The True Superheroes

The True Superheroes

I would like to list a few well-known superheroes, diss track roast them, and then explain that since saints have ‘better powers’ than superheroes you should like them more. The saint is a real person, emphasis on real, who, by the grace of God, lived a life of heroic virtue and now intercedes on our behalf in heaven while beholding, in perpetuity, the Beatific vision. The superhero is a fake, caricaturized literary device, emphasis on fake, for whom even the upfront advertised artificially of the comic book/action flick universe does not adequately function to high pressure hose off the gallons of cringe-queasiness, and general, free-floating, crowbar me in the throat distaste and nausea bubbling up from the stomach sentiments and sensations. That too, I guess, is why I think you might consider liking saints more than superheroes. And, better still, actually learning something about these exceptional men and women. 

Look, if you want to like superheroes, go ahead. Father Mike Schmitz likes them enough to have done multiple YouTube videos about them. A couple named Jackie and Bobby have an article on their blog entitled ‘The Catholicity of Captain America.’ There are articles online entitled ‘5 Catholic superheroes in comic books,’ ‘Superhero Catholics,’ ‘The Catholic Nerd’s Guide to Superheroes,’ and ‘I know everything about DC and Marvel but am still afraid to talk to women.’ That last article is fictitious, but it sounds believable, right? [1]

The serious Catholic and cultural problem here can be understood by referencing the dichotomy Christ presents us in the Sermon on the Mount, that you cannot serve God and mammon. James Papandrea’s book, From Star Wars to Superman: Christ Figures in Science Fiction and Superhero Films, implies as much. It’s bad when science fiction is so nearly biblical it can, rather than point to God, distract people from real salvation history in favor of the saccharinely confectioned pseudostory. Wait, wait, wait, you protest, Papandrea’s probably saying that, ‘look, this genre is art done right, it leads people to faith.’ Fair argument. But allow me to pose a few counter questions. Do you think your average 16 year old kid would rather an all-expenses paid trip for a pilgrimage to Rome or another type of ‘pilgrimage’ to Comic-Con? Do you think it’s more likely this same kid has read all of Stan Lee’s comics or all of the Bible? Do you think’s it’s more likely he can name and describe 25 superheroes or 25 saints? Are we winning the culture war? Just how is that New Evangelization going? [2]

You cannot serve God and mammon. Perhaps you cannot have as role models superheroes and saints, you might just find yourself devoted to the one and despising the other. But where to place that devotion and derision, if we must? Ernest Hemingway once described another author’s work as non-alcoholic beer, ‘better to drink water.’[3] Saints are beer, they are real, whereas superheroes are near beer, a gross and insulting half-facsimile of culinary art that tastes best poured down the drain. Near beer: so close to beer, yet so far away. Superheroes: so much like Christ, so much like the saints, and yet, upon further investigation, often not at all.

Allow me to return to beer to introduce our first saint, Brigid of Ireland. She’s one of the country’s patrons, along with all the limelight Saint Patrick. And, just to be clear, pursuant to the identified problem of knowledge deficiencies concerning saints, yes, Saint Patrick was a real person, no, ‘Saint Patrick’ is not some kind of collective identifier for green clad lads vomiting onto New York City streets during the early morning hours of March 18 following the previous night’s festivities. Saint Brigid, born two decades after the death of Saint Augustine of Hippo, imagined heaven as a lake of beer. Her reputed ‘superpower,’ if you will? Turning water into beer. [4]

Being able to turn beer into water might seem like the ultimate superpower, and maybe it is, who am I to say it’s not, but this essay will proceed beyond liquid alchemy in presenting the findings of a four-section study. 

1. Healing powers. 

2. Wealth put at the service of the common and greater good. 

3. Intelligence and/or mental powers, and 

4. Overall ‘superheroeness’—the you know it when you see it factor—are the analytical categories framing this essay. 

I will first list the relevant superheroes, then the complimentary and, ultimately, more impressive—have I already mentioned more real, too, have I said that already?—saints. We will compare and contrast and see what can be learned, what can be of intellectual and spiritual benefit, if anything. 

