Today we Catholics are engaged in spiritual warfare. As St. Paul said, “For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness ...” (Eph 6:12)
In this time of difficulties in society and in the Church, crisis of families, “pride” events, and fathers either absent or ineffective, it is more important than ever that men’s groups form in parishes and learn to support their faith and each other. Men need to learn to be men, not macho, but true men. Manhood means being a leader, an example for others, standing up for what is right, and, if married, the head of the family (or, as our deacon says, the first servant of the family).
Parish men’s groups seem to suffer from a lack of success. A few months ago Crisis Magazine online published opinion pieces addressing this difficulty. A few years ago Bishop Olmsted of Phoenix wrote an apostolic exhortation to Catholic men entitled, Into the Breach. (The Knights of Columbus have published a booklet around this letter including a program for using it in discussion groups – see your local council to get them.) In it he encouraged the formation of “bands of brothers” built on true brotherhood and friendship in Christ. From my own experience I can truly say that there is hope – the negative aspects in the Crisis articles can be overcome. The key is incorporating Jesus and the Church into the group. This isn’t something Bishop Olmsted suddenly came up with, it has been part of the Church for centuries. “Try to gather together more frequently to give thanks to God and to praise him. For when you come together frequently, Satan’s powers are undermined, and the destruction that he threatens is done away with in the unanimity of your faith.” (St. Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Ephesians) The failure of men’s groups in the Church and in society in general has created a huge opening for Satan in our society, to the point of After School Satan Clubs assaulting our children and transgenderism running rampant.
The authors in the Crisis articles talked around the subject of spirituality and, sadly, neither mentioned Jesus. Let’s face it, without Jesus your men’s group is just a club. For the type of men’s group these authors are looking for, there has to be a personal aspect. And, I believe, this is the type of group Bishop Olmsted intended when he wrote Into the Breach.
Several different types of groups are possible. For example, Knights of Columbus which has existed for over a century (and is still growing) is a hierarchical group and problem oriented, but for general problem solving and support for the parish. And while they do get into spiritual events and activities, this is not the core of their work. The Knights are better suited to an organized or “official” response, rather than a personal or organic one to solve a problem or meet some need.
I personally belong to four Catholic Men’s groups (OK, we have a Methodist in one, and many of us are Knights) which for at least a few years seem to embrace the goals Bishop Olmsted mentioned.
These men’s groups with which I am involved have one thing in common: they are all focused on spiritual growth. Out of this comes spiritual accountability. They all possess a minimal structure – there is no president, no one is “in charge,” although three of them could be said to have someone who acts as a facilitator. There is no big drive to continually “grow the group,” although it is heartwarming to have new “members” show up, even a Methodist. The membership is fluid, no one takes attendance, and someone might show up this week but miss the next two or three.
One group has about sixteen regular members, although we’ve had meetings with as few as three and meetings with about fourteen. Normally 8-10 guys show up. We have a “guidebook” which outlines a combination of scriptural and Catechism readings, a brief scenario to help get discussion started and a series of questions to focus the discussions. It is all geared to being Catholic men in today’s world. The “motto” of this group is “iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another” (Prov 27:17). This is what happens at this meeting and no meeting goes by without referring to Jesus. Once we got to know each other a little, we opened up, knowing we shared many problems and concerns about our lives, our families, and our faith.
True, men do tend to hide things and withdraw into themselves, but each of these groups has had men moved to tears becoming emotional about the support they have gotten from the group, especially after opening up about some serious, very personal situations. Perhaps this is because the basic rule of these groups is that what is said in them is personal and not to be shared outside of the group, even with our wives.
One of the other groups is larger, a monthly men’s breakfast, and probably has the largest age span in its representation, going from 30s (with occasional one or two twenty-year-olds) to men over eighty. Typical attendance is around 35-40 men, but lately we’ve had around 50. The other two groups are smaller but the span of age from old to young is about 30 years (40s to 70s). Like the first group these all focus on some aspect of spiritual growth. This is the only group that actually not led by a lay person, one of our Deacons is the facilitator (although we have held meetings with a lay person leading when he wasn’t available).
In one, our “Literary Circle,” we take turns picking out a book to read, with a Christian or Catholic focus, and then meet weekly to discuss the book over coffee. One member described our group this way:
“Our little [book club] is, I hope, more self-sustaining. It has no real leader - we're all leaders. It doesn't exist in a hierarchy and doesn't rely on "take charge" kind of men. I think we're all a part of the group because it brings us joy for one reason or another. Maybe purely from the Fellowship point of view. Maybe from the learning about our Faith point of view. Maybe it's just our love of coffee.”
Our discussions cover what is going on in our lives, our parishes/churches (we are not exclusive to one parish and one member is a non-Catholic), and our families, and the current book. Here’s a sample of some of our recent books: Because God is Real (Dr. Peter Kreeft), The Screwtape Letters (C.S. Lewis), Declaration of Dependence (Bishop Fulton Sheen), and Terror of Demons (Kennedy Hall).
The men’s breakfast group is different each session with an introductory topic and then open discussion. Our groups are not hierarchical but are based on faith and supporting each other, giving each other a place where we can voice our feelings and opinions - place to be men (not macho) and to learn to be Catholic men. In each of the 4 groups above, the spiritual side is central and all of us have opened up to some personal, intimate event/feeling/situation.
In effect these have all become support groups, both for faith and individual emotional support. None of these groups is a program – they are all pretty ad hoc with such things as a book, a topic, or a guide to provide focus and generate conversation. We all recognize that we are in different places in our respective faith journeys, and we meet to learn, grow, and support each other in our lives and our faith. And Jesus is a member of each group.
I might suggest to men looking to increase in spirituality that you find a few others in your parish who are seeking spiritual growth (they’re there, you just have to find them) and start your own group, keeping in mind that Jesus is the prime member of the group. Open your hearts and let the Holy Spirit guide you. It doesn’t have to be a Bible Study group, but scripture or some similar foundation will help keep the group focused. Discussing Bishop Olmsted’s Into the Breach might be a place to start. We used that in two of these groups with great interest and success. The bottom line is the need to recognize that spiritual growth is an integral part of conversion which only ends at death. If it ends before that, the devil is winning.
These groups are not only important from a faith perspective but also for society as a whole. Let’s face it, a great deal of the collapses in our country and the world is due to our turning away from God. If you look at history, whether it’s the repeated collapse of the Jews in the Old Testament to various nation and city states across the world, those who denied God or denied freedom of worship ended up collapsing. Just look at the Soviet Union. Much camaraderie and “accountability” can be found in such a group. We are all sinners, and most of us have done something, especially in our early lives, that we are not really proud of, and may still be struggling with. For intimacy, don’t shy away from a smaller group where it might be easier to open up.
So, “Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil” (Eph 6:10). Let the Holy Spirit guide you, remembering Jesus’s promise: “where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” (Mt 18:20) AND, “I am with you always, to the close of the age.’” (Mt 28:20)