more or less successfully through all the great upheavals of the middle of the 20th century. Of course, the spectre of FDR and his New Deal (as well as the temple his home had been transformed into) loomed over all, and shortly he was to be joined in the pantheon of American heroes by the man elected the day I first saw the light. Now, admittedly, there were many for whom these men were not heroes — quite the contrary (Petain and Mussolini, for example, still have their devotees, and Yasukuni Jinja retains its pilgrims). But at least while they reigned these men were seen as such by most of their subjects — and often came to power hailed as saviours, however much or little they might be regarded today. There was a taste of that euphoria when Ronald Reagan came into power (and it may still be tasted at his library and ranch). Obama’s supporters drank a similar brew during their man’s first campaign, though it has left a bitter aftertaste for most of them. But, by and large, the world’s leaders today seem like a band of vicious munchkins — save (for his supporters of course), Vladimir Putin — though even his enemies must admit he is at least not boring.

But if there is little of the heroic to be found among the world’s leadership today, there remains much heroism to be found in the past. In my day, of course, Americans revered the Pilgrims on Thanksgiving Day (much different than the less ideological Canadian version) and the Founding Fathers on Independence Day, Washington on his birthday (especially lavish in his hometown) and Lincoln on his. Jefferson and Franklin were held up as heroes, as were Andrew Jackson, Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone, John Paul Jones, and the fighters of Valley Forge (with its chapel), the Alamo, Fort McHenry, Bunker Hill, Gettysburg, and innumerable other such engagements. Independence Hall was the holy of holies, and even such foreigners as Christopher Columbus and Leif Ericson were revered as discoverers. The homes and libraries of presidents past were shrines for those Americans who treasured respectively their memories and supported their policies. Adherents of the Confederate version of the national faith offered homage to such as Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee. In our time, of course, many of these figures have been tarnished by accusations of racism, sexism, and homophobia, but the culti of such new paladins as Martin Luther King, Cesar Chavez, Susan B. Anthony, and Harvey Milk have taken up the slack. Our Latin American brethren (save those who treasure Hispanidad) similarly worship at the shrines of Bolivar, San Martin, and Hidalgo; while the latter’s Grito de Dolores is the actual pretext for Mexican Independence Day, the better-known Cinco de Mayo commemorates a republican battle against the French in the war of the Second Empire (oddly enough, another battle in that same war provided the high holy day of the Foreign Legion). In this country and across the globe, the farrago of lost causes described in my last article in these pages provides their continuing adherents with countless heroes. And, of course, UN advocates continue to revere Hammarskjold and Bernadotte, as well as their death sites in the Congo and Palestine.

Now differing as much from each other as all these figures did in views and quality (and for me, some verge upon the disgusting), their various devotees regard (or regarded) them as heroic. But what are the qualities they were seen as having that made them so? Notwithstanding the factual truth of the claimed qualities in any particular case, these men were viewed by their admirers as a) being brave and proficient above the norm at what they did, especially in terms of leadership; b) not being overly proud of their abilities; c) being magnanimous and generous with and protective of those weaker or less fortunate than themselves; d) being moral —or even pure; e) being honorable in public and private matters; f) loving their countries or subjects; g) being loyal both to those above and below them; and h) being willing to sacrifice themselves for the common good despite their high position and/or lineage. Again, for our purposes it does not matter how well or how little they had these qualities in reality — what is important is that those who saw them as heroes believed that they did. These are the unspoken and indeed often undefined qualities of a hero. But whence did this concept come from?

We need not linger here with Bushido, the Confucian notion of the gentleman, nor with the martial ideals of the Rajputs. In the West, our entire ideal of the heroic comes to us from Chivalry and Knighthood. To this day, such figures as Don Juan of Austria and Prince Eugene of Savoy earlier referred to, of El Cid, the Black Prince, Richard the Lion Heart, St. Louis, Robin Hood, Emperor Maximilian, Frederick Barbarossa, Bayard, du Guesclin, Chaucer’s fictional “Verray Parfit Gentle Knight” and so many others haunt the Western imagination, as indeed they should.

