Soldier saints

San Giorgio in Velabro, Rome

I’ve noted before the prevalence of former soldiers among the saints of Rome, a fact especially evident in the first week of Rome’s station liturgy, when day two is celebrated at a church dedicated to St. George and St. Sebastian and day three at the site two other former soldiers, the brothers John and Paul, were martyred in 360.

The prominence of these soldier saints is especially striking while war rages in the Ukraine. Though the signs were all there ahead of time–this was not the first time Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine–the attack and the resistance to it has seemed to jolt the West from a deep and dangerous torpor. A friend recently showed me a poll asking the people of various nations if they would be willing to fight for their country; less than half of Americans said yes–and that was high for the West. In his inaugural address, John F. Kennedy, pledged to the world, “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” Today, in the face of crisis, presidents compete to issue stimulus checks because, hey, free money. Something seems to have been lost.

Nor has the Church been immune to this Western ennui, this failure of confidence not just in ourselves but in the revelation handed on to us. I’m not talking about the humility that rightly comes from recognizing our own failings, the ways we fall short of the Gospel’s high demands. I’m talking about the fear of proposing those demands because they might offend someone. The results are a tide of ecclesial committee documents filled with verbs that mean motion without direction. We once spoke of the Church Triumphant, Penitent, and Militant. Now we’re in the age of meetings about meetings. We’ve become the Church Bureaucratic.

Perhaps the bravery and defiance we are now seeing in the streets of Kyiv has struck such a chord because courage is in short supply. Because not only Vladimir Putin, but we in the West–we who have become the “men without chests” C.S. Lewis warned of–are shocked to be reminded that there are still courageous people who will fight and die for their country, for their freedom, and for their faith.

At the Church of St. George in Velabro I couldn’t help but pray for the Ukrainians preparing molotov cocktails for their Goliath. The knight who fought the dragon is among the most popular saints in the Christian East–and in places such as Malta–that have long lived under the threat of persecution and destruction, especially at the hands of Islam.

Outside the Basilica of Saints John and Paul, Rome

In our age of sensitivity training and issuing obligatory and utterly predictable public statements, we need Lent’s solider saints to teach us courage. George and Sebastian, John and Paul, Chrysogonus and the others may have renounced fighting for the Emperor, but that does not mean that there was no fight left in them. Dialogue does not mean much if you don’t have anything to say; and, as Europe and America are learning, if your contribution is “tut, tut, tut” while guzzling cheap Russian gas, then dialogue does not bring peace either.

It’s no coincidence that St. Paul described the Christian life as putting on the armor of Christ. When the soldier saints turned away from Caesar, it was to battle in another army and with different methods. What they didn’t do was forget that there are some things worth fighting for.

Author: Anthony Lusvardi, SJ

Anthony R. Lusvardi, S.J., teaches sacramental theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. He writes on a variety of theological, cultural, and literary topics.

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