ROME – A U.S. parish priest and author, who experienced sexual abuse by clergy, takes on the “crisis of masculinity” in society and the Catholic Church one lecture at a time, by always “keeping it real” and remembering that “even in the midst of all this darkness, there is always hope.”
“We need to be called to this new masculinity, which isn’t a power thing, it isn’t about dominating anything,” said Father Larry Richards in a March 14 interview with Crux. “A true masculinity is he who lays down his life in love.”
“A true masculinity is Christ on the Cross,” he added.
Richards has been a diocesan priest for over 30 years, ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Erie, Pennsylvania by Bishop Michael Murphy. He has been a Catholic chaplain to college campuses and a teacher at all-boys high schools.
In 2004 he founded “The Reason For Our Hope Foundation,” which – in his words – focuses on bringing people closer to the Catholic faith and showing them that “God is not out to get you, he’s out to love you.”
In 2009 he released his first book, Be a Man! Becoming the Man God Created You To Be, which became Ignatius Press’s number one book in 2010.
“My thing is to try and help people – especially men – to come to know God, to know God’s love,” he said.
Richard’s experiences have led him to understand how to speak to men, and in particular seminarians, in a time of scandals and uncertainty within the Church and society. His advice for seminarians stems from the understanding of what it means to be a man today, utilizing language that is highly reminiscent of Pope Francis’s when speaking to the clergy.
Like the Argentinian pontiff, Richards explores the culture of masculinity traversing society and the Catholic Church today, which has been corrupted by power, secrecy and scandals, while reminding young men wishing to enter the Church today that there is always hope.
The Crisis of Men
Both of Richards’s parents were police officers, leading him to define himself as a bit of a “spiritual cop.” His father – an alcoholic – was absent for most of his life after leaving Richards and his mother to start a new life in Las Vegas.
At the age of 43, his father was dying in a hospital bed due to severe cirrhosis.
“I judged my father my whole life, ’cause he wasn’t the father I wanted,” Richards said, but “Jesus commanded us to love and forbade us to judge. Often Catholics are great judgers but not so great lovers.”
The last thing Richards ever said to his father was “I love you.”
Being able to say these words to those we love is part of Richard’s “big thing with men.” To the many men who come and listen to his lectures, the priest says to write a letter to those they love as if it were their last day on this earth.
“I see men come alive and start crying because, first of all they come to know that they are loved, but second they know that they got to be the best fathers,” Richards said.
Teaching men how to be good fathers and husbands is an important aspect of Richards’s work, not just to bring faith to them but also to ensure that future generations are raised in families where men become role models of humanity and faith.
Drawing from his experience teaching high school kids, Richards said that many young men look to football players and movie stars as examples of what it means to be a man and steer clear from the Church because it’s not a place where they are challenged.
“Boys don’t want to become men. They want to remain teenagers because it’s all about me. And society tells men it’s all about me,” Richards said. “But a man is he who makes it all about you, instead of all about me. That’s when a boy becomes a man.”
In Richards’s view, manhood today is less about self-aggrandizing concepts of power, dominance and machismo and more about being capable of laying down one’s life for others and offering an example “of the love of the Father.”
The Crisis of Priests
The challenges facing the concept of masculinity in society have trickled down to the Church, and according to Richards “the crisis in the priesthood is that priests are afraid to be men.”
Of course, being a “man” in Richards’s book, means putting the needs of others before one’s own, which is at the center of what he conveys to young seminarians he has taught and accompanied.
Unlike some who point to homosexuality as the root of the problem in the priesthood, Richards doesn’t buy that explanation and has identified a “lack of holiness” as the primary cause.
The number one advice he gives young men entering the priesthood is “be a holy priest” and not join in the rank and file of clergy who have failed in that attempt. Prayer holds a central role in forming priests, Richards believes.
“First of all we’ve got to make sure that no man gets ordained without being a deep man of prayer,” he said.
This sentiment is similar to that voiced by Pope Francis on March 7 during a closed-door meeting with the Roman curia at the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome. There he invited priests to pray “face to face with God,” not as an administrator but as a believer willing to fight with God for his people.
Priests, the pope said, must speak to God “not as cowards, but as men.”
Richards’s second basic principle for clergy is to “keep it real” by maintaining a strong tie to others and with oneself, which is reminiscent of Francis’s often heard refrain of priests needing to have “the smell of the sheep” on them.
“We need seminarians that are real. Not hiding behind any kind of piousness. Because when someone is too pious that scares me. I wanna run. It seems like they are hiding something,” Richards said. “Be real! Christ was real!”
Crisis in the Church
As a priest and having experienced clerical sexual abuse at the hands of the rector of his seminary nearly 40 years ago, Richards has a unique insight into the abuse scandals that have been hitting every level of the Catholic Church’s hierarchy.
Casting the darkness aside, he has come to realize that “the greatest thing that’s happened to us is the scandal.”
“In my day, when I was molested, I couldn’t tell anybody anything. It wasn’t even an option,” Richards said, but today he believes that the exposure and awareness of the issue within the Church is forcing seminarians to go through a much harder vetting process leading him to say that “there isn’t a safer place in the world right now than the Catholic Church.”
This doesn’t mean that the Catholic Church doesn’t have much more to do. The priority, Richards said, is to “make sure that the victims are all heard, that they are all healed.” Knowing firsthand what it means to be deceived by someone who promised to bring one closer to Christ, the priest found in forgiveness a tool to gain agency back into his life.
“I am not a victim. I am not a survivor. I am a warrior. Because I will not let what someone else did to me affect my life,” he said.
Accountability and transparency are the other key steps that are necessary to promoting the safeguarding of vulnerable people in the Church, according to Richards.
“Today we gotta make sure to teach young men coming into the seminary that you have to be real. If someone above you or among you is doing anything wrong you must say something and you must bring the light of Christ to it,” he said.
Richards, who recently went under fire by the conservate group “Church Militant” for saying that LGBT inclusion advocate and Jesuit Father James Martin “is a good priest seeking God’s will,” also has a thing or two to say about the growing division in the Church.
“We have to stop demonizing people who don’t agree with us,” he said, adding that division within the Catholic Church makes it harder to face the challenges that its faced with today. Looking at the crisis hitting the Church, Richards suggest keeping in mind the big picture.
“There has always been evil in the Church from the beginning and there is still evil in the Church,” he said, but added that beyond all that “there is so much more good.”