Given the strengths and weaknesses of human nature, every day is a spiritual combat between our good intentions and our evil temptations. One of the most subtle of those temptations is to underestimate this struggle, supposing that a spiritual battle is less real than a physical battle. The fact is, while earthly warfare requires a full exercise of the natural virtues, the spiritual battle is even more intense, with consequences that extend beyond the limits of time and space. “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12).
It is inspiring to come across the lives of those who have acquitted themselves splendidly in both kinds of battle, earthly and spiritual. There is the example of the Navy SEAL and 2008 Medal of Honor recipient, Michael Monsoor, whom the New York Times implied was a Muslim, although this devout Catholic regularly attended Mass before operations. We recently read about the canonization process for Father Vincent Capodanno who gave his life in Vietnam as a Navy chaplain. In April another Catholic chaplain will receive our nation’s highest military honor, like Father Capodanno, posthumously. Both have also been declared Servants of God by the Church, meaning that their candidacy for sainthood is under official consideration.
Father Emil Kapaun was born in Kansas and was a parish priest before joining the Army to serve in World War II and the Korean War. He died in a prisoner-of-war camp in 1951, seven months after having been taken prisoner by the Chinese. Not one of the military chaplains held prisoner by the North Koreans and the Chinese survived. Father Kapaun, though wounded and sick himself, risked his life to help his fellow prisoners under horrible conditions. Congress has finally approved the granting of the Medal of Honor, which is given for “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty.”
Not all heroes whose actions dignify the whole human race are saints. Sanctity is evidence of a different heroism: for heroic virtue, which marks the saint, is a constant habit of life, enabling the saint “to perform virtuous actions with uncommon promptitude, ease and pleasure from supernatural motives and without human reasoning, with self-abnegation and full control over his natural inclinations.” Harry Truman said he would rather have the Medal of Honor than be president. In a loftier reference, Charles Péguy said that “life holds only one tragedy, ultimately: not to have been a saint.” Even the most revered honor a people can bestow cannot match what awaits the victors of spiritual combat, and in that struggle all of us are enlisted and strive for “a crown that will never perish” (1 Corinthians 9:25).