Calling Men to a Catholic Vision of Male Spirituality

"Catholic men are destroying themselves by their own free-willed choices," says Deacon Harold Burke-Sivers, whose book "Behold the Man," focuses on Christ crucified, covenantal love, and fatherhood

Deacon Harold Burke-Sivers, known worldwide as the Dynamic Deacon, is a powerful speaker who has presented talks on marriage, family, and men’s spirituality all over the world. He is a passionate evangelist and preacher with a no-nonsense approach to living and proclaiming the Catholic faith. Deacon Burke-Sivers holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Notre Dame and a master of theological studies from the University of Dallas. He hosts his own weekly broadcast, From the Rooftops, on Radio Maria, and is the host of several popular series on EWTN television, including Behold the Man: Spirituality for Men. He and his wife Colleen have four children, and live in Portland, Oregon. 

Deacon Burke-Sivers recently spoke with Carl E. Olson, editor of Catholic World Report, about his new book, Behold the Man: A Catholic Vision of Male Spirituality, published by Ignatius Press.

CWR: You participated last month in the World Meeting of Families as a speaker and also by assisting at Mass. What did you talk about? And what was your experience like at the event?

Deacon Harold Burke-Sivers: My topic at the World Meeting of Families was “Mary of Nazareth: The First Disciple and Mother of the Redeemer”. A disciple is one who hears, accepts, and puts into practice in their life every day the teachings of Jesus Christ and his Church. I talked about how the Blessed Virgin Mary was the quintessential example of what it means to be a disciple: to listen to God’s voice, allow that voice to change your life, and then follow God with your whole being in the obedience of faith. Mary exemplifies how our response to God’s invitation to life-giving communion reflects our trust in his love for us.

I also pointed out that Mary was the first monstrance, the first vessel that held—in the tabernacle of her womb—the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus Christ. Her first impulse was to visit her kinswoman Elizabeth, which was the first Eucharistic procession. After receiving the Eucharist at Mass, we are sent forth to be “Eucharist” to the world, to tell people about our relationship with Jesus Christ. In this sense, whenever we receive the Eucharist, we become “pregnant” just as Mary was. Our mission, then, is to give life to Christ by going forward into the world and witnessing to the truth of our faith so that people can encounter the living God in us and through us.

I had a great time at the World Meeting of Families. It was wonderful to see such joy, enthusiasm, and love of the faith from families around the world. Many apostolates and ministries that are doing incredible work in the area of marriage and family life were also represented. The family is under assault by an increasingly hedonistic culture, and it was inspiring to see families looking to strengthen and deepen their commitment to each other and to the Catholic faith.

CWR: What are some of the positive signs you see in the Church regarding family life and men’s spirituality?

Deacon Burke-Sivers: The Extraordinary Synod on the family last year, followed by the World Meeting of Families and the Ordinary Synod on the family this year shows that the needs and concerns of families are important to the Church. I also see some parishes focusing on family ministry, not just youth ministry or adult faith formation, but formation for the entire family. For example, instead of having parents drop their kids off at youth group or Confirmation class and going home, parishes are providing simultaneous faith formation opportunities for the parents. This is exactly the direction the Church needs to move in. Families today need to become more of a domestic church where the faith is truly lived out in every aspect of family life.

Men’s conference and retreats are popping up all over the world, and many men are taking advantage of these opportunities to rediscover their Catholic faith. Slowly but surely, men are discovering that by becoming better husbands, fathers, priests, and true followers of Christ, they can serve as powerful witnesses of God’s sacrificial love in the family, the Church, and the culture. Many men are making a serious effort to strengthen and deepen their spiritual lives in the midst of life’s struggles and challenges, but there are so many more who are not. These are the men we need to reach.