Therefore, let us consider our first category, healing powers.

Wolverine, a diminutive X-men mutant with a nasty disposition and nose for the fight, who, I kid you not, is Canadian (just when you thought Canada couldn’t sink any lower; the ‘kid you not’ referring to my initial surprise that really, other countries also traffic in this sh-…) and has this thing called a ‘healing factor’ which enables him to recover from injuries with lightening speed and resist poisons along with bacterial infections and viruses. The healing factor’s anti-aging quality helps keeps his supercentenarian body looking in prime physical shape. That the healing factor does not suppress the pain he feels from being injured is a consolation. Can’t someone make another movie where Wolverine is in that honey badger clip and the honey badger kills him like it does to all the other poor creatures therein? Asking for a friend. [5]

Wolverine’s healing powers are noteworthy but how do they stack up compared to Christina the Astonishing? She died of a seizure during her 20s only to resurrect from the dead during her own funeral. First impression: Christina > Wolverine. Second take: Wolverine owned, the impressiveness of his healing factor, destroyed. Like all good saints, filled to the brim with love of God and neighbor, Christina told people God had brought her back to life solely to suffer for souls detained in purgatory and for the conversion of poor sinners on Earth. Suffer she did, this indestructible, invincible saint, forthwith throwing herself into burning furnaces, staying submerged in icy waters for days on end, running full speed through thorns, all in reparatory mortification which, needless to say, she added to her daily, more normal deprivations and penances simply so more souls might be saved, the most real of all real things. Her healing factor was so powerful she passed unscathed through these trials. [6]

St. Vincent Ferrer was also reputed to be blessed with the most healthy healing gift of all, bringing people back from the dead. The story goes that Saint Vincent once appeared at a hanging to plead for clemency for the condemned. A stretcher happened to pass by upon which lay a corpse. ‘Is this man guilty?’ Saint Vincent asked the corpse. ‘He is not!’ was the response from the formerly dead body now flush with life. Vincent offered the just dead, now alive, man a reward for cracking this case. No, thanks, he replied. Whilst dead he had learned of his salvation and so, presumably, was content—no, rapturously happy in an eye has not seen, ear has not heard way—to return to his true home, and so lied back down and died, again. [7]

Onto comparison number two, wealth put to the service of others.

Example A, Batman, or, perhaps I should say, Bruce Wayne. Wayne is an oligarchic industrialist and owner of the philanthropic Wayne Enterprises, Inc., possessor of a vast personal fortune enabling him to purchase and fine-tune the most cutting edge equipment in his nighttime Batman role ridding Gotham city of crime and corruption. The formula here is simple. I use my money to buy things that help ‘the people’ against bad guys who want to hurt them; ‘the people.’ This is money well spent. My question is, if Bruce Wayne is so rich he can afford anything, why does he buy things that make him look like such a massive, insufferable tool? If his outfit is trying to say, ‘I have no fashion sense whatsoever, my MO is to disable my adversaries with laughter, them laughing at me, then I strike,’ mission accomplished. 

