What does it mean to be a man? Over the course of my life, I have had many opportunities to consider that question, particularly with regard to how it impacts my Catholic call to love as Jesus has loved me. This is not as easy as it seems. The world has its own views of masculinity and traditional views on manhood have been under attack for decades. It has taken a lot of soul-searching, identity-shaping experiences to help me understand what it means to be a Catholic man.
Living in a household with three females (My son has escaped to college!) has helped me to understand that being a man is not about laying down the law, having all the answers, or thinking I am always right. I know for a fact that: a) I can’t, b) I don’t, and c) I’m not! But still I believe I need to be a better man of the house, and that means redefining myself in ways that reflect God’s Word and our sacred traditions.
I have found that my biggest gains in masculine maturity have come when I have applied those truths to my life with all its struggles. That way, every failure can be turned into an opportunity to learn and grow as a husband, a father, and a man of God, answering my holy call to find my place in my family, the Church, and the world.
A Sobering Call to Retreat
One way I have grown as a man has been to attend men’s retreats. There, I can escape the flowery curtains, lavender exfoliating body scrubs, and general, emotional three-on-one tag team reality of my wife and girls in order to rediscover my testosterone-challenged male roots.
Recently I was invited by some Protestant brothers to attend a men’s winter retreat on evangelization. I had already attended the Connecticut Catholic Men’s Conference but thought I would consider joining these men to see what God might want to say to me through this experience. I had learned to embrace my separated brethren, knowing that there is much to learn from dialogue and fellowship with others who believe in Jesus. I have often found such events to be challenging, both to my theology and to my walk of faith, but have accepted them for the lessons they can teach.
My journey began with a prayer service with my fellow travelers, that snowy Friday morning before the retreat. The reading for the day was Colossians 3. I read the call to set my mind on the things above and to put away all those earthly sinful habits that so easily entangle us as men: lust, selfishness, idolatrous desires, anger, slander, and obscene talk. As the men shared their thoughts on the reading, I felt a tension in my own soul between knowing Christ has saved me and living out my salvation in the Church with fear and trembling. As the men began to pray for strength, forgiveness, and wisdom to live fully as men of God, I became aware that the words sounded superficial and safe — at least to me. The men were not being insincere, but I was becoming convicted of the hypocrisy and shallowness of my own hidden heart. And so quietly, I got up from my chair and left, knowing what I needed to do.
Brokenness and Healing
I drove to my church to attend morning Mass, so overwhelmed with my own sense of sin that I found myself walking up to the priest preparing for the celebration and asking if there was any way he could hear my Confession before Mass. There was not enough time, but he promised to find me after the service.
I poured my heart into the Mass, knowing I could not in good conscience receive the Eucharist that day, and feeling guilty for wanting a quick fix Confession in the first place. But that longing spoke deeply to my heart about my own brokenness as a man, my desire for sacramental healing, and my need for the mercy and grace of a Savior who was speaking His love into the silence of my heart.
When finally I went to Confession, there was no pretense, no superficiality, and no holding back. My Confessor was kind, understanding, and gentle in how he responded to my words of contrition and my call for reconciliation. Assured of my forgiveness, I offered my penance in a release of joy and peace that I had not felt in a long time. I knew I was ready to attend the retreat.
Sharing Common Faith
The two-hour ride to the retreat center allowed some time for fellowship with the other men who were in the car pool, and it felt good to share commonalities with other Christian men. However, I remember feeling a sense of isolation, aware that in some sense that I was a bit of an outsider, for I was fairly certain I was the only Catholic man who had come.
The speakers on the retreat focused on our need as men to pour ourselves fully into the task of sharing the Gospel with others. They spoke of guarding the Gospel against a watered-down message, developing a heart for the lost, putting away distractions and selfishness, and turning from anger to humility. We were given steps to be true fishers of men: putting aside everything to follow Jesus; sharing the Gospel, including the reality of sin and the cross; and being a team player with the Body of Christ.
There were practical questions: Were we clear on the Gospel? Were we praying for the lost and actually speaking the Gospel message? Were we daily repenting of those things that got in the way of evangelizing? It was a very intense message, and it affected me in a number of ways.
