The world was recently stunned by the image of a deranged Syrian man who went on a stabbing spree, attacking small children at a park in France. Perhaps even more stunning and inspiring were the actions of a young man who stood in his way armed with two backpacks . . . and his Catholic Faith.
The 24-year-old hero was on a walking pilgrimage visiting France’s medieval cathedrals, pondering what motivated the builders. While in the French alpine town of Annecy, he chanced upon the horrific scene of this dastardly coward stabbing four toddlers, all younger than three. The devout Catholic pilgrim said his Faith kicked in as a strong inner force urged him to act.
Guided by Providence and the Virgin Mary
“I let myself be guided by Providence and the Virgin Mary. I said my adieu. They would decide what would happen,” he reported.
He then confronted the man, who was stabbing a baby in a stroller, by throwing one backpack at him and swinging at him with another. His pursuit of the madman was enough to confuse him and get him to leave the park, where police soon arrived to apprehend him.
His calculated actions probably saved the lives of the four toddlers. The media dubbed the young man, who asked that his last name not be revealed, as Henri, the Backpack Hero.
Two Contrary Figures
There is a lesson in this episode of postmodern madness that goes beyond the impressive heroics and lives saved. The lesson revolves around two ways of life.
The two central figures of this could not be more different. On the one hand, there was a divorced Syrian who was granted asylum in Sweden a decade ago and has since lived a chaotic life without purpose.
During the attack, he was incoherent, raving in several languages and seeking children to kill. He reflects the extreme manifestation of a life where nothing has meaning, and the individual puts himself at the center. He does not care about others or even himself on this path to nihilism.
Henri, the Backpack Hero, exhibits that selflessness in which a person is disposed to make the supreme sacrifice for that greater love of a man for his neighbor. He is a pilgrim of the good, true and beautiful that finds in these transcendentals the inspirations for his actions. Above all, he is young and enthused with the truths of his Catholic Faith.
Failure of Modern Youth Programs
The lesson has practical applications to the present times. So many Catholics ask what is needed to inspire youth to think beyond themselves, launch themselves into the fight for the culture, and enthusiastically embrace their Catholic Faith.
What is needed is not books and literature, helpful though they might be. Above all, inspiration cannot come from imitating today’s decadent and irrational postmodern world. All too often, Christian youth programs tend to emphasize trendy techniques, fun games and horrible music. To make matters worse, these insipid programs do not require effort, deep thinking or sacrifices.
And they generally fail abysmally. They fail because they do not attract the backpacking Henris of the world. These dreary proposals attract instead the weak and sentimental souls who want to feel good about the Faith but flee when asked to make the first sacrifice.
How to Get It Right
Thus, people get it all wrong when they think weak sentiments and endless fun and games inspire youth. The vigor of youth is made for high ideals, noble challenges and sublime beauty, for which they can give themselves with their youthful enthusiasm and be challenged with efforts and sacrifice.
Henri, the Backpack Hero, is a perfect example of this truth. He was a pilgrim traveling throughout France, visiting medieval cathedrals, admiring their extreme beauty and pondering the sad state of the Faith today. He is a lover of the traditional Latin Mass. Beauty stirs his soul and awakens enthusiasm, admiration and self-sacrifice.
From that enthusiasm sprang the heroism that shone so brilliantly during the incident in the park. Henri could not say no to this call to chivalry to defend the weak and helpless. He had no doubt about what inspired his action.
“When I went into action in the playground, it was the grandeur of the cathedrals that had nourished me and was pushing me forward.”
The Quest for the Sublime Suffices
This thirst for the sublime is part of human nature and especially youth. Postmodernity deconstructs these high ideals and enduring narratives. It reduces everything to the low horizons of selfishness and pleasure.
Those who seek to inspire young people need not seek out complicated (and expensive) programs. They must present the path to God through extreme good, truth and beauty. From this firm foundation will come the heroics and spirit of sacrifice needed to fight the culture and embrace the Faith.
It was that same quest for extreme beauty that awakened the daring of medieval architects to build their monument of glory to God.
Indeed, the quest for the sublime is never sated. When French President Emmanuel Macron asked the young Henri what he desired, he immediately asked if he might be invited to the reopening of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris next year, as it reemerges from the devastating 2019 fire. The French leader promised to “take care of it personally.”
The world needs more backpack heroes who seek beauty and love God and their neighbor.
Photo Credit: © Angelov – stock.adobe.com