One does not have to dress like Batman to put material blessings to good use. The 11th century Queen, Saint Margaret, the ‘Pearl of Scotland,’ was widely noted for her tireless devotion to the poor, especially orphans, even washing the feet of society’s most neglected in imitation of Christ. Margaret’s constant charity, both of spiritual and material variants, probably staved off one-thousand fold more ‘bad guys,’ who often infest kingdoms like locust in times of corrupt and selfish rulers, in real Scotland than Batman did putting his money towards gadgets fighting comic book characters in fictional Gotham City. One of our very own Americans, Saint Katharine Drexel, heiress to what in today’s money would be a near half-billon dollar fortune, left it all behind to follow God, providing a truly superhero testament to what matters in this life and the next, what is the real, bottom line balance sheet between God and mammon. Tony Stark uses hundreds of millions to produce the latest weapons technology and transform himself into a fighting machine. Saint Katherine Drexel refused use of hundreds of millions of dollars to become a spiritual fighting machine in the Army of Christ. Iron Man, owned. Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, scion of a wealthy family (his father was founder of the internationally known Turin based newspaper La Stampa) noted for his good looks, athleticism, and religious devotion—upon seeing him with a rosary in hand a man reportedly exclaimed, ‘Pier Giorgio, you’ve become a fanatic!’ ‘No,’ he replied. ‘I’ve remained a Christian’ [8]—so prodigiously helped the poor and downtrodden of his native Turin with food, medicine, anything they needed, that at his funeral thousands upon thousands lined the street to pay their respects, as if some great father of the nation political figure had passed. Pier Giorgio was but 25 years old. [9]

Finally, one must not forget the great Bishop of Myra, upon whom the legend of Santa Claus is based. Saint Nicholas gave freely of his material blessings to help the poor, and in keeping with Christ’s instructions in the Sermon on the Mount did so in secret, not letting his left hand know what his right was doing, most famously when he anonymously left sacks of money outside the door of a man with three daughters to help pay their dowry and so save them from destitution and, more tragically still, prostitution. Presents delivered to those in need under the cover of night, thus the legend of Santa Claus was born. St. Nicholas’ hands were good for fighting, too. Whereas Batman and Ironman beat people up over trivial matters, St. Nicholas right hooked the heretic Arius at the Council of Nicaea, his act of force defending the sacred doctrine of Christ’s Divine Nature, Jesus indeed consubstantial with the Father, True God, True Man. So even as far as punching power goes, advantage, Nicholas. [10]

Onto number three, super intelligence.

Professor X, Charles Francis Xavier, the founder of the X-men, world authority in genetic theory, inventor of the mutant gene identifying device named Cerebro, a telepath who, in addition to reading, can control the minds of others. Professor X seems to be smart. But, I have to admit losing some sleep over this one question. If he’s really so smart, why does he spend so much time hanging out with the X-men? While I’m confident that there is much to be learned, philosophically, psychoanalytically, and sarcastically from profound and solemn investigations of Professor X’s writings it’s worth remembering that our vaunted tradition lacks for intellectual superstars like a beach lacks for grains of sand. 

Why not consider first the man who, in his magisterial Summa, rather than reconciling Christ to Aristotle, reconciled Aristotle to Christ, for as Our Lord Himself said, ‘before Abraham was born, I am.’ [11] This same man who memorized and could perfectly recall all of Sacred Scripture and the whole corpus of the Church fathers yet was so humble, so seemingly ‘dumb ox,’ that he tolerated being tutored by someone of lesser knowledge without comment or complaint until, one day, his tutor made a mistake, our man explained it perfectly, and the tutor fell to his knees begging for a reversal of roles. The man who, at the close of his life, was told by Christ Himself, ‘you have written well of me.’ [12]

This man, Aquinas, is an intellectual giant of all times and places, but if you prefer someone more X than Professor X himself, check out Padre Pio, for whom mind reading was basic and perhaps boring so he took up bilocation, or 3rd century Egyptian princess Saint Catherine who put mind control to evangelical ends. A convert herself, she won an audience with the Roman Emperor Maxentius to try and convince him, using reason and logic alone, to stop persecuting Christians. The trap the Emperor had set, having all of his domain’s most renown philosophers, rhetoricians, and scholars present to debate her failed. Catherine won every debate, dispensed with each opponent on every question posed. Many of these men converted to the faith. The emperor put her in prison. This was another mistake, for she converted the whole prison. The Emperor was now so angry, especially because she refused, under torture, to renounce her faith, that he made his boldest move yet, the one sure to shut her up. He proposed marriage. She turned him down and so he cut off her head, this after the first attempt to kill her via a spike breaking wheel proved insufficient when the saint touched it, shattering the device immediately. She died, by the way, following beheading, something I feel must be mentioned within the context of this essay. She died. God, it would seem, had decided she had done enough and so called her home to her eternal reward. [13]

Finally, we arrive at the final category, general ‘superheroeness.’

