by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann
This past Sunday was World Marriage Day, celebrating the beauty and importance of marital love. On the Thursday prior (Feb. 11) Bishop Johnston and I celebrated a Mass at Holy Trinity Parish in Lenexa for married couples.
Bishop Johnston began his homily with the story of a reporter who had been assigned to Afghanistan when the Taliban was at its height. The Taliban did not allow wives to walk alongside their husbands, but required, under pain of law, that women walk several steps behind their spouse. The reporter returned to Afghanistan after the Taliban had been expelled and was surprised to see wives continuing to walk several steps behind their husbands. When he asked one of the women why she still walked behind her husband, she replied: “Land mines!”
On Sept. 29, 2015, Bishop Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix promulgated a pastoral exhortation directed to the men of his diocese entitled: “Into the Breach.”
Bishop Olmsted began his exhortation with this challenge to men: “I begin this letter with a clarion call and clear charge to you, my sons and brothers in Christ: Men, do not hesitate to engage in the battle that is raging around you, the battle that is wounding our children and families, the battle that is distorting the dignity of both women and men. This battle is often hidden, but the battle is real. It is primarily spiritual, but it is progressively killing the remaining Christian ethos in our society and culture, and even in our homes.”
Bishop Olmsted cites, since the year 2000, the troubling decline in United States of the number of infant and adult baptisms, marriages and Sunday Mass attendance. Perhaps even more startling is the 700 percent increase since 1950 of American children born out of wedlock. Forty-one percent of our nation’s children are born to unmarried parents.
In my opinion, the most serious threat facing our society is not terrorism, not the spiraling national debt, not immigration reform, not energy independence, and not health care. It is the huge number of American children growing up without their fathers. Fatherless boys are more likely to wind up in prison and fatherless girls are much more likely to wind up as single mothers.
Bishop Olmsted addresses three questions: What does it mean to be a Catholic man? How does a Catholic man love? Why is fatherhood, fully understood, so crucial for every man?
In answer to the first question, Bishop Olmsted states that if you want to know what a Catholic man looks like, then look at Jesus Christ and gaze upon a crucifix. Real men are willing to spend their lives for the good of their spouses, their children, the weak and the vulnerable. Look at the great heroic saints such as Thomas More or Ignatius Loyola or Maximilian Kolbe.
How does a Catholic man love? Again, Catholic men look to Jesus where they see the example of unwavering servant love. Catholic men love by placing the good of their spouse, their children and their friends before their own wants and desires.
Bishop Olmsted cites James Bond, the famous 007, as the antithesis of authentic love. Bond bonds to no one. He uses women for pleasure, never committing himself. Frequently, our culture portrays men as beasts, who are incapable of controlling our passions. Pornography and masturbation, both forms of self-absorbed love, are considered normal and socially acceptable. It is the man who strives to live chastely that is ridiculed in contemporary American society.
Bishop Olmsted challenges young men to aspire to heroism, not self-indulgent pleasure: “I urge you, young men, to prepare for marriage even before you meet your [future] bride. Such training in sacrifice is to love your bride before you meet her, so that you may one day say, ‘Before I knew you, I was faithful to you.’”
With regard to the question of fatherhood, Bishop Olmsted highlights the words of Pope Francis: “When a man does not have this desire [for fatherhood], something is missing in this man. Something is wrong. All of us, to exist, to become complete, in order to be mature, need to feel the joy of fatherhood; even those of us who are celibate. Fatherhood is giving life to others, giving life, giving life.”
To be an authentic Catholic man who loves as Jesus loved and who is a life-giver requires effort and discipline. Bishop Olmsted recommends seven practices that are crucial for men to find the strength and power to develop manly virtues. They are: 1) daily morning and evening prayer as well as meal prayers; 2) making Sunday Mass the most important moment of each week; 3) daily prayerful reading of the Bible; 4) observing Sunday as truly the Lord’s Day — a day for prayer, rest, family, service and friendship; 5) monthly confession; 6) developing friendships with other men who share the desire to grow in virtue; and 7) fasting and other practices for developing self-mastery.
This past Saturday, more than 1200 men participated in the 20th annual Men Under Construction retreat. This weekend, a group of men will be at Prairie Star Ranch for the second annual F.I.R.E. retreat, which is aimed at empowering men to deepen their faith and increase their capacity for living a life of virtue. Several parishes offer specific faith groups for men, such as That Man Is You. Christ Renews His Parish, as well as Cursillo weekends, have had a powerful transformative impact on men. The Knights of Columbus provide a beautiful fraternity that encourages men to live lives of faith and service. I encourage more men to take advantage of these and other wonderful opportunities to grow in friendship with Jesus and to follow better as his disciple.
We need men to be spiritual leaders — not domineering tyrants, but servant leaders for their families. Real men cherish and protect the dignity of women. Authentic Catholic men are eager to lead their spouses and children, not with an attitude of superiority, but with a desire to absorb life’s land mines in order to protect those for whom he is willing to give his life.