Within the last two decades, a spiritual movement among men has grown within the Church in the United States. Men’s groups and conferences have taken root at parish and diocesan levels and blossomed into initiatives such as the National Fellowship of Catholic Men, founded in 2001.
The primary benefit of this movement has been the mentoring and mutual support (literally, fellowship) that has developed, in addition to the addressing of contemporary plagues such as pornography. The sacramental dimensions of the conferences, too, are particularly noteworthy. Many priests hear confessions, network with the men and listen to the speakers. Typically the local bishop will preside at a liturgy.
Diocesan leaders and offices typically are supportive of the movement, though they may or may not be directly involved.
Because of enthusiastic networking and low costs, the conferences have attracted significant participation, often filling their meeting spaces. Many men seeking guidance and renewal find the complementary men’s group meetings an excellent forum for mentoring and support as well as ongoing formation.
The need for male mentoring cannot be overstated. Traditionally this has occurred within the nuclear and extended family or the community. However, in modern life these support structures have broken down, and the need for men to mentor their children in the Faith is urgent. Typically, the religious and moral development of children is heavily influenced by the father, so it is essential that men step up to fulfill this role. Many men, however, have not had the formation necessary to attain confidence and competence in this area. Too often work requirements, sports, vices and addictions distract men from formational resources and opportunities that are available.
Nuts and bolts
Conference planning invites many challenges, especially when success is measured by attendance figures rather than by formational substance. Few speakers display a substantial grasp of historical, sociological and psychological issues regarding men.
The focus of many of the speakers often is on personal testimonies or on denouncing social evils such as pornography and absenteeism among fathers. Exhortations on morality and a desire for accessible conference content often, unintentionally, lead to a lowest common denominator mentality, and spiritually mature men looking for something more often are disappointed.
Ideally, positive activities encouraged by the magisterium such as biblical literacy and spirituality, social justice and collaboration with women should be encouraged. Inclusion of women in formational programming periodically is uncommon, reflecting the lack of familiarity with deeper gender issues and contemporary research. As anyone involved in permanent diaconate formation knows, female consent and participation is paramount.
While traditional devotions such as the rosary and current initiatives such as the new evangelization are encouraged, St. Joseph isn’t held up often enough as a model for Catholic men.
Necessary negative agendas against social ills have tended to eclipse positive initiatives such as formation, social justice and collaboration. Greater attention to the latter is necessary for the movement to mature properly. Many local and national leaders recognize this but are not sure how to bring it about. Funding and resource availability can also be a problem.
The Catholic men’s movement, so praiseworthy for its sincere intentions and for the strong relationships, sacramental opportunities and moral activism that it has espoused, must supplement its efforts with a more sophisticated incorporation of enduring formation and the engagement of women.
Because the movement is in its infancy, such growing pains are understandable. Further, the aforementioned generalizations have limited applicability because the substance of the movement is primarily local.
Ideally, through the gradual incorporation of biblical education, Scripture meditation such as lectio divina, the model of St. Joseph, Church teaching on collaboration and gender roles and distinctiveness, marital conflict resolution, the theology of the body and marriage, and a more prudent reading of the signs of the times, the negative approach toward social ills and men’s shortcomings will be balanced by a positive integration of fundamental elements of Catholic spirituality and culture. Then, the mentoring and mutual support and encouragement cultivated in fellowship activities, deepened admirably by positive examples, will flourish even more.
The movement is off to an auspicious start, but as in all Christian endeavors, we can never be satisfied.
Karl A. Schultz is a speaker, retreat leader and author of 13 books on biblical and men’s spirituality and personal growth.