In the days when I was still at school, there was a punk rock group called ‘The Stranglers’. I don’t remember much about them, I think they were more cultured than their stage appearance would have suggested. They had a song called ‘No more heroes’. It was a catalogue of unlikely characters fromhistory who stood up for what they believed. The list included Leon Trotsky, the man who opposed Stalin and who was assassinated while in exile in Mexico. There was a line in the song that ‘he got an ice pick through his head’. I always thought it was an odd means by which to assassinate someone, only years later did I find out that the line was true. The main point of the song was to ask ‘whatever happened to heroes?
It’s a good question. There seem to be no more heroes anymore. Fr Niall O’Brien, the Columban priest who opposed the Filipino dictator Ferdinand Marcos, and was thrown into prison on false murder charges, was one of my heroes. I remember meeting him in the Philippines in 1991. The Marcos government had been overthrown in 1986, but the government of Cory Aquino was ineffectual and the island of Negros, where Fr Niall worked, was a violently dangerous place. A priest of the Philippine Independent Church was murdered on the day our group arrived; it was not a safe place to be. Yet in the middle of the violence and the protests, Fr Niall remained a very gentle and eirenic figure, always advocating the ways of non-violence. We sat in his house and drank Lipton’s tea and ate cakes and Fr Niall smiled,as he always did.
I met Fr Niall here in Ireland in 2001 after I had visited Negros for a second time. He faced serious illness with the same quiet composure as he had faced the death threats and the corruption in Negros.
Niall O’Brien was a hero at a time when heroes are a rare commodity.
We need heroes. The massive success of Tolkien’s ‘Lord of the Rings’ stems in part, I believe, because it is a story of heroes. It is a story of self-sacrifice and unflinching commitment in the service of a cause beyond oneself.
Perhaps we have no heroes because of the generally low quality of our media,who offer nothing themselves, but are always ready to tear apart anyone who dares to express a vision. Perhaps we have no heroes because there simply aren’t any out there. Self-sacrifice runs contrary to the spirit of our age which says get all you can while you can. Being committed to a vision or a cause runs against our post-modern society, which says everyone’s views are equal and that no-one should say that someone else is wrong.
Being a Christian is actually meant to be about being a hero. If you don’t believe me, read the Acts of the Apostles! Being a Christian is meant to be about opposing the ways of the world, it’s meant to be about standing for the one who is the only way, the only truth and the only life.
Compared with the Acts of the Apostles, the leadership of the Church today is vague, directionless and almost entirely without vision. The Book of Proverbs, Chapter 29, Verse 18 says ‘where there is no vision, the people perish’. The traditional Church is in danger of disappearing in the space of a generation, there is no vision and no effective leadership. In the words of ‘The Stranglers’, whatever happened to heroes?