The world of Catholic spirituality is, in a word, immense. Contemplative, Ignatian, Dominican, Carmelite- you get the idea. Yet as I spent time looking for Catholic-based insight on a particular variant of spirituality, I was stunned at the lack of information. It would be an understatement to say that relevant, practical, and engaging material for men is sparse. By using the term sparse, imagine trying to find an oasis in the Sahara desert.
There are some books on masculine spirituality and on what it means to be a man. There are a few organizations doing some good work. There are even a couple of organizations directly focused on evangelizing men. One of the standout primers of note is Bishop Thomas Olmstead’s (Diocese of Phoenix) apostolic exhortation to men entitled “Into the Breach”. All of this represents pretty thin pickings when you consider the deep well that is Catholic theology.
In any endeavor that has a volunteer component, people “vote with their feet”. In other words, if the pain (or lack of payoff) associated with the activity is greater than the perceived value of that activity, people will exit the activity, often without a grumble or explanation, and perhaps even with a smile. But, their exiting feet are a clear indicator that something is amiss.
Church is such an endeavor, and Catholic men have been voting with their feet for some time. The single fastest growing demographic among those who claim no religious affiliation (None’s) are former Catholic men. Most men who claim to be Catholic do not attend weekly mass. Of those who do attend Sunday mass, a full 70% do NOT participate beyond their weekly obligation. It is painfully clear that staggering number of Catholic men have not perceived sufficient value in their faith life to engage it meaningfully.
What a Man Needs
In response to these issues, I often hear three critiques. The first is that it is the Church’s fault. There is truth here. Even Archbishop Chaput has talked about the feminization of the Church. The second critique says it is the culture’s fault. Again, the effect of the culture upon the Church is significant and not to be taken lightly. The third critique blames the men, implying some moral failure on their part for not ‘hanging in there’.
While there may be value in looking at these critiques, there is another way to approach this issue. Drawing from the existing rich theology and anthropology of Catholic teaching, what is it that a man needs? What are the essential elements for a man to live a life that is authentically Christ-centered, authentically masculine, and authentically Catholic? There is, I believe, a simple framework for understanding the masculine journey in faith. Give a man these three things, and you have a man who will vote himself “in” and not “out”. These things are Relationship, Identity and Mission.
One of the things I hear from priests when they talk about their men can be summed up this way, “My men just don’t know Jesus.” Many Catholic men simply have not actually had a personal, relational encounter with Jesus, the Father, or the Holy Spirit. They know ‘about’ God, but they do not ‘know’ Him. In the Biblical sense, ‘knowing’ implies an intimacy of relationship. Jesus may reign at the right hand of the Father, but do I know His voice within my own heart and soul? Have I tangibly experienced His mercy, His strength? Am I close enough to Him to believe that He actually does care about me? Will He do a miracle for me? Will He answer my prayers? Will He talk to me and hang out with me? Have I tangibly felt His presence?
A man’s experience of God is what draws Him deeper to God. It was Paul’s experience of God on the Damascus Road that led him into relationship with Jesus. Jesus said that He did only what He saw the Father do, and said only what He heard the Father say. Jesus entire existence was in relationship to His Father. However, a man who practices prayers and sacramentals as ritual, apart from the proper inner disposition they require (a disposition of relationship-CCC 2563), practices superstition (CCC2111).
One of my favorite movie clips of all times is the “bar scene” from the 1997 movie ‘Good Will Hunting’. In the scene, a working class guy from the south of Boston (Southie) gets busted for posing as a Harvard student by an actual student. That student in turn gets busted as a plagiarizing poser by Will Hunting, who happens to be a “Southie”, but is a brilliant person. Essentially, a poser exposing a poser exposing a poser. They wear ‘fig leaves’ that cover their inadequacies and fears.
By posing, men build a false image of themselves, and live false identities. Authentic identity must be rooted in relationship to God. Just as Jesus received His identity from the Father (This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased), so every man must receive his identity from the Father, through Jesus Christ. Identity that is rooted in anything other than relationship and intimacy with God is false.
St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body provides a tremendous understanding to this key element in a man’s life. In the ancient text, the word for man was ‘zachar’. One of the key translations to the word is “to remember”. Specifically, he is to “remember the covenant”. What does it look like when a man forgets his mission? It looks like Adam!
Men often love movies like Gladiator, Braveheart and Saving Private Ryan, even The Lion King. Part of the allure of these movies is the mission. In each case, there exists a mission that is bigger than the central character alone. Far more is at stake. Life has a purpose. For Simba (The Lion King), he must right an ancient wrong, bring justice and save the Pridelands. For William Wallace, it was freedom from English oppression.
A man who does not understand that he has a mission, or does not know what his mission is, will flounder. Mission provides a man with meaning, purpose, and focus. It provides his life with ‘paschal’ meaning, the thing or things for which he is willing to lay down his life (or lay his old life aside). He lives as Christ, beyond himself. In Luke 12:49, Jesus said, “I have come to set the whole world on fire, and how I wish it were already ablaze!” Jesus knew His mission.
The Final Questions
In C.S. Lewis’, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Aslan the lion is the Christ figure. After hearing of Aslan, young Lucy asks, “Is he quite safe?” The response is brilliant. “Safe?…” Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.”
If a man can answer a few questions in the very depths of his heart, in the places he himself is perhaps most afraid to venture, he can find God, himself, and his purpose. “Do I know God?” “Who am I?” “Why am I here?” Men who have the courage to plunge the depths of these questions end up on fire, ablaze for the Glory of God. These are not men who leave. These are men who come. These are not men who are safe, but they are good. They know God. They know themselves. They know their mission. These are the men of the new evangelization!