An important element in this regard is follow-up after the men’s conference or retreat is over. Every parish should have a vibrant, active men’s group that is encouraged and supported by the pastor, the spiritual head of the parish family. Men who are involved in the group should personally invite other men who are simply “going through the motions” to attend these gatherings in order to provide an opportunity to experience—on an on-going and sustained basis—the power of God in their lives.

CWR: You travel all over the world talking to families and at men’s conferences. What are the greatest challenges you see when it comes to men embracing the Cross and being disciples of Christ?

Deacon Burke-Sivers: I believe the challenge is twofold. First of all, men make excuses for not living their faith. The biggest excuse is “I don’t have time,” which really means “It’s not important to me.” Whatever activity men are engaged in instead of praying the rosary, praying with their wives, going to Mass, attending Eucharistic Adoration, and praying the divine office every day—that’s what’s important to them. We lull ourselves into believing that, “All I have to do is be a good person and I’ll get to heaven”; that the bare minimum of showing-up every Sunday at Mass to “punch the clock” is good enough to get to heaven, and it’s not. In the parable of the talons, Jesus shows us clearly that “just getting by” doesn’t cut it.

Second, men often say that women are the ones who are “spiritual”, forgetting that they are the priests in their home, the church, and in the culture. The main job of the priest is to offer sacrifice, so a man is to give his life every day, to die to himself in loving sacrifice and service to his wife and children, the Church, and society. We must live our spirituality from the cross of Jesus Christ because the image of Christ crucified is the fulfillment of what it means to be an authentic man of God. We must not be afraid to break ourselves open and pour ourselves out in love just as Christ did on Calvary.

CWR: Your book begins with this startling sentence: “The Catholic man is an endangered species.” What are some of the reasons for that claim?

Deacon Burke-Sivers: Yes, I come out swinging. What I mean is this. An endangered species in the animal world can trace the cause of its extinction to a source outside of itself, like overfishing, overhunting, or pollution. However, Catholic men are destroying themselves by their own free-willed choices. We choose pornography and sexual immorality over true intimacy in marriage or in the celibate life. We choose abortion and contraception instead of serving, protecting, and defending a woman’s dignity and building a culture of life. We choose spiritual sloth and laziness over witnessing to the truth of our faith with passion and conviction. We make excuses for not living our faith. We’ve stopped leading. We are no longer role models for our children. We no longer desire holiness. We have compromised our values and abdicated our responsibility. We Catholic men are created for greatness but instead we choose to be mediocre. In short, we have bought into the lie of the culture.

CWR: What were the main sources of inspiration for your book? What is the basic structure and logic of the book?.

Deacon Burke-Sivers: I filmed an Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN) series with the same name as the book, “Behold the Man”, back in 2005. My inspiration for the series was my experience growing-up in a home without an active, engaged father (and how I overcame that) combined with a deep love for the writings of Saint John Paul II. I took the script from that series (about 70 pages) and turned it into a 295-page book. During my research, I could not find a magisterial document in the history of the Church written specifically for Catholic men. I found documents like Quamquam Pluries written by Pope Leo the XIII on devotion to Saint Joseph, and Redemptoris Custos written by Saint John Paul II, also on Saint Joseph. The books in the Catholic world for men focused primarily on topical issues like fatherhood, virtue, priesthood and celibacy, pornography, etc. I couldn’t find a book that developed a theology of Catholic male spirituality that spoke to what it means to be an authentically Catholic man. That’s what I attempt to do in this book.

The book is built around a hermeneutic of Christ crucified. The first few chapters lay the foundation—a hierarchy of truths if you will—upon which the rest of the book is built. I start from a biblical perspective, that is, how a Catholic man should approach Sacred Scripture, and see himself and his life in the pages of God’s word. I then move into the nature of covenant relationship where God invites us to share his life, how sin destroys this relationship, and what men can do to remain in God’s covenant love. I then help men navigate the relationship between truth and freedom, which includes conscience formation and understanding the role of the natural moral law.

