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: The priesthood is more than just a job

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In October, the Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazonian Region will be held at the Vatican. On the agenda: a discussion on the possibility of ordaining married men to the priesthood in that region, due to a particularly dire lack of vocations. The news has reawakened discussion on priestly celibacy in general, and whether the time has come to relax the requirement on a wider level. And so, I figured it was time to revisit the subject here, as well.

To set the tone, I’d like to begin my discussion with a very short quiz:

Q: Why does the Roman Catholic Church require lifelong celibacy for ordained priests?

  1. Because sex is bad, dirty and evil, and our priests should not defile themselves;
  2. Because we don’t want to have to support priests’ families out of collection funds;
  3. None of the above; or
  4. Both of the above.

The correct answer would be C, none of the above.

So why, then? Why on earth would these men have to give up the possibility of marriage and children, just because they want to serve God as priests?

Priestly celibacy is a discipline of the Church, not a doctrine. It could change. The rule has already been relaxed in relation to married Episcopalian priests who convert to Catholicism. In this era of widespread priest shortages, and even wider-spread scandals, should we consider expanding that exemption, and remove the requirement of priestly celibacy entirely? Wouldn’t a married priesthood encourage more men, and perhaps healthier men, to respond to the call of God?

Perhaps. But at what cost?

Discussions about the elimination of priestly celibacy are not new. They’ve been around as long as priestly celibacy itself. One of the periods of particularly spirited discussion on the subject was in the late 1960’s. In response, Pope Paul VI wrote an encyclical entitled Sacerdotalis Caelibatus. In it, he explained the reasons for the Church’s long history of priestly celibacy, and he enumerated three “significances,” or reasons, for the tradition:

Christological: The priesthood isn’t just a job. It is a state of being. It encompasses his entire existence. It places a mark on his soul — a mark that will follow him into eternity. The priest is ordained by a bishop, who was ordained by a bishop, who was ordained by another bishop, in an unbroken chain that goes clear back to the apostles. And through that sacramental ordination, and the power and grace it conveys, the priest stands in persona Christi —  in the person of Christ. He has the power to consecrate the Eucharist — to turn bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. He can forgive sins.  And so, standing in the person of Christ, the priest seeks to be like him in all things. He imitates Christ’s life, which includes Christ’s celibacy.

But, you say, Christ also had a beard. Does the priest have to imitate that, too? How far do we have to take this whole imitation thing? Well, the question we must ask is: What was integral to Christ’s ministry? Was celibacy integral? What would it look like if Christ had married and had children? He would have had to work to support them. He would have had to provide them a home.  No iterate preaching, moving from town to town. Jesus was not going to be an absentee husband and father. It was the freedom of celibacy that allowed him to give himself totally to the service of the Father and the Father’s children. So yes, I’d say it was integral. The beard, not so much.

Ecclesiological:  This basically means it is about the Church. Our understanding of a priest is not that he’s a single guy, a bachelor. He, like Christ, is in fact “married” to the Church. You’ve heard all that talk about how the Church is the “bride of Christ.” We really believe that. And the priest, standing in persona Christi, likewise becomes the Bridegroom, giving his life for the Church, and especially for the part of the Church he serves. He doesn’t just offer his “workday” to us, the flock.  He offers his life. He serves us as a husband serves his wife. (And we the faithful, as good “wives”, should likewise be going out of our way to love and care for our priests.)  His attention and affections are not divided between his bride, the Church, and an earthly bride and family. He has far greater freedom than a married man — freedom to not only serve his flock, but to pray and meditate and to grow closer to the Christ whom he represents on this earth. Which then prepares him for further service to the flock.

Eschatological: This means it’s about the next life. Remember my last column, about the Poor Clare Sisters who make the radical choice to live this life as if were already eternal life, focusing only on Christ? Well, priests participate in that too. Scripture says that, in Heaven, we will neither marry nor be given in marriage. (Mt 22:30) Priests and consecrated religious foreshadow that here, reminding us that everything that happens in this life is just a prelude to the life to come.

And so, for all of these reasons, I oppose the wholesale elimination of the requirement of priestly celibacy. I realize that we already have exceptions. I know several of those “exceptions,” and I think they are wonderful people and wonderful priests. But I think they would acknowledge the difference between the exception and the rule, and that the loss of priestly celibacy would change our understanding of the character and charism of the priesthood. The priesthood would be increasingly perceived as just another career choice — one to be entered and left at will.

And whatever the priesthood may be, it is definitely not just another job.

Featured image by Josh Applegate on Unsplash