Flanked by candle-bearing acolytes, the priest held the monstrance aloft and processed through the aisles of the massive Milwaukee Theatre. More than 2,500 men were on their knees in adoration as the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Christ passed before them, bedecked in gold. The solemn Eucharistic procession was the culmination of the ninth annual Men of Christ conference: a day of prayer, speakers, reflection, and Mass. In the halls outside the theater, the line for confession was 200 deep much of the day, even with more than 75 priests hearing confessions. Men waited an hour or more to confess their sins and be forgiven. For some, it was their first confession in years, even decades.
On a Saturday when the highly ranked Wisconsin Badgers were playing tournament basketball on television, a small city of Catholic men instead gathered in downtown Milwaukee to get closer to Christ. From ages 8 to 90, they filled the sprawling, ornate theater for more than eight hours of Catholic enrichment. The chorus of deep, resonant voices seemed to lift the roof during the Lord’s Prayer. Extended applause greeted Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki when he announced his support for concealed carry — then pulled out a Rosary as his weapon of choice. It seemed every man in the audience had one.
What’s going on here? The leaders of this emergent movement say the goal of events like this is nothing less than complete restoration of the Catholic man. Think “band of brothers” over pockets of loners; would be-martyrs instead of has-been quitters. Virtue and service over vice, sin, and addiction. Every Catholic Caspar Milquetoast is being called to emulate Don John of Austria, who with the Holy League saved Christendom from the Ottoman Turks. Yesterday’s average Joe is being remolded as priest, prophet, and king—a bold and self-sacrificing leader in the model of Jesus and St. Joseph. The call has gone out: real Catholic men wanted. Rosary-praying, faith-defending spiritual warriors. Education and training will be provided.
“Men need support and friendship of other Catholic men,” said Steve Ray, Catholic author, apologist, and creator of the Footprints of God documentary series. “We’re in a war, and men are starting to realize it. Life is getting tougher. We can no longer consider ourselves part of the flow of American culture.” Ray, who has spoken at the Men of Christ conference, said the timing is right for men to reclaim their Catholic faith and be prepared to defend it.
“Our society today is becoming very anti-Christian and especially anti-Catholic,” Ray said. “Our steeples go very high. We have very strong standards on morals and the world is going to hate us for it. Any man who stands up and says he is a Catholic and he believes what the Church teaches, he better be ready for a fight. That is why men are banding together. They are realizing we are going into a very difficult time in our country.”
Deacon Harold Burke-Sivers, host of “Behold the Man” on EWTN, said Catholic men need to be challenged to embrace leadership roles. Faith-based Catholic men’s groups are starting to accomplish this sizable task. “The Holy Spirit has been working in the hearts of men for a number of years now,” said Burke-Sivers, a deacon at Immaculate Heart Catholic Church in Portland, Oregon. “Men’s conferences are popping up all over the country. We are finally responding boldly and courageously to the Holy Spirit’s call to serve, protect, and defend what God had entrusted to us as priests of our homes, families, church, and society.”
The move toward more men’s faith formation and fellowship comes at a time the culture presents deadly serious challenges. Popular media portray men as weak, effeminate, dull, and indecisive. The culture celebrates homosexual lifestyles and actively encourages dissent from Catholic magisterial teaching on sacramental marriage, human sexuality, and the dignity of all human life. There are continuing ripples from priest sex-abuse cases. Confusion and scandal are spread by prominent Catholic institutions and politicians that brazenly defy Church teachings. Pornography wreaks havoc on men, their brains, and their souls. And what Pope St. John Paul II called the “culture of death” continues its assault on the most defenseless through the horrors of abortion, assisted suicide, and euthanasia.
“Men are, ironically, starved by the over-consumption of popular culture,” said Dave Durand, a business consultant, motivational speaker, and co-founder of Lighthouse Catholic Media. “They try to find satisfaction in utterly unsatisfying entertainment. In their core, they know there is more to life.”
Durand said men can grow strong in their faith based on a simple invitation to a men’s group event. “I have learned that once the spark is lit, men take the learning by storm,” he said. “More than ever, there are excellent resources to feed their hunger, so lighting the spark is the great need. This only happens effectively when men tap each other on the shoulder and invite them in.”
Catholic men: “An endangered species”
Burke-Sivers said while “Catholic men were created for greatness,” many have abdicated their roles by choosing to be “purveyors of immorality and mediocrity.” He said it’s time men took their Catholic faith more seriously and embraced their roles as leaders in the divine example of Jesus Christ.