All of this lays a foundation for the next few chapters on the theology of the body, fatherhood (the longest chapter in the book), and the nature of work. The last chapter, called “The Armor of God”, looks at each piece of a soldier’s uniform that Saint Paul describes in Ephesians chapter six, applies it to a specific principle of male spirituality, and explains how these principles can be lived out every day. I also provide a men’s spirituality resource list where men can access great information and content to help deepen and strengthen their faith.

CWR: There are some in the Church, even among top prelates, who apparently think ordinary Catholics aren’t cut out for heroic lives and saintly virtue. What do you think of such attitudes?

Deacon Burke-Sivers: That’s ridiculous! Jesus says we must be “perfect as a heavenly father is perfect” (Mt 5:48). The word “perfect” in Greek and Hebrew mean “mature, whole, and complete.” We cannot be “perfect” unless we are truly being the men that God created us to be. We are all called to be holy and this is something we must work hard at every day. There are many examples of holy, godly men in the Bible but the one that stands out in my mind is David.

David was far from the perfect man. He committed sins against the Lord with Bathsheba and against her husband Uriah, yet he was a man after God’s own heart. When he faced the Goliath in his life (which, today, is synonymous to moral relativism or anything else in a man’s life that prevents him from being who God created him to be) David accepted the challenge head-on armed with the weapons of God: a sling and five smooth stones—a biblical “type” of rosary. If we are to be authentically Catholic men, we must fight as David did. We must stand up and face courageously the challenges of our time. We must pave the way to rebuilding a culture of life secure in the knowledge that God fights with us. We must look deep within ourselves and, strengthened and nurtured by the Eucharist and the grace of the sacraments, fight the forces of sin and death within ourselves and in the world. We are called by God to be warriors—to serve, protect, and defend—and when we live our faith with passion and conviction, virtuously, and in accord with the teachings of the Church, we can truly live heroic lives and become saints.

CWR: Your own life story is a fascinating one, coming out of a broken home and with time spent in a Benedictine abbey. What were some key events or moments that shaped you as a Catholic man, husband, and father?

Deacon Burke-Sivers: When I entered the monastery I thought I was going to die there. I never intended to leave. My parents are divorced and I am the oldest child, so when my mother became ill and almost died, I left the monastery to take care of her and my sister. It was during that time that I met the woman who would end up being my wife, so I didn’t go back to the monastery.

Due to the situation in my home growing up, I had to find other male role models to take the place of my father. These men were my scoutmaster, wrestling coach, and the monks who were my teachers in high school. They helped shape me into the man I am today.

Saint John Paul II was an incredible influence in my life. I grew up in the late 1970s and early 1980s with post-Vatican II catechesis that lacked substance and depth. John Paul II filled-in the blanks and gave me the “why” of the faith. Encountering his teachings changed the course and direction of my life.

My call to diaconal ministry was also critically important. The Lord has led me down a path that I could never have imagined twenty years ago, and I am truly humbled that God has chosen to use me as one of his many instruments.

I would say the single biggest influence was getting married, something I thought I would never do. Being married has taught me so much about being a man. Shortly after the twins were born, I spent one of my many sleepless nights thinking about how my life has changed since the day I met my wife. How I abandoned the thought of continuing with the Benedictines. How I moved across country, leaving the only home I had ever known. How entering into a lifelong commitment of loving communion and intimacy has changed my relationship with God. Not really having an appreciation for how four young children can, all at the same time, exhaust me to the point of numbness, make me mad enough to pull out what little hair I have left, make me laugh until I cry, and fill me with so much love and joy that I can barely keep my heart in my chest.

My life has not just changed since the day I met my wife, my life has truly been transformed. I have gone from living for myself to dying to myself in order to serve my wife and children in the same way that Christ sacrificed his life for his bride, the Church. It has been an amazing journey, and I hope that Behold the Man helps Catholic men on their journey to live out faithfully the obligation and responsibility that comes with borrowing God’s sacred name, “Father.”