Faith in an age of melancholy - Madonna Magazine

Faith in an age of melancholy

Fr David Braithwaite SJ 27 August 2020

In today’s debate about the worth of heroes, the Catholic tradition can hold both heroes and victims because Christ is both.

The recent furore around the worthiness or otherwise of those who have been memorialised as statues has prompted an interesting and complex (hopefully) conversation.

I’m sure many family dinner tables have been close to upended over it all, especially since there seems to be such a marked generational divide on the topic.

As more than one commentator have noted we live in an ‘age of melancholy’ and not simply because of the pandemic of depression and anxiety (especially pronounced among millennials who happen to be, coincidentally, the great anti-statue agitators) but because we are an age, more generally, without heroes.

Victims have replaced heroes. In this new perspective, no one meets the threshold of heroism anymore; there are only victims and the oppressors who were the victors of history. In a way it’s a sort of neo-puritan movements that bears the of older, now forgotten, religious debates.


In this context, it’s understandably difficult for young people to believe in heroes any more. So many of them have been examined and found wanting in our own day, let alone the philandering and murderous victors of ages past. Be it politicians, police, priests, artists, judges, bankers, there’s no room anymore to believe in a hero. It’s only a matter of time before their youthful sins, or lamentably unenlightened opinions, or far worse, are to be uncovered by the relentless mob-archaeologists of today’s social media.

Where does this leave people of faith? After all, the Catholic tradition is full of our heroes whom we call saints, blessed, martyrs, and venerable founders.

Thankfully, we have an in-built ‘counter-history’ to any tendency that would seek to lionise any person. The tendency to idolise is the great sin that no true saint wants done to them. After all we are the disciples of the wandering Nazarene who offered himself as the Great Victim.


He tells us to place our wounds in his and be healed. Our tradition can hold both heroes and victims because Christ is both for us par excellence.

It is idolatry that is a preferred modus operandi of the enemy in our tradition and one that, for the Christian, always contextualises the statue in the park.

Whether you’re of a temperament or opinion to tear down old statues or not, or you think that John Wayne can still have an airport named after him, either way the injunction of the First Commandment orders all: I am the Lord your God, you shall have no other Gods before me.

In any debate, at any dinner table, that’s as much of a First Principle as it’s possible for us to have. 

> Fr David Braithwaite SJ is the director of the Pope’s Worldwide Prayer Network in Australia. Each month, people around the world pray for a particular intention along with Pope Francis. For more, visit

> Image: The plinth of a Christopher Columbus statue is show defaced with paint from ongoing anti-cracism protests, June 2020 in Byrd Park in Richmond, Virginia. Photo by Eza Amos/Getty Images.