With its focus on increased economic production and utilitarian thinking, the modern age has shuffled virtues such as heroism and courage into the back seat. The heroism we do honour tends to be more of the ephemeral variety – "Man rescues baby from burning house" – than a fixed feature of one's character.
Foremost on the list of societal priorities are increasing the domestic product and ensuring a high standard of living – worthy goals, but ones that tend to reduce the human person to a cog in an efficient machine and reduce life to one of bland conformity.
Yet, the desire for the heroic remains strong. Friedrich Nietzsche, in the 19th century, mocked the tawdry utilitarianism of his time, and his cultural influence remains strong today. Nietzsche's ideal of the "Overman" – one oriented only to the overcoming of himself and even his humanity – is radically destructive of the common good.
Nietzsche denied the existence of truth and love and made the strength of the will the only goal worth pursuing.
What may perhaps be regarded as the greatest innovation of the pontificates of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI is their linking of the heroic to truth and love. The true hero is one who denies his or her desires by standing against the culture with a life devoted totally to love and truth.
Pope Francis is, if anything, oriented even more to this insight. In his new encyclical Lumen Fidei (The Light of Faith), Pope Francis challenges all forms of idolatry by revealing them as self-centred and without risk. Idolatry is aimless and calls forth nothing from the soul of the person.
Christian faith, in contrast, is anything but bland. "Faith transforms the whole person precisely to the extent that he or she becomes open to love." Openness to love ultimately means sharing in the life and mission of Christ who is Love incarnate.
Heroism is reborn when we participate in Christ's mission. Personal desires become secondary to a call that leads us "beyond our isolated selves towards the breadth of communion." Faith involves a willingness to be constantly transformed and renewed by God.
The perfect icon of faith, the pope writes, is Mary who silently, humbly became the perfect servant of God's Word. Mary's heroism is radically different than the heroism of the Greek epic warriors Achilles and Hector. However, Mary is heroic because she links herself totally to God's plan, helping to fulfill a plan infinitely greater than her own. Nothing more can be asked of any human being.
The growth of new movements in the Church and the increasing number of seminarians witness to a growing rebellion against the bland and the merely functional. Heroism means fidelity to God's truth and his love. The heroes of the future will be heroes of faith.