Boys to men: Initiating our sons into adulthood

Jared Staudt

More and more, we are recognizing that we have a serious problem plaguing our society: We lack mature men. Boys’ bodies develop on their own, but they will not become men unless they also grow mentally, emotionally, and spiritually into manhood. Traditional cultures lead adolescents through elaborate rites of passage and, until recently, boys would learn how to work alongside their fathers. Today, on the other hand, many young men remain stuck in prolonged boyhood, not willing to accept a vocation of service and sacrifice for the good of others.

Jason Craig addresses this problem in Leaving Boyhood Behind: Reclaiming Catholic Brotherhood (OSV, 2019) and proposes some concrete ways for dads to form their sons in the Church. For boys to become men, they must be taught how to work hard, to sacrifice themselves and how they feel, and to live their faith. Too often boys live in a simulated reality, think only of themselves, and do not step up to the accept the responsibilities of life. Young men do not prioritize getting married and having children, the goal of manhood, but remain unsure of their purpose and trapped in insecurity.

Craig calls Catholic men to mentor boys, creating new rites of passage to initiate them into manhood. “To mature as men, males must embrace the call to the sacrificial offering of their strength for spouse, family, and nation. Rites of passage prepare men to make this sacrifice, while providing the bulwark of a community — of brotherhood — to sustain men in living out the gift of their masculinity, and to pass that gift on to the future generations. As we have seen, there are many aspects of today’s culture that make this sacrificial spirit difficult. We have to work harder than ever to create brotherhood with other men and to bring boys into manhood” (124).

He also gives some more specific examples of the shape this mentorship can take. “The most fundamental, practical, and first action we men should take to initiate boys into masculine maturity is this: Men must be the primary catechists and mentors for young men and for one another” (125). Fathers cannot simply allow others to educate their children in the faith, but must serve as a role model and teacher, as well as working with other men to make the parish a place conducive to masculine fellowship and mentorship. Secondly, fathers should teach their sons how to work, for “in his work, a man has the opportunity to give himself over to his daily burdens out of love, for the sake of his family” (127). The effort and dedication needed in work help bring boys to maturity and create a bond between men. Third, Craig recommends the experience of leisure, leading boys to disengage with technology to experience the real things of nature. “Boys need to be seeing, feeling, and touching real things in the real world — homesteading, hunting, hiking, playing, camping, swimming, carving, building, climbing, hiking” (131). Finally, Craig recognizes how mentorship extends to prayer and the spiritual life, learning how to engage in contemplative prayer, penance, fasting, the liturgical life, and fraternal community.

Craig also offers an important exhortation to embrace the fatherly authority that God has bestowed on men to discipline their children in a loving way, which helps them to learn self-control. “Fatherhood is a great power and a great responsibility. We must speak and act with authority, yet we must also retain the trust of our children. . . . Fatherly discipline and authority are important exercises of dominion, and boys need it. The undisciplined boy stays a boy” (112). Dr. Leonard Sax, in an important book I reviewed previously, The Collapse of Parenting, makes the same point: If parents refuse to exercise their authority to guide their children to maturity, setting clear limits for them and teaching them discipline, they will remain emotionally immature and less likely to succeed in school and as adults.

As Father’s Day approaches, it is a good moment to reflect upon the importance of fatherhood and the role that it plays in raising healthy and holy children. In response to all the problems we face, we can say with confidence that good fathers will go a long way toward shoring things up. The more men embrace this God-given role, the more we can raise the next generation of leaders for the family, society, and the Church.

COMING UP: A man for strengthening others

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When the choirs of angels led Father Paul Mankowski, SJ, into the Father’s House on September 3, I hope the seraphic choirmaster chose music appropriate to the occasion.  Had I been asked, I would have suggested the Latin antiphon Ecce sacerdos magnus as arranged by Anton Bruckner. The all-stops-pulled moments in Bruckner’s composition, deploying organ, brass, and full choir, would have been a perfect match for Paul Mankowski’s rock-solid Catholic faith, his heroic ministry, and his robust literary and oratorical style; the a capella sections, softly sung, mirror the gentleness with which he healed souls. Above all, I would have suggested Bruckner’s motet because Father Mankowski truly was what the antiphon celebrates: “a great priest who in his days pleased  God.”

We were friends for some 30 years and I can say without reservation that I have never met anyone like Paul Mankowski. He was off-the-charts brilliant, an extraordinary linguist and scholar; but he wore his learning lightly and was a tremendous wit. He rarely expressed doubts about anything; but he displayed a great sensitivity to the doubts and confusions of those who had the humility to confess that they were at sea. He could be as fierce as Jeremiah in denouncing injustice and dishonesty; but the compassion he displayed to spiritually wounded fellow-priests and laity, who sought healing through the work of grace at his hands, was just as notable a feature of his personality.

His curriculum vitae was singular. The son of working-class parents, he put himself through the University of Chicago working summers in a steel mill. He did advanced degrees at Oxford and Harvard, becoming the sparring partner of a future Australian prime minister, Tony Abbott, at the former, and delving deeply into the mysteries of Semitic philology – unfathomable, to most of his friends – at the latter. He taught at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome and was pastor of an English-speaking parish in Amman, Jordan. Wherever he was, he lived like a true ascetic; he was also the best company imaginable at a meal or a party.

He was a writer of genius, although his published bibliography is considerably slimmer than it might have been, thanks to the years when he was silenced or censored by his religious superiors. A good example of his ability to combine keen insight and droll humor is his 1992 dissection of the goings-on at the annual convention of the American Academy of Religion (available here). More recently, Father Mankowski drew on his extensive experience as a confessor and spiritual director to pen, with his superiors’ permission, a respectful but sharp critique of his fellow Jesuit James Martin’s book, Building a Bridge (available here). In the decades between those two pieces, and when permitted to do so, he published essays and reviews on a wide range of topics, including literature, politics, Church affairs, biblical translations and the priesthood, while sharing his private musings with friends in a seemingly endless series of pungent parodies, revised song lyrics, and imagined news stories.

Years ago, his friend Father Richard John Neuhaus dubbed Father Mankowski one of the “Papal Bulls:” Jesuits of a certain generation notable for their intellectually sophisticated and unwavering Catholic orthodoxy, which often got them into hot water of various temperatures (including boiling) with their Ignatian brothers and superiors. Paul Mankowski was no bull, papal or otherwise, in a china shop, though. He relished debate and was courteous in it; what he found off-putting was the unwillingness of Catholic progressives to fight their corner with a frank delineation of their position. This struck him as a form of hypocrisy. And while Father Mankowski, the good shepherd, often brought strays back to the Lord’s flock, he was unsparingly candid about what he perceived as intellectual dishonesty, or what he recently deplored as “ignoble timidity” in facing clerical corruption. Paul Mankowski was not a man of the subjunctive, and he paid the price for it.

He is beyond all that now, and I like to imagine St. Ignatius of Loyola welcoming him to the Father’s House with a hearty “Well done, my son.” In this valley of tears, freshly moistened by those who mourn his untimely death at age 66, Father Paul V. Mankowski, SJ, will be remembered by those of us who loved him as a man and a priest who, remaining faithful to his Jesuit and sacerdotal vocations, became a tower of strength for others. This was a man of God. This was a man, whose courageous manliness reflected his godliness.