Here I’m thinking about figures so famous they hardly need any supplementary biographical information.  Spiderman, Wonder Woman, Captain America, the Flash, the Hulk; no doubt the Man of Steel himself too, and at the top of the ledger, alien invader sporting impossibly tight tights with weak spots for vapid clichés and kryptonite. If there’s one thing this collection of heroes has in common—whether by super strength or super speed, sometimes airborne—it’s an uncanny knack for finding the bad guys and defeating them whilst, and this is all-important, being able to do and withstand practically anything in the performance of their duties. In other words, they’re super, and all around.  

Well, have you ever heard of the following saints, all of whom possessed a similar propensity for supernatural exploits? Like Saint Joseph Cupertino, nicknamed the ‘flying saint,’ because, you’ll never guess it, he could. He would levitate and keep levitating, I mean, wouldn’t you if you could? The superiors of his order deemed this phenomenon disruptive and eventually kept him in cells by himself. Perhaps the final words on super St. Joseph Cupertino have been penned by authors Richy Craven, Dustin Koski, and Dagmaer Baer in an article entitled ‘6 Saints with Superpowers Straight from the Marvel Universe.’ I’m quoting directly now, ‘Most saints used their miraculous powers to help their fellow man: healing the sick, feeding the hungry or something equally altruistic. As far as we know, there was only one saint who used his miraculous powers just to look really, really badass.’ [14]

How about St. Thomas More—patron of politicians and statesman, honored even in the USSR for the ideas found in his magisterial classic Utopia; martyr as wellso perfectly trusting in God, so super in his faith, that he joked with his executioners on the way to decapitation? Or Saint Lawrence, who while being grilled alive quipped, ‘turn me over, I’m done.’ Or St. Denis, the first bishop of Paris, who like More and Catherine of Egypt, lost his head, except that even this did not prevent him from preaching. Legend has it that after the incident he simply picked up his now severed head and set out for a six kilometer walk, only then did he expire. Or, reportedly eighteen foot tall St. Christopher, patron of travelers, who’s insatiable quest for power (because, we can assume, his one ton deadlift, 1,000 pound bench press, and arm strength that enabled him to throw a football 200 yards and touch 130 mph when pitching a baseball was not enough) manifested in an uncompromising commitment to serve the most powerful Lord in existence. Ferrying people across a dangerous river he almost drown with a tiny child on his shoulders who got heavier and heavier by the step. If you’re guessing that this child was probably the Divine Child Himself, because you know this saint’s name means ‘Christ-Bearer,’ and so it was probably at this moment that he first encountered the most powerful Lord he wished to serve then…right, that’s correct. [15]

Or, finally, how about Saint Moses the Black? A guy who, like St. Christopher, liked to ford rivers, expect that Moses preferred doing this with a knife in his mouth, all the better to engage in hand to hand combat upon reaching the other side of the shore. St. Moses was a bandit, a brawler, a bad guy too intimidating to define. But, these people being precisely God’s people, for where sin is found grace abounds all the more, Moses converted after seeking refuge at a monastery and being won over by the monks’ way of life. Sometime afterwards, Moses, at this time a monk himself, went full Chuck Norris in singlehandedly wrecking a crew of robbers with his bare hands. He brought them to the abbot who forgave them on the spot and ordered them released. These men, shocked by the abbot’s gratuitous show of mercy, like the former bad guy Moses himself, also converted and joined the monastic community. Like all good superhero slash Norris slash Terminator type figures, St. Moses the Black died in battle at the hands of another band of bad guys, this time professional warriors, later in life. But only after he helped his brothers escape to freedom by volunteering to stay behind with a few other monks to fight, King Leonidas at Thermopylae style, the entire invading horde. That St. Moses the Black was at this time more than seventy years old does not seem to be a trivial detail. [16]

