Matthew James Christoff is, in some ways, like a modern-day St. John the Baptist, an urgent voice crying out in the wilderness. Christoff wants the world to know the Catholic Church has a man problem. Actually, not just a problem, but a crisis. The Catholic convert from Minnesota’s Twin Cities founded an apostolate called the New Emangelization Project to help men learn and fully live their faith. Nothing less than the future of the Catholic Church is at stake, he says.
The father of four’s journey into the Catholic men’s movement began with a cancer diagnosis and a “very long search for God.” A spark lit in him during and after his illness that led him to an encounter with Jesus Christ. He entered the Catholic Church in 2006. He soon discovered what he calls the “man crisis”: millions of American men have left the faith or drifted into a mediocre spiritual life. Catholic World Report spoke with Christoff about his research and his plans to combat the crisis.
For more on the emerging Catholic men’s movement, see CWR’s feature on the subject, “Created for Greatness.”
CWR: What first got you interested in the issue of the “man crisis” in the Catholic Church?
Christoff: About a year or two after my conversion, I was blessed to have a number of very strong, courageous Catholic men take me under their wings. We started to have these men’s nights where we’d light a fire and smoke some cigars (they would, at least), drink some Scotch, grill some meat, and then talk about Christ. This kind of morphed into a meeting with Bishop Lee Piché [auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis]. We said, “Bishop, why are there so many casual Catholic men?” His Excellency said, “It’s because they don’t know Jesus.’”
About five years ago, a group of priests and laymen started Catholic Man Night. It’s a pretty simple model, based on Acts 2:42 (“and they held steadfastly to the Apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers”). We really focus on catechesis on Jesus and we have developed 35 different topics that help men meet Jesus (with more being developed). The topics are rigorously researched, with many references to Scripture and the Catechism. Ultimately we need each man to be able to make the clear case for why he follows Jesus Christ.
CWR: Just what is the Catholic man crisis?
Christoff: Some 11-15 million adult men in the United States were raised Catholic but left the faith. Men are under-represented in the Church versus the general population and men are only about one-third of weekly Mass attenders. Up to 90 percent of catechesis activities are led by women, so the face of the Church in the average parish has become more feminine. Some 60 percent of Catholic men are “casual Catholics”; they don’t know the faith and don’t practice the faith. The trouble is that men are becoming less passionate about being Catholic.
Twenty-five years ago, about 50 percent of men said they would never leave the Church. Today, only 40 percent say they would never leave the Church. Four of 10 men don’t believe Catholicism has any more truth than any other religion. Catholic men are dramatically less passionate about their faith than our Evangelical Christian brothers. So it’s not that Christianity is not appealing to men—there is something missing from how the Catholic Church is evangelizing men. If we wish to have a New Evangelization, there must be a New Emangelization, creating generations of Catholic men who are on fire for Jesus Christ and Holy Mother Church.
CWR: Did the depth of the man crisis surprise you?
Christoff: If you look at the 70-plus interviews I’ve done on our website, every single person has confirmed that there is a Catholic “man crisis.” At the Twin Cities Catholic men’s conference this past weekend, I asked 1,300 men to raise their hands if they think there is a Catholic man crisis. Ninety-five percent of the men raised their hands. The Church, from the Pope to the parish, needs to come to grips with the Catholic man crisis and begin more aggressively to evangelize men. Ultimately the crisis has a huge negative impact on the Church, on women, on children, and on greater society. You’ve got to make the case that the man crisis exists, you’ve got to make the case for why it’s important, and you’ve got to make the case that there are some clear and simple things we can do about it.
CWR: What worries you most about the man crisis?
Christoff: Catholic men are failing to pass along the faith to their children. The single biggest influence on if the children remain in the faith is the faith of the father. A father who practices his faith and lovingly professes his faith to his children influences the children to remain in the faith. So if your father is not active in the faith, chances are you won’t be active. The faith lives of women are very important and women have been doing a heroic job, but it is not enough, as the results show. Men are essential for the successful passing on the Catholic faith and, sadly, many Catholic men are failing.
If you look at 18- to 29-year-old Catholics, 25 years ago if you would have asked them, “Are you certain you’re going to stay Catholic?” about 40 percent said yes. That’s bad news, because 60 percent said they wouldn’t stay Catholic. Twenty-five years later, the number is only 18 percent. This is a massive disaster. It’s one that’s going to play out in the coming decades. This die is cast in some sense, without a really dramatic outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
CWR: You have written that the Synod on the Family that met in Rome last October had some shocking omissions. Why?
Christoff: There is only one sentence (in the synod report) that discusses the role of fathers/men specifically and it chastises men for not being good fathers. There’s no feedback on what men should be doing, to encourage them. The synod by and large focused on dysfunctional families, families that have been divorced or have left the faith, and those with same-sex attraction. There’s almost nothing on the family in the pew that is trying to be faithful, that remain married and were married in the Catholic Church, and nothing about the importance and role of Catholic men. These intact and faithful families make up 40 percent of families and there’s literally nothing of encouragement or help to them. If we don’t get our core and get them strong, there’s not going to be a core. And research is showing if you don’t get the men, you don’t get the children.