Whether freeing the Holy Sepulchre or seeking the Holy Grail, at their best, these paladins tried to ply their admittedly bloody trade in a way that would express an intense love for both God and their fellow man. In the words of Leon Gautier in his Chivalry, “The object was to enlarge the Kingdom of God on Earth. When our knights attended mass one might have seen them, before the reading of the second lesson, draw their swords and hold them unsheathed in their hands until the reading of the lesson was finished. This defiant attitude seemed to imply their readiness to defend the Gospel. ‘If the Word is to be defended, we are ready.’ This is the whole spirit of chivalry.” At least, that was the ideal. Many medieval writers — knights themselves or friends of knights — wrote manuals of Chivalry to help them meet their goals. Blessed Raymond Lully wrote one of these; Geoffroy de Charny another. Gautier extracted from these the “Ten Commandments of Chivalry:”

  1. Thou shalt believe all that the Church teaches and shalt observe all its directions.
  2. Thou shalt defend the Church.
  3. Thou shalt respect all weaknesses, and shalt constitute thyself the defender of them.
  4. Thou shalt love the country in which thou wast born.
  5. Thou shalt not recoil before thine enemy.
  6. Thou shalt make war against the infidel without cessation and without mercy.
  7. Thou shalt perform scrupulously thy feudal duties, if they be not contrary to the laws of God.
  8. Thou shalt never lie, and shalt remain faithful to thy pledged word.
  9. Thou shalt be generous, and give largesse to everyone.
  10. Thou shalt be everywhere and always the champion of the Right and the Good against Injustice and Evil.

Very heroic, to be sure, but very difficult to uphold — especially when fighting fellow Christians. But, the opening of the Crusades gave the knights opponents they could fight without second thoughts as to the justice of combat. These conflicts saw the rise of the great military orders: the Templars (for whom St. Bernard of Clairvaux wrote a famous rule), Hospitallers, and Teutonic Knights. The Crusaders in general and the military orders in particular may not always have lived up to their high ideals; but in countless battles on land and sea, from the calling of the First Crusade in 1097 until the fall of Malta to the French in 1798, they proved but their piety and their military prowess. In so doing they would inspire later generations of Catholic warriors, such as the Chouans and Vendeens in France, the partisans of Andreas Hofer in Tyrol, the Sanfedisti in Italy, the Carlists in Spain, the Miguelists in Portugal – and especially the Papal Zouaves and Mexican Cristeros.

But if the knights inspired those who followed them, who were the knights’ heroes? Our Medieval ancestors loved to make lists — as much of people, and of saints, as anything else. Among the latter were the Fourteen Holy Helpers and the Seven Champions of Christendom. Of greatest interest to the knightly folk, however, were the “Nine Worthies.”

These latter reached back into antiquity: the first three were pagans. Now, despite their lack of Baptism, our ancestors revered them as warriors, Christianising their exploits with stories based upon the Classical stories and histories, but recast through a Medieval prism — this is what was called “The Matter of Rome.” First of the pagan trio was Hector, Prince of Troy. Presented as a loyal son, husband, and father; lover of peace yet skilled at war, Hector would have saved the doomed city of his birth could it be done. And make no mistake — Medieval audiences rooted for the Trojans, seen to be the progenitors of Romans, Britons, and Franks alike in legendary history.

Next was Alexander the Great, to whose already incredible factual achievement of conquering the known world from Greece to India were added innumerable legends of dragon-slaying and the like. Rounding out the pagan Worthies was Julius Caesar, regarded (although this was not strictly true) as the first Roman Emperor and as a great warrior in his own right. His very name had become synonymous with “Emperor,” as it remains in German, Russian, and Hindi to this day. Our ancestors embroidered upon history tales of his exploits as well — and this was appropriate: Thanks to Emperor Theodosius the Great, baptism, in addition to admitting one to the Church also made him a citizen of the Empire. Whether one sees Caesar’s last successor ending his reign in 1453, 1806, 1917, or 1918, it was from his handiwork that the political structure of Christendom emerged.

There followed the Jewish Worthies, whose exploits were recounted in the Bible, and whose rescue at the Harrowing of Hell placed them above the wary question about their eternal fate that dogged Dante and other speculators about “virtuous pagans” — that is, they were complete heroes. These were Joshua, who fought the battle of Jericho; David, psalmist and great warrior King of Israel; and Judas Maccabeus, who freed his people from the unworthy successors of Alexander the Great, but would eventually leave a remote descendant by marriage at least as unsavory — Herod.

At last there were the three Christians. The most mysterious of these was (and is, for he haunts our imaginations still), Arthur, King of the Britons. In all likelihood, he was the last Roman Dux Bellorum, defending his country against the invading Saxons in the wake of the withdrawal of the Legions from Britain. Leading a band of cavalry from place to place to challenge the foe, he fought battles all over Britain in much the same way as a firefighter puts out brushfires. All sorts of legends — the “Matter of Britain” — were added to his adventures by storytellers ranging from Welsh to French to German to English, until none can say with certainly what the truth was about him and his fabled court at Camelot. But he and his Knights of the Round Table (most notably, Lancelot, Galahad, Gawain, and Parisfal) are with us yet, as is their search for the Grail and innumerable other adventures; Glastonbury, Caerleon, Tintagel, and sundry other places claim to be the scenes of their activities. May they never desert our aspirations or imaginations!