“The Catholic man is an endangered species,” he said. “Unlike other species who can trace their path toward extinction back to an extrinsic cause, Catholic men are destroying themselves by their own free-will choice. We choose pornography and masturbation over the one-flesh union of the conjugal act in marriage or the intimacy of celibate life. We choose abortion and contraception over serving, protecting, and defending a woman’s dignity. We choose spiritual sloth and laziness over witnessing to the truth of our faith with passion and conviction. We’ve become timid. We’ve stopped leading.”
An examination of the “man situation” in the Catholic Church presents a dark picture, but also highlights major opportunities. Matthew James Christoff, founder of an apostolate called the New Emangelization, said between 11 million and 15 million adult men in the United States were raised Catholic, but have left the faith. Men are under-represented in the pews. About 60 percent of Catholic men are “casual Catholics” who might be at risk of leaving the faith, Christoff said. Three-quarters of Catholic men rarely go to confession. Just one-third go to Mass every week, and one-third don’t formally belong to a parish, Christoff said. Only half believe it is important to hand on their Catholic faith to the next generation. Less than half have any kind of prayer life.
Christoff gathered statistical data to quantify the man crisis in the Church. He interviewed more than 70 people involved in the Church’s “New Evangelization” efforts to gain perspective and ideas. He conducted a 2,000-man survey on how to help priests become better at evangelizing men.
“The whole project is geared to raise awareness of the fact there is this man crisis, that it’s widespread and it’s serious,” Christoff said. “Ultimately the crisis has a huge negative impact on the Church, on women, on children and greater society. You’ve got to make the case that the 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.”
Christoff founded a program called “Catholic Man Night” in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. Catholic Man Night provides parish-based teaching programs to help men develop a deeper relationship with Christ, and their fellow Catholics. Men attend monthly events with speakers on topics such as “Jesus: The Perfect and Manly Leader” and “The Courage of Christ.” Catholic Man Night is one piece of a comprehensive strategy Christoff is developing to vastly increase the number of committed Catholic men in America [see CWR’s interview with Christoff, "Catholicism’s Man-Sized Crisis”]. He is also helping develop a “teaching Mass” program to help men better understand the miracle of the Eucharist in the Mass. The goal is for Catholic men to truly know Christ, rather than be just a casual acquaintance of the Blessed Lord. Men who know Christ will reach out to bring others to him, Christoff said.
“If men get involved in their parishes, their parishes are going to grow,” Christoff said. “There is a direct correlation between men’s activity and involvement and the health of the parish.”
The stakes in this crisis are huge. According to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, there are 28.9 million adults in the United States who were raised Catholic but left the faith. The number of former Catholics rose 51 percent between 2005 and 2014. Since men make up 46 percent of Catholic parishioners and 49 percent of the US population, that puts the number of former Catholic men at between 13.3 million and 14.2 million. Factor in millions of casual Catholic men who don’t go to Mass regularly and don’t know the faith and you have enough population to fill several small countries.
The long history of the Catholic men’s movement
The idea behind men’s faith groups is as old as Christianity, and it came from Christ himself. At the Last Supper when he instituted the Holy Eucharist, Jesus warned that his followers would face ongoing trials. He told St. Peter, “Simon, Simon, behold Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat, but I have prayed that your own faith may not fail, and once you have turned back, you must strengthen your brethren” (Luke 22: 31-32). Christ strengthens his followers with the Eucharist, and commands men to support each other. The Book of Proverbs 27:17 describes it this way: “Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another.”
The Catholic men’s movement in the United States has a long history, born as a response to anti-Catholic bigotry and persecution by people who viewed Catholics as foreign invaders. In May 1836, Irish immigrants founded the Ancient Order of Hibernians to give Catholic men support and to defend the Church from violent attacks. Venerable Father Michael J. McGivney witnessed the same anti-Catholic bias against his parishioners in New Haven, Connecticut in the 1870s and early 1880s. In the fall of 1881, he organized a fraternal and charitable group to unite Catholic men and support widows and their children. The group chose as its patron Catholic explorer Christopher Columbus, who discovered America and the New World in 1492. The Knights of Columbus was chartered in March 1882 and today has more than 1.8 million members.
Today’s Catholic men’s movement takes many forms. In early March, Cardinal Raymond Burke announced the creation of the new Holy League to “be a source of strength for the Church in these very troubled times.” The Holy League is named for the men sent by Pope St. Pius V to fight the Battle of Lepanto in October 1571. Led by heroic 24-year-old commander Don John, the Holy League defeated the Ottoman Turks in an epic sea battle that saved Western civilization from being overrun by Islam. Pius V ordered the faithful to pray the Rosary for success in the battle. He credited the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary for the victory. The day of the Battle of Lepanto, October 7, became the feast day for Our Lady of the Rosary.
