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: Why stay in the Church?

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

There are many people who have either left the Church or are currently considering leaving because of the scandals of recent decades. We have felt pain and righteous anger at our leaders and have suffered scandal from their betrayal. For some, the grand jury reports and lack of accountability for bishops have been the last straw. It’s hard to blame people for feeling this way, but we have to ask with Peter, “to whom, Lord, shall we go?” (John 6:68).

Significantly, this question comes after many disciples walked out on Jesus for his teaching on the Eucharist, and it is the Eucharist that should be at the center of any response to the crisis. Peter answers his own question: “you have the words of everlasting life” (John 6:68). The Church is Jesus’ own body in the world, and we are members of his mystical body, given eternal life by consuming his own flesh at Mass. Without the Eucharist, Jesus’ presence in the flesh, the very heart of the Church, where would we be?

Bishop Robert Barron echoes Peter’s question in a recent pamphlet-style book, with over a million copies in print, Letter to a Suffering Church: A Bishop Speaks on the Sexual Abuse Crisis (Word on Fire, 2019). He turns to the Bible and Church history to look for perspective on the crisis. Because of the centrality of the Eucharist in the Church, the betrayal of some of our priests and bishops takes on greater significance. They act in persona Christi at Mass, offering the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross to the Father, and we depend on them for our sacramental life.

Fortunately, the validity of the sacraments does not depend upon the sinlessness of priests, but rather the holiness of God. Barron points out, however, that priests will not get off easy, given the extremely harsh words that Jesus offers to those who lead children astray: “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me;  but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin,  it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world for temptations to sin! For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the man by whom the temptation comes!” (Mt 18:7-9). Barron also references the punishment of Eli, in 1 Samuel 2-4, who as priest and judge of Israel watched his own sons, who were also priests, abuse the people. Barron argues that this scene gives us the best example of God’s retribution for allowing abuse to happen and not correcting it.

Barron also looks at the tumultuous story of Church history for context on the current crisis. Although the Church is the mystical body of Christ, he references St. Paul assertion that we bear our treasure in earthen vessels, as evidenced by the human weakness of Christians throughout history. In fact, this weakness manifests the Lord’s grace guiding and preserving the Church in spite of us. Barron quotes Belloc that a proof of the Church’s divine foundation “might be found in the fact that no merely human institution conducted with such knavish imbecility would have lasted a fortnight” (43). Heresies, sinful popes, and sexual perversity have not fundamentally destroyed the Lord’s work, even if they have turned many people away. God has promised to remain with his Church and his providence will guide us especially through dark moments.

The crisis challenges us and raises the question of why we are Catholic. Most of us have been born Catholic and may take our faith for granted as something we’ve inherited from our parents. We may view belonging to the Church like membership in a voluntary organization. Rather, our life as members of Christ’s Body is a gift from God that changes our identity and unites us to God and our fellow Christians. As we experience challenges to faith, it is an opportunity to embrace this identity even more strongly — not as something that depends upon myself or anyone else in the Church, but on God. We go to Church to honor and thank him and to receive his grace, not to be a part of a human organization.

The Church is a family, called together by God, but, like any family, we experience pain from our own and each other’s sinfulness. As family, we can’t give up on each other, but have to “stay and fight” as Barron exhorts us, helping each other to be faithful to the mission that Jesus gave us: to love one another as he has loved us and to share the Good News of his salvation.

Featured Photo by Josh Applegate on Unsplash