The Loneliness of Personal Conviction
I appreciated the enthusiasm, love, and commitment of the speakers and the men who were attending the retreat. These were definitely godly individuals who were here looking for ways they could deepen their commitment to reaching out to others as men. Their sincerity was as clear as their powerful voices singing out during times of worship. I felt a kinship to them in my desire to see people being drawn to Christ, but in some ways felt at odds with parts of the message.
I have never considered myself an evangelist in the way the speakers were sharing. I have been present when someone expressed a desire to commit to their faith. But I have been gifted to be a healer within the Body, one who builds up the faithful more than one who leads unbelievers into the Church. As I listened to the talks I realized that my theology on evangelism was colored with different shades of meaning and that my years in Catholic ministry had given me a more layered understanding of my role as minister of the Gospel. In some ways, it left me feeling a little uncomfortable and alone.
Having planned and led a number of retreats over the years, I found I was missing some of the more familiar elements I was used to: small group discussions where men could share life experiences, struggles, and joys; talks focusing more on spiritual growth and enrichment; and worship centered on the sacraments of Confession and Eucharist. I found myself back in that early morning Friday prayer, digging more deeply into the well of my inner man for theological depth.
I was further conflicted by some of the statements made by the speakers. One man talked about the falseness of “incarnational living.” Another made references to “works-based” forms of Christianity where men forgive sins with a horizontal and vertical swipe of their hand. I was saddened by what appeared to be a lack of understanding of Catholic teaching. And though I knew I could have shared my own convictions, I found I had very little desire to do so.
Reconnecting to My Catholicism
As the event continued, I felt less connected to it. That first evening I took the time to sit alone with my thoughts, retreating within the retreat so to speak. Here I was, among other Christian men, unable to share fully with them what was going on inside me. I watched as the men laughed, prayed for one another, and spent time in recreation, while I pondered the thoughts churning away inside me. I wondered if I was being self-righteous or feeling guilty for my own internal struggles.
But as I turned this over in my mind and heart, I came to see that what was happening seemed more to be inner loneliness than inner blame. I considered more deeply just what I believed as a Catholic man. After a while, I decided to retire early and go back to my room. There I saw one of my roommates, already in bed. He said that he just wanted a little peace and quiet. As we talked a little, I began to sense that he too was pondering the messages of the day with a little sadness of soul, and so I shared a little of that incarnational stuff that helps men bond and understand who and where they are in the Kingdom of God.
The next day I met another man at lunch and we talked about the retreat. To my surprise, he mentioned about how he had wished for a little more personal connection along the way. For the next half hour or so, we spent time building each other up, developing that bond we both needed. It helped to speak to some of what had been missing in my heart throughout the experience. That strength carried me through our ride home, and I minded less the comments about Catholicism that I heard along the way. Perhaps it was because I knew the hearts of these men and had discovered within myself the strength and clarity that my Catholic faith had instilled in me over the years. I determined to continue to share my perspective with these godly men.
So what did I take away from this retreat? First, I realized that I am deeply in love with my incarnational, preach-the-Gospel-with-actions, sacramental, Catholic faith. I saw that I need not agree with every Christian, but I do need to love them as Jesus has loved me. I learned that real men seek clarity, forgiveness, and conviction as we out the Gospel in our daily lives. I gained an appreciation for reaching out to the lost, and an even greater appreciation for the gifts I have for building up the Body of Christ.
And when I came home I found that I actually missed those flowery trappings, the pleasant smells, and the wonderfully real and relatable ladies I had left behind. And I was reminded how much I need to step up as a husband and a father and, by the grace of God, become more than I am capable of being on my own.
I have found that God uses every experience in my life to move me along the path to heaven as gently as possible. Sometimes, however, He has needed to shake things up a little to help me to rediscover who I am in His eyes. I have learned that while I may not be the manliest of males, I know that being a real man means accepting my weaknesses and allowing God to turn them into strengths through His grace. In my Savior, meekness and humility, conviction and principle, and a life devoted to the Gospel become the ways in which I act out my salvation as a husband, a father, and a man.
I hope I will continue to grow into a man after God’s own heart. And I hope God will continue to draw me into these times of manly retreat in order to fashion me as only He can. God bless!