I am a product of our culture. Like it or not, I find myself not only impressed but also convicted by “new expressions” of faith called for in the New Evangelization. Recently, I heard a talk by Fr. Mike Schmitz that I found to be not just a clever example of one such new expression but (probably because I’m a product of modern culture) a penetrating insight into the nature of the universal call to be a saint. Below, I summarize his explanation of life in Christ given to a group of young adults. Pay attention to the theological depth present through such a relatable cultural medium. In my opinion, Fr. Mike is a shining example of who the “new evangelist” is called to be.The question: If a saint were a modern day superhero, to which one might he or she best be compared? In his talk on Baptism titled “Changed Forever,” Fr. Mike explores four options.
1. Is it Superman? Are we all closet Clark Kent’s walking around in disguise? There are many who claim that the saint is someone who learns, not only to realize, but to actualize his full potential as a human being. Certain philosophers have argued that human nature is comparable to Superman (Fr. Mike points out Rousseau, but Nietzsche actually calls the fully evolved person The Superman). The overarching idea is that we’re all perfectly good just as we are. All we must do is free ourselves from the chains of social conditioning and expectation, and simply recognize the truth about who we are. This, of course, is absurd. We all know we have weaknesses, flaws, imperfections, limitations, and – yes! – sinful desires.
Superman is an illusion.
2. What about Batman? Is Bruce Wayne the modern model of sanctity? Here, I think is humanity’s greatest temptation. The idea is that, if we work hard enough, if our desire is strong enough, we can overcome all of our weaknesses and imperfections. This, of course, is a 1600 year old heresy called “Pelagianism.” A bishop named Pelagius, in the fourth century, argued that man could work his way to heaven. It would require years of hard work and utter dedication, but it could be done, the potential is there.
Thank God the Lord gave the Church St. Augustine and put a stop to this nonsense (at least on paper). Batman is bogus as well. The truth is, without the mercy and grace of Jesus Christ, man is a slave to his fallen nature and could never do anything to fully satisfy his natural desire for happiness or to make himself worthy of heaven.
“The law…contributes nothing to God’s saving act: through it he does but show man his weakness, that by faith he may take refuge in the divine mercy and be healed.” (St. Augustine, On the Spirit and the Letter)
3. “Might the saint be Iron Man?” asks Fr. Mike. It sounds a little bizarre, given his private life, but could Tony Stark represent the secret to holiness (metaphorically, of course)? The saint, after all, as St. Paul says, has “put on Christ.” Sure, Tony Stark, the billionaire genius, is endowed with incredible natural gifts, but without his suit he’s left with the same brokenness and sinful desires, not to mention a heart condition that will surely take his life in short order. With the suit, however, he’s unstoppable and possesses superhuman capabilities. He can soar to the heavens with a savior-like quality.
Does Tony Stark represent the nature of a saint: a man clothed with Christ, but deep down the same broken sinner? This is a devastating temptation for many faithful men and women. (Martin Luther called us “dung covered with snow.”) Oh, how deeply we misunderstand the incredible goodness and dignity of God’s design for us if this is how we define salvation! It’s true that we put on Christ and that it is indeed his righteousness that saves us, but the Father in heaven sees far more than a worthy shell when he looks upon his sons and daughters. To be clothed in Christ, as the title of Fr. Mike’s talk suggests, means that, at the deepest core of who we are, we are truly changed forever. The power of putting on Christ and his righteousness effects a transformation in us that is supernatural; we become children of God, healed of our brokenness, transfigured by his glory, and transubstantiated into his likeness.
In other words, by grace, we become what Jesus is by nature. In Christ, we do what we otherwise could not do. We become what is otherwise impossible.
“For the Son of God became man so that we might become God.” (St. Athanasius,CCC 460)
4. No, Fr. Mike explains, if the saint were a superhero he couldn’t be a Superman, a Batman, nor an Iron Man; he’d have to go by the name of Steve Rogers. Here’s a man who longed, more than anything else, to be a great soldier; and, no matter how hard he tried, he always came up short. “You’re too weak. You’re too slow. You don’t have what it takes to be among the greatest.” His life was a constant disappointment… until he discovered the “super-secret soldier serum.” Suddenly, overnight, he possessed a kind of strength above and beyond even the greatest of soldiers. He became Captain America, a man fully perfected in his humanity but also elevated to supernatural capacities.
Here’s the point. In The Avengers, Tony Stark (Iron Man) smugly dismisses Steve Rogers and says, “There’s nothing special about you that doesn’t come from a bottle.” Applying this to personal holiness, what if someone were to say to the Blessed Mother (or any of the Saints), “There’s nothing special about you that doesn’t come from the Holy Spirit”? How do you think she would respond?
“And? Your point is…?”
When we say yes to Christ, when we put on his righteousness, and allow his Holy Spirit to work a miracle of grace in us, everything changes. It’s true there’s nothing special about us that doesn’t come from the Holy Spirit. So what! We’re children of God now, and by his grace, everything about us is special. This is Baptism!
Of course, we’re not called to be superheroes. Saints are far more than that, and the process of sanctification doesn’t happen overnight as it did for Steve Rogers. However, this reflection on Baptism is an example of what Pope John Paul II meant by “new expressions.” It exhibits cultural relevance without compromise of the Gospel, it’s challenging, and it’s fun. This is one of many new and engaging ways that Fr. Mike is helping so many (especially youth and young adults) not just to understand, but to enter more deeply into the beauty and mystery of life in Christ. Fr. Mike Schmitz is a priest of the New Evangelization. His gift for bringing the Gospel to life through relevant cultural expressions is a model for us all.
Lighthouse Catholic Media carries a number of Fr. Mike’s talks (available on MP3 or CD format at wholesale prices). If you’re interested in ordering, CLICK HERE