The men’s club revisited

One Sunday morning this fast-fading summer, we went to Mass in a nearby vacation state. The church, one of the newer types, modeled on the theatre-in-the-round, was packed with families decked out in shorts and sandals. What was most striking about the liturgy, however, was that, with the exception of the celebrant, the event was dominated by women and girls. The reader was a young woman. There were two altar girls. All five eucharistic ministers were women. The happy-clappy, Barry Manilow music, played on one of those plinky-plink portable pianos, was led by a woman with back-up of five teen-age girls. Even that last bastion of non-clerical male prerogative, the corps assigned to pass the collection basket, was composed mainly of the fairer sex. If anyone needed an existence proof of the feminization of the Catholic Church, it was on display that Sunday.

In the years following WWII, Catholics were led by a legion of strong and often rigid priests. Authoritarian pastors ruled their parishes, throwing out a crumb of responsibility here to the parochial school’s nuns and a crumb there to the Ladies Altar and Rosary Society. At the same time, the Church loudly proclaimed the importance of the family and the centrality of the man as the head of the family. Words were backed up by real outreach to men, an outreach not lost on their sons. Strong men served proudly in the Knights of Columbus, and promised themselves to serve and support any widows of Knights who had died. Then there were monthly men’s club meetings, a staple of parish life. So, too, was the Communion Breakfast where after Sunday Mass, fathers and their sons feasted on pancakes and sausages and were enthralled by talks from the winning coach of the area’s winning football team or an inspiring address by a former Navy chaplain who in WWII had won the Silver Star.

Two events during the 1960s diminished both the role of men in our Church and the Church’s impact on them. First, Vatican II seemed to soften the Church’s clear position on many things and to focus more on process and issues such as liturgy and women in the Church. While these issues are important, they don’t have the capacity to hold the male attention like a tight, fourth-quarter, game-winning spiral pass in the end zone, or a moving tale of battle, sacrifice and saving souls on a sinking air craft carrier.

The other event was the sexual revolution. In a brief few years, the young Catholic male’s primary question, “Actually, how far can you go?” was replaced by “Be real with me Tiffany. Are you, like, ya know, protected?” Catholic fathers, too, were swept up in the new erotica. Defying Woody Allen’s recommendations that people should marry for life--like pigeons and Catholics, we began divorcing and leaving our children to the care of their mothers in the same high numbers as the rest of our countrymen.

The American Church lost sight of its men, leaving Catholic young men with one of two options: 1) to take seriously their increasingly feminized Church with its “gender sensitive language” and vague, smarmy ecumenicalism or 2) kick back, join the guys, chug a few brews and spend their weekends channel surfing for sports and hunting for compliant Tiffanies and Jasmines.

Historically, the Church’s major investment in education was built to form Catholic gentlemen who would be soldiers for Christ. Sadly, though, our Catholic schools and particularly our colleges became [and regrettably most still are] breeding grounds for “liberated men,” undisciplined over-age adolescents, respected for the number and grandeur of their sexual conquests and their ability to tap a keg.

Change, however, is again blowin’ in the wind. A quiet revolution is going on among Catholic men. While difficult to find the source of this revival of manly Catholicism, the iconic example of Pope John Paul II is surely a key factor. Not only his robust virility, his love for sports and the outdoors, but his brave counter attack on the dominant sexual hedonism of the era. Pope John Paul’s theology of the body has given men--and women -- a compass to guide them through their disordered social milieu.

For some 15 years or so, a new breed of young men, again inspired by the Holy Father, has entered our seminaries, seminaries cleansed of the effeminate and relaxed Catholicism of earlier decades. In the very face of a supposedly disgraced American priesthood, they have risen to the challenge. Aspiring both to sanctity and manly virtue, they are and will continue to be beacons of a new Catholic manhood. One small indication of this change, albeit not in the U.S., is the recently established seminarians’ soccer league in Rome, where the Church’s future leaders weekly gather to battle with one another. The matches are said to be drawing enthusiastic crowds.

The new awakening is not confined simply to calls to the celibate priesthood. The message of Pope John Paul has inspired men committed to the married life, men who work in the trades, the professions and business world. His challenge of “putting out into the deep” quietly has been picked up by men of all ages and life stations. Young men in the Boston area have been forming social networks of faithful male Catholics. What earlier would have been called support groups, these groups are dedicated to greater theological understanding and spiritual growth. A Jesuit professor and former Vietnam War combat veteran has responded to the interests of male students and helped them form an organization called “The Sons of St. Patrick.”

In many parts of our archdiocese, monthly nights of reflection, mini-retreats if you will, are held. For businessmen who are answering the challenge, there are regular breakfast-with-a-speaker meetings which address contemporary issues, but focus on bringing one’s faith into the workplace. [See:] For the past three years, the Boston Catholic Men’s Conference has had an outstanding line-up of speakers, including Jim Cavizel, star of the Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ,” who gave an awe-inspiring speech in the conference’s first year in 2005. [See:] One of the more novel manifestations is Theology-On-Tap, a series of lectures plus vigorous Q&A exchanges. While open to men and women, the male response has been strong. And it does, after all, take place in that most male of surroundings, the tavern.

From the new masculine environment of our seminaries to the various men’s groups springing up, there is a constant theme. It is a theme of male friendship. Not the macho-HDTV-beer-swelling pseudo-camaraderie of so much of contemporary male life. This is the recovery of a lost social glue, a glue that binds men together to go beyond their individuality and together to take on life’s challenges, to win wars, and together to overcome huge obstacles. Here, though, the challenge is to be warriors for Christ.

Maybe the pastor at our vacation church will decide to form a parish men’s club.

Kevin and Marilyn Ryan edited “Why I am Still a Catholic” [Riverhead Books, 1998] and live in Chestnut Hill, Mass.