If you want to like superheroes, go ahead, keep on liking them. It’s fun to joke, but I honestly don’t believe there’s anything wrong with the genre and, in fact, find the movies quite fun and the special effects great. Certainly it’s a nice way to spend a few hours on a lazy summer afternoon with family. Perhaps we can even hope that superheroes can serve as an evangelical tool, the themes of good triumphing over evil, of helping those who need it most, pointing, in the end, to the God who is goodness itself, pointing towards the ultimate triumph of good over evil in our own existence. But one should not be confused for a moment that any superhero can hold the dimmest candle to saints, to the real men and women whose examples don’t just point to God but are infused by God’s Real Presence and plan. And while you can like Superman and Wonder Woman do not forget the everlasting importance of the only woman worthy of being called wonderful, the majestic Queen of Heaven and Earth, mother to us all and mother to the right and just singular Superman, the God-man, Jesus Christ. 

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NOTES:

[1] (Even a hastily typed, grossly misspelled search engine entry, ‘Father Mike Schmitz superheroes,’ bears a rich harvest) https://jackieandbobby.com/2014/07/08/the-catholicity-of-captain-america/

[2] Matthew 6:24; James Papandrea, From Star Wars to Superman: Christ Figures in Science Fiction and Superhero Films (Sophia Institute Press, 2017). 

[3] Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast (New York: Scribner, 1964, 1992), 133. 

[4] No author listed. “Lake of Beer in Heaven?” https://catholicdrinkie.com/lakeofbeer/

[5] Original Narration by Randall. ‘The Crazy Nastyass Honey Badger.’ YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4r7wHMg5Yjg

[6] ChurchPOP Editor, ‘5 Saints Who Totally Had Superpowers,’ChurchPOP https://churchpop.com/2015/01/27/5-saints-who-totally-had-superpowers/

[7] Ibid. 

[8] No author listed, Bl. Pier Giorgio Infromation Site.  ‘Blessed Are you When They Revile you and Persecute You,’ July 3, 2013. https://frassatiusa.org/blog/blessed-are-you

[9] No author listed, St. Margaret of Scotland RC Church Information Site. ‘Saint Margaret Queen of Scotland.’ http://saintmargaret.com/saint-margaret-queen-of-scotland/; No author listed. ‘Saint Katherine Drexel, Saint of the Day for March 3,’ Franciscan Media. https://www.franciscanmedia.org/saint-katharine-drexel/

[10] No author listed, St. Nicholas Center: Discovering the Truth About Santa Claus. ‘Bishop Nicholas Loses His Cool (At the Council of Nicaea). 

[11] John 8:58. 

[12] Raissa Maritain, JMC (Jacques Maritain Center at the University of Notre Dame): Saint Thomas Aquinas ‘XXI Divine Favours.’ https://maritain.nd.edu/jmc/etext/sta21.htm; ‘Dio o Niente: parla il cardinale Robert Sarah.’ Talk posted to YouTube December 17, 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0mw2yTUiu1w

[13] ChurchPOP Editor, ‘5 Saints Who Totally Had Superpowers.’ChurchPOP

[14] Richy Craven, Dustin Koski, and Dagmaer Baer, “6 Saints with Superpowers Straight from the Marvel Universe.” https://www.cracked.com/article_19948_6-saints-with-superpowers-straight-from-marvel-%20universe.html

[15] Craven, et al. ‘6 Saints with Superpowers Straight from the Marvel Universe;’ No author listed, Saint Lawrence Catholic Church Information site. ‘About Saint Lawrence the Martyr.’

16] Jamie Frater, ‘Top 10 Truly Badass Saints.’ Religion, Listverse. January 30, 2011. 

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Written by
Gracjan Anthony Kraszewski