Who was your childhood hero?
I suspect each of us has had a hero or heroine we wanted to be like. It may have been someone in a favorite story read to us by a mother or father, a comic book hero, a sports figure, the central character in a book that impressed us, perhaps even our mother or father. Think of the range of possibilities from Star Wars to Harry Potter and Marvel.
Whoever it was, we may have collected all kinds of memorabilia such as coloring books, or watched hours of cartoons featuring them. Whole industries have grown up around catering to these youthful identifications. Whoever it was shaped our lives whether for good or for ill. We imitated them. We knew their favorite lines. We might even begin to speak like them, act like them or dress like them.
That got me thinking about a man named Vincent who, as an adult, changed the church of his day and the church of our day.
Who was St. Vincent de Paul’s childhood hero?
We probably will never know. There are some hints that even as a child he had a special devotion to Mary. But we do not know what heroes and heroines his parents presented to him in the fairytales told to children of the late 16th century.
What we do know, with great certitude, is who his hero and model became in his adult life. It was clearly Jesus as he literally “encountered” him in the Gospel. Four years after St. Vincent died, his first biographer, Louis Abelly, wrote these words:
He seemed to suck meaning from passages of the scriptures as a baby sucks milk from its mother, and he extracted the core and substance from the scriptures so as to be strengthened and have his soul nourished by them– and he did this in such a way that in all his words and actions he appeared to be filled with Jesus Christ.
We can almost mark the date when it began to be clear that the Jesus of the Gospels shaped his life more powerfully than any childhood identification with a hero. It has been documented that prior to 1617 he virtually never referred to scripture. After that, his writings began to be filled with the words of scripture, especially the words and actions of Jesus. After this time, it was clear scripture was the lens through which he viewed his own experiences.
He closely identified with and imitated Jesus. This was so remarkable that St. Francis de Sales called him “a walking Gospel.” Indeed, he became a true “man of the Gospel”. Remember that his was a time when printed Bibles were not readily available. Few actually read the Bible.
When I think of all this I think of St. Paul’s words “Let this mind be in you which was in Christ Jesus.” Vincent learned to think and act as the Jesus he read about in the Gospels. Jesus the Evangelizer of the Poor.
Of course, this can and should raise questions for us. No doubt we have many heroes we respect and admire. But how many of us would say that Jesus is the hero and model of how we act in our life?
- Looking back at the heroes and heroines of our early life, how many still function in that role?
- Looking at myself today who do I, consciously or unconsciously, look to for inspiration in the nitty-gritty of my life?
- How often do I take the things that Jesus said and did as guides for situations I find myself in?