Saints and heroes: where the difference lies

Saints and heroes: where the difference lies

Lawrence Cross

Observations on Martyr-Kelly controversy

Following a critical analysis of the Sydney Archdiocesan Lenten Program 'Easter People' by Dr Philippa Martyr of the University of Tasmania in the May 1995 'AD2000', Sr Gretchen Kelly RSCJ of the Catholic Adult Education Centre, Sydney, wrote a defence of the program. Her letter, and a response from Dr Martyr, were published in the July 'AD2000.'

Lawrence Cross, Senior Lecturer in Theology, Australian Catholic University, Christ Campus, Oakleigh, Victoria, is a Deacon of the Melchite Greek-Catholic Patriarchate of Antioch. He offers a follow-up analysis of the issue of secular 'sainthood' raised by the 'Easter People' program.

Sr Gretchen Kelly RSCJ is not playing fair when she claims that Dr Philippa Martyr's criticism of the Sydney Archdiocesan Lenten Program Easter People arises from her "unusually narrow, and even negative perspective." Sister Gretchen is free to believe this, but if she is writing in a public forum she is also obliged to demonstrate that this is indeed the case, otherwise it remains mere 'name-calling.'

Demonstrate the case she does not: rather, obfuscation and filibuster aplenty. Sr Gretchen cannot recognise the essential theology upon which Dr Martyr's criticism rests and clearly does not know the difference between a hero and a saint. Perhaps fearing political incorrectness, she seems unwilling to admit that such a difference exists.

Sr Gretchen and her associates should also bear in mind that heroes of the human spirit, such as Dr Fred Hollows, may not want to be hailed as "Easter People". At best such ascription is very patronising. At worst, it is tasteless spiritual chauvinism. I seem to remember that Frank Hardy in his eulogy for Fred Hollows specifically warned the Catholics away from any posthumous attempt to claim Fred for themselves and turn him into some kind of Christian saint. The old communist crusader was exhibiting a more sound theological instinct and a frank recognition that, whatever the words mean, hero and saint are not synonyms.

The whole business of 'saint making' has always been open to misunderstanding ever since the first formal canonisation of a saint by the Pope of Rome in the 10th century, but the meaning of the saint (the manifestation of God's holiness in the human being) is not at all obscure and the essential meaning of sainthood is clearest in martyrdom.

Whether this is understood in terms of death or in the wider sense of willingness to live or die for Christ (Romans 14:8), the saint and the martyr is a witness to Christ, and the power of the witness also comes exclusively from Christ without whom we can do nothing (John 15:5). (See Bonner, G. "Martyrdom: Its Place in the Church," Sobornost, Vol.5, No. 2, 1983, p.21).

Before the creation of formal canonisation (a 10th century innovation), the process of proclaiming a saint was both popular and local. It was certainly not the exclusive function of the clergy. Indeed, when the people of the Church in those first thousand years discerned the presence of the saint in their midst and with their pastors instituted the cultus of that saint, they were expressing an aspect of the much neglected infallibility of the laity, the infallibility of the Church in its most popular expression. When they discerned and acclaimed the saint who lived and died in their midst or when they received the veneration of a saint from another local Church as a gift, they were expressing infallibility. (The Church of early Kiev Rus is a very good example, receiving and venerating saints of both East and West). In the latter case, it was both an expression of infallibility in its most popular form, as well as an expression of the Church's catholicity.

Saintly lives

Should we be surprised therefore to see just how easy it is for the present-day commentators and would-be hagiographers to reduce the characteristics of saintly lives to their constituent psychological parts in order to understand the well-springs of the saints' actions and personalities? Don't they know, or have they forgotten, that the saint is precisely the one in whom conventional wisdom encounters its limits?

It might be very interesting indeed to penetrate the psychological world of Blessed Mary of the Cross, but that is not at all the same thing as her spirituality. For example, her deep calm and purposefulness, even in the face of misunderstanding, vilification and humiliation, may indeed be attributed to certain personal temperamental resources; but within the horizon of the spiritual life, psychological considerations are but the threshold of the spiritual.