The new Holy League was formed around the premise of men gathering every month for a holy hour before the Blessed Sacrament, with confession, spiritual reflection, praying the Rosary, and fraternity. The goal is to establish a Holy League chapter at each of America’s nearly 17,500 parishes—and at every parish in the world. “The Church in the world has always depended on strong Catholic men,” Cardinal Burke said. “I want to encourage you in all that you are doing to be strong Catholic men of our time for the transformation of our culture and for the building up of the Body of Christ.”
Another initiative is the popular weekly men’s study program called “That Man is You!” (TMIY), which started with 124 men at its 2004 founding at St. Cecilia Catholic Church in Houston. Today, TMIY runs at more than 500 parishes in 40 states. An estimated 20,000 men participate. Developed by Paradisus Dei, a Houston-based apostolate, TMIY includes five one-year programs: “Becoming a Man After God’s Own Heart,” “A Light to the Nations,” “Revelations of the Father,” “The Way of Love,” and “Mysteries of the Rosary.” The goal is development of authentic Catholic male leadership.
Hosted by Steve Bollman, TMIY opens with the story of King David, who committed adultery with Bathsheba, the wife of one of his soldiers. The sinful liaison resulted in pregnancy, and King David was eager to cover it up. Eventually he sent Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah the Hittite, into battle and had him killed. One mortal sin was covered by another. It was a stark example of failed male leadership. But when confronted by the prophet Nathan, David repented and reformed his life. He became what Scripture calls “a man after God’s own heart.” King David’s story changed with God’s unending mercy.
“Identifying the problem is half the battle and that is what the prophets of old have always done,” said Mark Hartfiel, national director of TMIY. “The second half of the battle is leading men to a personal encounter with the living God, who can restore them and help transform them into ‘men after God’s own heart.’ That is the ultimate goal and mission of TMIY.”
Participants watch a video presentation of materials, then have small-group discussions. It is typically run as a breakfast program at local parishes. “Once they get in the door and hear the message, men tell us that much of what they are hearing is new to them,” said Jamie Gonzales, TMIY program manager. “The number-one piece of feedback that we receive is that men love the program, but they just wish they would have heard the content 20 years earlier.”
Other men’s programs include “Into the Wild” retreats offered by The King’s Men, a Pennsylvania-based apostolate founded in 2004. The King’s Men also sponsors local Catholic men’s meetings for faith formation and accountability. Fishers of Men prayer groups in the Diocese of Memphis include faith-formation study in a small-group setting. Fraternus combines faith-building for men with mentoring Catholic boys at local chapters in four states. The Fathers of St. Joseph help men strive to “become an icon of God the Father” based on the example of St. Joseph.
Men of St. Joseph hold weekly prayer meetings at chapters in 22 states. The Knights of Divine Mercy hold a monthly “Night of Knights” with adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, a Eucharistic procession, confession, the Divine Mercy chaplet, vespers, and a social. Some parishes run men’s groups using EWTN’s “Crossing the Goal” program, the Symbolon faith-formation series from the Augustine Institute, or programming from Father Robert Barron’s Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.
Randy Hain, author of five books and founder of the Integrated Catholic Life website, said faith groups can help men embrace their God-given roles and set their prayer lives back on track. “Once we realize that pride, misplaced priorities, lack of a prayer life, pornography, and a host of other obstacles are between us and Jesus, we can eliminate these sinful barriers and enjoy the relationship with him we need,” said Hain, author of Journey to Heaven: A Road Map for Catholic Men. Often, men “are only seeking an invitation,” he said. “Maybe they just want a quiet conversation with another man to help them work through what is on their mind or heart. Invite them to Mass, or a Knights or men’s club meeting. Give them a good book to read. Pray for them.”
Matt Fradd, an apologist and author, said small groups are important so men can “hold each other accountable and call each other onward.”
“The men I encounter are hungry for more. They want a mission,” Fradd said. “They want to fight for what’s right. They want to believe that they have what it takes to make a difference. That’s exactly why this feels like more of a movement. I attend a lot of men’s conferences. The men I meet, they’re excited. They’re passionate. They’re broken like the rest of us, but they are striving.”