CWR: What is the focus of your research?
Christoff: There are three things I’ve done in the last year and a half. One is to assemble statistics about the Catholic man crisis where I could find them. The second is to interview 70-plus leaders to get very clear thoughts and feedback from experts who have been evangelizing men for a long time. The third piece of research was a 2,000-man survey of Catholic men. It’s perhaps the largest survey of Catholic men in recent memory. A thousand different ZIP codes in the United States. Large numbers of men from every age group. The survey was designed to get practicing Catholic men to tell how their priests can more effectively evangelize men.
Only one in five priests are rated as being highly effective at evangelizing men. That’s only 20 percent. Those priests that are rated as effective at evangelizing men have a powerful effect on the faith lives of their men. Their men pray more, they go to Mass more, they go to confession more, they are more active in the parish and they have more and deeper fellowships with other Catholic men. The exact opposite is true when priests are not rated effective. Men pray less, they go to confession less, they go to Mass less, and they’re less active in the parish.
CWR: Were there any particular surprises in your research?
Christoff: One of the key findings that really shocked me was the large numbers of practicing Catholic men who lack fraternity. Only about one in six practicing Catholic men feels like they have strong bonds of brotherhood in their parishes. That is shocking to me. The fact is that we haven’t cultivated a spirit of brotherhood and fraternity. Fraternity is critical, for when you have high levels of fraternity and brotherhood in parishes, men pray more, they go to confession more, they go to Mass more, and they’re more active in their parishes. There are large numbers of Catholic men who are hungry and will respond if their priest specifically and systematically evangelizes them. Many priests haven’t yet made the active evangelization and catechesis of men a personal priority.
CWR: So where do Catholic men stand on their faith?
Christoff: There are four kinds of Catholic men. One in three baptized Catholic men have left the faith—they are the Catholic Quitters. Of those who remain in the faith, 50 to 60 percent of Catholic men are Casual Catholics; they don’t know the faith and they don’t practice the faith. There are practicing Catholics, who make up some 30 to 40 percent of Catholic men. They kind of know the faith and they’re showing up pretty regularly. But they don’t really have a deep enough knowledge and conversion experience in Christ to say, “I’m going to be passionate about evangelization.” The last group are “Committed Catholic Men,” who make up about 10 percent of Catholic men. They know the faith, they practice the faith, and they have had a conversion in Christ to the point they are passionate about evangelization. Evangelization, that’s the acid test.
CWR: So what needs to be done to turn the issue around?
Christoff: Most Catholic men don’t know what it means to be Catholic and they don’t know what it means to be a man. Catholic men have not been challenged to be committed to some basic practices of the faith, to be Committed Catholic Men. Men respond to challenge and Catholic men need to be challenged to step up to the vocation of Catholic manhood.
We need to start with the basics of Catholic manhood. There are some basic practices of a Committed Catholic Man. They’re simple. They’re daily, weekly, and monthly practices.
Daily, a Committed Catholic Man needs to pray, including with his family, and needs to have an examination of conscience at the end of the day. On a weekly basis, a Committed Catholic Man needs to lead his family to Mass and keep the Sabbath. A Committed Catholic Man reads Scripture with family and performs acts of mercy. Monthly at a minimum, a Committed Catholic Man goes to confession. Confession is key. Only 2 percent of Catholic men go to confession on a monthly basis. Seventy-five percent of Catholic men rarely if ever go to confession. Lastly, Committed Catholic Men gather with other Catholic men in their parish at least monthly to build those critical bonds of brotherhood. Catholic fraternity is key; as Proverbs says, “Iron sharpens iron.”
CWR: Tell us about your efforts to evangelize men using the Mass.
Christoff: The New Emangelization interviews and other research confirm that large numbers of men don’t understand the Mass. About 50 percent of Catholic men don’t think they get anything out of the Mass and are bored.
The Mass is a great miracle and blessing that has been given us by Our King Jesus Christ. The Mass has profound masculine aspects that can have a transforming effect on men. We need to return to the basics: the Mass and men. Bishops and priests need to call and challenge all Catholic men to develop a new and profound understanding of the Mass. When this occurs, men will be prepared to accept an outpouring of the Holy Spirit and there will be a powerful gains in the New Evangelization. The Church, women, children and our broken culture need enlivened Catholic men.
CWR: What role should priests play in evangelizing men in their parishes?
Christoff: Our research shows that priests can have a powerful impact on the faith lives of Catholic men. Priests need to lead, but priests can’t do it alone. Priests need to make a firm commitment to evangelize men in their parishes by calling a group of 12 Committed Catholic Men together to pray and lead the evangelization of every man in the parish. It is not complicated. What’s needed is for the priest to have a parish routine of gathering men together on at least a monthly basis, modeled on Acts 2:42—to pray, to receive the sacraments, to meet Jesus and understand the faith, and for fellowship and the sacraments.
CWR: With so many challenges facing men in the Church, are you still optimistic?
Christoff: I am absolutely optimistic and have great hope in Christ; our King is the Victor. The truth of Jesus Christ, if it is preached, always has an impact. We know that when we preach it and evangelize men, tremendous things will happen.
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