Catholic men are arming themselves for battle.
Behind the headlines and beneath the radar, a grassroots movement is growing among Catholic men in the United States. Spurred on by the culture wars, they are rallying to conferences, retreats, seminars, and parish study groups that aim to support them in their faith, encourage fellowship, and motivate Christian action in support of charity, social justice, pro-life causes, and the traditional family. Catholic men’s events have become phenomenally successful, gathering Catholic men from a wide spectrum of age ranges to hear motivational speakers, inspiring converts, and spiritual leaders.
In an interview with Tim Drake at Catholic Pulse, Dan Spencer, executive director of the National Fellowship of Catholic Men, said that at the beginning of the century there were just 16 Catholic men’s conferences. Now a quick check of the Web discovers more than 100 nationwide. In addition to the keynote speakers, the conferences feature workshops and breakout sessions focused on topics such as battling pornography, being a better husband and father, successful stewardship, and how to develop a stronger spirituality.
In our own state of South Carolina — a state where less than 5 percent of the population is Catholic — the first annual men’s conference was standing-room-only with more than 500 registrants. The second year the attendance nearly doubled. The same story is told at men’s conferences across the country.
The renewal of men’s ministry is also taking place at the parish level. Pastors and laymen are starting their own groups, while the National Fellowship of Catholic Men, That Man is You!, and The King’s Men offer guidance and content for local groups.
The local efforts often bear fruit for the parish and the wider Church. The men go on to form other groups, form mentorship programs for boys, sponsor parish retreats, and roll up their sleeves to assist with religious education, poverty justice programs, evangelism efforts, and parish administration.
For example, the Diocese of St. Cloud Catholic Men’s Conference, held in February at St. John’s University, featured workshops on topics ranging from the spiritual (Bringing Mary into Your Life, Making Prayer a Priority, Pope Francis and the Ten Things You Must Do to be Happy) to the practical (Advance Care Planning, Strengthening Marriage, Healing Depression).
But much of the talk within the Catholic men’s ministry is militant. Speakers enthuse about spiritual warfare and call men to be soldiers of Christ and his cross. Ex-Marine Thomas Sullivan has devised a “Warrior’s Rosary” that features medals of five saints known for battling the devil, while author Paul Thigpen has produced an instant bestseller, A Manual for Spiritual Warfare.
Meanwhile, Catholic catechist and body builder Jared Zimmerer has written “Man Up!“, which delivers a Catholic version of muscular Christianity, while football coaches Joe Hyland and Joe Lombardi headline as conference speakers linking the battle on the gridiron with their Catholic faith.
Men’s conferences and parish groups are not the only growth point. The King’s Men is a Catholic apostolate with a mission to men. With the motto “Leader. Protector. Provider.” their website points followers to their blog, radio show, seminars, and wilderness retreats with titles like “Unleashing the Warrior Within” and “Samson Healing Retreat”. With sudden growth since 2008, The King’s Men speak across the country to promote chastity, challenge the predominance of pornography, and help Catholic men “grow up into the full stature of Christ Jesus.”
Some might see a danger in a new Catholic male militancy. Are these guys all gun-toting conservatives? Are they wild warriors for Jesus or old-fashioned male chauvinists? Why are their groups exclusively for men? Are they secret anti-feminist misogynists? Are they meathead jocks trying to flex spiritual muscle by engaging in “spiritual warfare”?
Such labels are laughable. I’ve spoken at men’s conferences, helped organize our own parish men’s group, joined the Knights of Columbus, and learned about the new apostolates. What I’ve found are groups of ordinary men of all ages, from every social and ethnic group, who simply want more out of their Catholic faith, and they’re prepared to join up and make it happen.
The new Catholic men’s movement taps into a few key elements that makes men what they are. It connects with a guy’s innocent need to join a gang, a team, a regiment, a fraternity, or a club. It also connects with a man’s need to be on a mission from God. Men need a vocation, not a vacation. They need a calling, and the Catholic men’s movement builds on that instinct in a positive way.
Men also need support from other men and mentors. Catholic conferences, retreats, seminars, and parish groups provide a non-threatening, supportive, and prayerful context for the emotional and spiritual support men need, but usually won’t ask for on a personal level.
Finally, the Catholic men’s movement connects with a deeper sense in our society that men and boys are neglected and underserved. Men have needs, too, and those needs are being met as the Catholic men’s movement continues to expand across America.
The encouraging thing about the Catholic men’s movement in America is that it is a perfect expression of some of the goals of the Second Vatican Council. With its emphasis on the universal call to holiness and its call for the laity to be involved and engaged, the Catholic Men’s Movement is a grassroots phenomenon.
Supported by the bishops, but not started or controlled by them, the men’s movement is an example of an authentic movement of the Spirit in the Church. It is local and vigorous. It is real religion run with enthusiasm by the people, of the people, and for the people.