The second was Bl. Charlemagne, first Holy Roman Emperor and first King of France (as opposed to the Franks). His historical achievements are immense: the Carolingian Renaissance; a monetary system that lasted even until 1970 (in Great Britain — it was banished from the Continent by the French Revolution); writing; dioceses and monasteries; freedom for Compostela and the Holy Land Pilgrims; and on and on. He is a Blessed with his own proper liturgy (still offered in Aachen and Frankfurt), and is regarded as the “Father of Europe,” in whose honor the Karlspreis is given — his name came to mean “King” in Magyar and the Slavic languages (as Kiral and Kral, respectively). Not surprisingly, his real-life deeds and those of his closest comrades — the “Twelve Peers” — gave rise to all sorts of tales as well: the “Matter of France.” Of his companions, the one who remains the best known is his nephew Roland, in commemoration of whose valiant death at Roncesvalles a chapel is maintained, and whose sword Durendal is enshrined at Rocamadour. It is not surprising that figures as diverse as Charles V, Louis XIV, and the two Napoleons aspired to be like him — and in their own estimations, failed.

The last of the Nine and the Three is Godefroi de Bouillon, leader of the First Crusade and liberator of Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Refusing, as he said, “to wear a crown of gold where my Saviour wore a Crown of Thorns,” he contented himself with the title “Protector of the Holy Sepulchre.” His less fastidious brother took the title “King of Jerusalem” after Godefroi’s death; while the last scrap of that Kingdom fell to the Turks in 1291, a number of the Sovereigns of Europe (or their deposed heirs) have a claim to it today. At any event, Godefroi is considered the founder of the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre, and his handiwork is to be found to this day throughout the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem and the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land.

Behind and beyond the Nine, of course, there are all sorts of other heroic folk, such as Siegfried and Beowulf (the scene of whose adventure and burial barrow have been found in recent years). All of them were kind and generous to those weaker than themselves, demonstrated bravery, and upheld good and order against evil and chaos — often symbolized by a dragon. And here we see heroism merging with sanctity, for a large number of Saints (whom we always speak of as exercising heroic virtue — it is a requirement for canonization) were dragonslayers: Ss. George, Martha, Margaret of Antioch, and on and on — all the way back to the great Archangel, St. Michael, who drove THE great dragon, Lucifer, out of Heaven.

But bright and effulgent as was and is the heroism of the saints, the greatest of mortal paladins, it simply reflects that of the great Hero: Jesus Christ Himself. We often do not think of Him in that guise, but our ancestors did, as songs and stories as far apart in time and space as “The Corpus Christi Carol” and Heliand show us. In our own era, Pope Pius XI pointed this out when erecting the Feast of Christ the King: “But a thought that must give us even greater joy and consolation is this that Christ is our King by acquired, as well as by natural right, for he is our Redeemer.” What is this acquired right? “Christ as our Redeemer purchased the Church at the price of his own blood; as priest he offered himself, and continues to offer himself as a victim for our sins.” His Kingship was erected in an act of heroism greater than that of any other — the death on the Cross.

This is why the Feasts of the Holy Cross are special feasts for the surviving orders of Knighthood, and why, in the West, the Cross is the motif for so many decorations for gallantry — to include our own Distinguished Service Cross (to say nothing of the Commonwealth’s Victoria Cross). This reality was seen early on, and irradiates the Vexilla Regis of Venantius Fortunatus (530-609). So many other devotions to Christ are also redolent of His heroism — the Sacred Heart, Precious Blood, and Five Wounds in particular — which is why those groups mentioned earlier who fought for the Faith from the 16th century on so often took the first or last named images for their own badges.

We live in dark and perilous times, where so often the true path seems as lost as our leaders. Heroism is as much in demand as ever it was, but we fool ourselves if we look for it in others without trying to exhibit it in ourselves. How do we do that? First by looking at Christus Rex, that greatest of heroes, and trying to take up our own Cross with, to the best of our abilities, joy. Nothing we shall be called upon to do is worse than what He has already done. If we are steadfast and true, and try to follow in His footsteps and those of the Saints and Heroes who followed Him (though that means we must study them!), then you and I may very well one day be the heroes this Age needs. More importantly, however, we shall go further along the road that leads to our individual salvation.

Fortunately, however, we are not speaking merely of sharing in the pains of the Passion through last stands and the like. It was often said in days gone by that this or another great hero — Arthur, the “Once and Future King;” Charlemagne; Friedrich Barbarossa; and any number of other heroes were not dead but merely sleeping — awaiting the moment when their countrymen needed them most to return. To wake up and lead them to victory. Whether there be any truth in those legends I cannot say; but Christ IS coming back, in His own good time, for the final victory. Please God we be of that number that welcome Him. For on that day the gathering of heroes that shall result (and is prefigured by All Saints Day) shall be greater than anything ever seen before — and it shall be eternal.