The spiritual life has begun and the life of holiness appears when psychology and temperament, soma and heredity, environment and nurture, have all been baptised into Christ and come under the power of his life-giving Cross.

To speak like this is doubtless 'all Greek' to the Australian, post-Christian politician or civic dignitary, for example, who believes that Mary MacKillop's significance is as a role model for leadership within the smaller communities which make up the wider life of the Australian nation. It may also be 'all Greek' to those who want to present Blessed Mary anachronistically as a kind of lone feminist exerting opposition to oppressive patriarchal structures in the Church. Rather, then as now, one of the chief functions of the saint in the Church is to "demolish sophistries, and the arrogance that tries to resist the knowledge of God" (2 Cor 10:4) precisely by the witness of their lives, lives which go beyond the bounds of merely conventional and humanistic values.

Distortions and misunderstandings of the theological nature of the saints in the life of the Church began early. Julian the Apostate, Emperor of the Romans, as part of his program to restore the worship of the gods, also tried to create his own pagan Church with hierarchy and saints. He was also one of the first and most famous men to pour scorn on the Christians generally and upon the veneration they offered to the martyrs and saints in particular. He did this largely because these disturbing figures represented a source of power which rebuked the present worldly order.


Full of disdain, Julian wrote: "You have filled the whole world with tombs and sepulchres, and yet in your Scriptures it is nowhere said that you must grovel among tombs and pay thein honour" (Julian Against the Galileans, 335C, Loeb ed.iii. 915).

Today Julian's hostility has been largely replaced by blank incomprehension as to the meaning and nature of the saint and the Christian martyr. However, the meaning of the saint is not to be found in the idea of 'role model,' or even as aspiring heroes and heroines. The martyr and saint represent a much deeper reality, a theological mystery of grace. Viewed from one angle, they may indeed be heroic, but the saints are not to be compared with worldly, secular heroes, worthy and admirable as these may be.

As Maurice Bowra put it: "Heroes are the champions of man's ambition to pass beyond the oppressive limits of human frailty to a fuller and more vivid life, to win as far as possible a self-sufficient manhood, which refuses to admit that anything is too difficult for it, and is content, even in failure, provided it has made every effort of which it is capable" (Heroic Poetry, London, 1952, p.4).

During the days of Blessed Mary's beatification such a distinction was a long way from the minds of some. These could be heard to murmur that there were plenty more people in the Australian experience who could be held up for admiration and celebration besides Mary MacKillop. Of course there are, but canonisation is not admiration and celebration of the worthy. In so murmuring they show that they really do not know what constitutes a Christian saint.

As lovable and admirable as they proved to be, an Albert Facey or a Fred Hollows are not Christian saints. The saint is not the hero of open-countenanced endurance or philanthropic energy. The saint's life may also embrace these very same heroic values and experiences - Mother Mary is just such a case - but essentially it points with specific active faith to the Christ.

The vital difference between the hero and the saint is that the saint relies wholly upon Christ in whom she does all things and who strengthens her (Phil 4:13). We always understand and rightly approve of the hero, but the saint remains an embarrassment.

The veneration offered to a saint, the veneration of their bodies and even of the personal things which they used and valued in their daily life, is also something of a problem even for otherwise informed Christians.

Bloodless Christianity

Many a modern Christian might agree with Julian that this indeed so much grovelling among tombs. They much prefer endurance and philanthropic energy. However, from an Eastern Christian viewpoint this incomprehension of the meaning of even the saint's physical person may reveal the development of a rather bloodless and moralistic Christianity whose appreciation of the mystery of the Incarnation lives more in theological textbooks than in the actual, material, daily existence of men and women.

Such a misunderstanding also means that they do not understand even the meaning of their own death. The body of the saint is not a cadaver, rather, this actual body-person is the one in whom Christ has acted and suffered. The Church declares individuals blessed which means that it declares them to be human beings who now infallibly live in the eternal embrace of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, filled with the light of God which shines through Christ. Their body, as part of the world to come, is a sacrament of eternity. This is living dust in which the foolishness of Christianity comes embarrassingly close.

It is probably much easier to speak of role models and leadership in community.

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