Husband & Wife Articles


Our Culture Can Still Produce Heroes

Remembering heroes can inspire us to virtue

By Mike Phelan

During a talk on Christian fatherhood, I mentioned that my dad was my Number One hero. A man in the audience asked for my second hero.

“Pat Tillman,” I answered, naming the former Arizona State linebacker who gave up an NFL career to join an elite corps of the U.S. Army, and was killed in Afghanistan in 2004.

We Arizonans watched his story unfold with a personal interest and marveled at his courage. Pat was already our sports hero, having dominated the college gridiron as a linebacker and then starting 10 of his first 16 games for the Arizona Cardinals. But then, he gave his life away in three different ways.

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First, he gave away a lucrative career. Following the terrorist attacks on 9/11, Tillman turned down a multimillion dollar contract with the Cardinals and enlisted in the Army for less than $20,000 per year. Second, following his first tour of duty, he gave his very self away in marriage to his girlfriend of 11 years. A few months later, he offered his life for his country, reportedly brought down by friendly fire in Afghanistan. Pat Tillman’s life was an ode to the Christian principle that to lay down one’s life for one’s friends is the greatest act of love. And yet, by all accounts, Tillman was not a religious man.

This week, we honor those who have placed themselves “in harm’s way” for our nation in times of war. This sacrifice, and all of the risk it entails, inspire us at a deep level. Simply to serve, to put oneself at risk, is a deed worthy of emulation and we set aside a secular yet sacred day — Veterans Day — to remember the heroes in our midst.

But heroes can be found outside the military, as well, if we challenge ourselves to live up to the standards of high virtue and service. As fathers, we must.

C.S. Lewis, in his prophetic series of essays entitled The Abolition of Man, critiques modern education for its moral relativism, its mockery of great virtue and its reduction of human aspiration for greatness. Students read less Shakespeare, Plato, Augustine, and Homer in favor of more textbooks and memorized lists of facts. In a particularly powerful passage, Lewis said:

“In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst.”

American Catholic author Peter Kreeft put it slightly differently:

“Our culture has filled our heads but emptied our hearts, stuffed our wallets but starved our wonder. It has fed our thirst for facts but not for meaning or mystery. It produces ‘nice’ people, not heroes.”

Yet we still manage to produce heroes. After all, Patrick Tillman was homegrown.

As Catholic husbands and dads, we are not called to be nice, a word whose Latin root means “knowing nothing.” We are called to be kind and merciful, but not nice. The nice dad, all too common in our time, is a pushover in distinguishing good and evil for his children. The nice husband is happy to take a back seat spiritually while his wife leads whatever prayer life limps along in the home. He avoids necessary conflict with sin; the garden of his home life is full of weeds.

On the contrary, we are called to be the first lovers in our home, in the image of Christ who loves his Church. We are the first educators of our children, especially in the areas of faith and virtue. To do this at all well is to live a real self-gift.

I’m no Pat Tillman. But I want to love my wife as he loved his, and be a father who sacrifices his comfort to provide for his family and to educate his children in virtue mainly by example. I hope, by God’s grace, to grow enough in the Christian life to be even a pale image of Jesus Christ. It is good this Veterans Day to know and reflect on those who have put their lives on the line for our freedom so that we can be husbands and fathers who also can choose to make similar sacrifices.

Mike Phelan, Director of Marriage and Respect Life for the Diocese of Phoenix, holds a master’s degree from the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at The Catholic University of America. He and his wife of 18 years, Sharon, live with their six children in Mesa, Arizona.