Redefining What It Means to be a Role Model

Every few months a celebrity makes a mistake that ends up making headlines, and many parents cry foul: “What? That was my child’s role model!” There are two things very wrong with this reaction.  First, it treats celebrities as superhuman figures who should be above making mistakes. Second, why should a celebrity automatically be treated as a role model?

To begin with, we must remember that celebrities are people. They may excel at a sport or an art, be deemed beautiful or handsome, and grace the covers of our magazines, but they are human. They make mistakes and sin, just as we all do. The difference is that their transgressions are more public than our own. With the paparazzi constantly following them and cell phones everywhere, ready to launch the next viral video, a celebrity is not free to only reveal their sins in the privacy of the confessional. The sins of celebrities are between them, God, social media, tabloids, and the public. This is not fair to them as people. We, as Catholics, must remember that sin, while abhorrent to the Lord, is part of all of our lives. We need to be forgiving and pray that sin will have a diminished role in each of our lives and those who face the added scrutiny of a life lived in the public eye. We all need mercy.

We don’t seem to think it’s enough that celebrities win gold medals, sing beautifully, dance in ways that others can’t, or move us through their fine acting; we also ask them to  have spotless, sinless personal lives. We paint them as role models. In this lies a grave fault. It is perfectly fine to want to emulate the voice, athletic prowess, business savvy, acting skills, musical ability, or even the general professional success of another person. These are career goals—reflecting the desire to reach amazing levels of skill in something that may interest us.

However, painting these celebrities as role models is very different from striving to attain greatness of skill.  The traits we look for in a role model should go beyond the skills we admire and aspire to obtain.  A role model should show us how to live life—to live it well and fully. True role models are people who show us how to be good people. If you ask an adult about a role model, answers usually include parents, family members, teachers, neighbors, or clergy. Our role models aren’t famous, but they are often good, kind, devout people.

As Catholics we have a plethora of role models to whom we can look. While we can certainly strive for greatness in skill, we can also strive for greatness of spirit and love. We need only to look to our saints to find such role models. If a child wants to be a singer, we can direct her to St. Cecelia, patron saint of music, or to Saints Felicity and Perpetua who went to their martyrdom singing praises to God. These saints not only used their voices and talents for good, but they used their hearts for love and holiness.

If a child wants to be an athlete, direct him to St. Sebastian, patron saint of athletes. If a child wants to be a magician, direct her to St. John Bosco who brought children to the Lord through his magic tricks. We have no shortage of role models in our church. All of them had special qualities, perhaps even star qualities in different areas. What they have that our celebrities often don’t are eyes focused on Jesus. They aspire to heaven and holiness while using their gifts.

The next time a celebrity falls from grace, pray for their healing and grace.  At the same time, we need to turn our search for role models back to the Church and her many holy saints.