Spiritual battle: Call to arms
Many of the men’s programs serve as a spiritual call to arms. Doug Barry, host of the EWTN program “Life on the Rock,” developed an apostolate called “Battle Ready Strong.” Its goal is to “strengthen the fighting spirit in all Christians.” Its patron is St. Michael the Archangel. The imagery of spiritual warfare is an underpinning in a growing segment of the Catholic men’s movement. It has deep roots in Scripture and Tradition. Many of today’s Catholic men are like St. Ambrose, who ran and hid when he was called to be bishop of Milan. But he eventually relented, became a bishop, and bravely fought the Arian heresy, which denied the divinity of Christ. Ambrose was an advocate of the poor and a defender of Catholic churches from seizure by the enemies of Christ. “Faith means battles,” Ambrose wrote. “If there are no contests, it is because there are none who desire to contend.”
The Catholic Church on earth is known as the ecclesia militans, or Church Militant. While some people confuse the term with violence, Pope Benedict XVI said it “bears truth in itself.” The emeritus Holy Father wrote, “We see how evil wishes to dominate the world and that it is necessary to enter into battle with evil.” St. Paul tells us to “fight the good fight of the faith” (1 Tim 6:12). In his letter to the Ephesians, St. Paul says to fasten “the belt of truth around your waist,” and “put on the breastplate of righteousness,” carrying “the shield of faith with which you can quench all of the flaming darts of the evil one.” In his appearances to St. Faustina Kowalska in the 1930s, our Blessed Lord told the Polish nun to “always fight with the deep conviction that I am with you” and “fight like a knight, so I can reward you.”
The battle is not just with Satan, but also for the heart of what it means to be a Catholic man. “Men have drifted from what it means to be a man,” said Durand, author of Win the World Without Losing Your Soul. “We have a generation of boys in adult bodies. After a while they wake up and find themselves empty. The need to search for meaning is combined with an innate desire to lead their families.”
Burke-Sivers said he sees the desire among men to know Christ better. “This hunger stems from the fact that men recognize that authentic male spirituality is first and foremost an encounter—an encounter with the living God and the person of Jesus Christ, who is the perfect example of what it means to be a man,” he said. “The encounter with Christ changes everything, and the more men discover this reality and live it out every day, the sooner we will arrive at a civilization of love and a culture of life.”
The effort to fully engage men in the faith must be lifelong, said Father Eric Nielsen, director of the St. Paul University Catholic Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “I have seen a growth in men serious about their faith, and an increase in percentage of men at Mass,” Father Nielsen said. “I can only explain this as an action of the Holy Spirit. However, it could also be that in order to have faith these days, it requires one to be more active, especially at a highly secular campus.”
Nielsen is leading efforts to raise $24 million for a new, expanded St. Paul Catholic Center, located on Library Mall, the heart of campus in one of America’s most liberal cities. The center hosts retreats, a Knights of Columbus chapter, and a Catholic fraternity. “If we do not continually re-evangelize young people at every important stage of their development…we will lose a sizable percentage to a culture that sees God as irrelevant,” he said. “Part of this evangelization necessarily includes a community of peers which forms around a believer a culture of proper conduct and action.”
Catholic leaders have called for men to embrace an authentic male spirituality, with Christ and St. Joseph as the models for holiness. “For many men, Jesus Christ is conceptual, abstract, or a distant historical figure. Far too often, Christ is portrayed as a ‘lady with a beard,’ a softish, false portrayal that men will not follow,” Christoff said. “What’s needed is for men to get to know the true Christ, the heroic and powerful Son of God who battles Satan and sin and is victorious. Men will follow the true Jesus, they always have.”
Men’s movement touches lives
Anyone who doubts the power of faith-based Catholic men’s groups should talk to Ryan Pruess. In his teens and early 20s, he attended a number of Men of Christ conferences. “I felt like I was a part of something greater and I loved the camaraderie it offered,” he said. “I experienced fraternal support from men who knew they were sinners and yet found strength by spending time with each other.” Pruess also found a “band of brothers” when he enrolled in a law-enforcement academy, but it wasn’t quite the same.
“The Men of Christ conference took it to the next level for me,” he said. “We weren’t just concerned with temporal matters, but the focus was on the spiritual significance of life as well.” Pruess entered St. Francis de Sales Seminary in 2008 and was ordained to the priesthood in May 2012 at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist in Milwaukee. “The Men of Christ conference had a positive impact on my discernment to the priesthood,” he said. Pruess is now one of five priests serving Holy Family Catholic Community in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin.
Jim Poulsen found himself handing out fliers at the first Men of Christ conference in 2007. “I didn’t have a clue what was going on,” he said. Organizers expected perhaps 500 men, but 2,000 showed up. Poulsen said he was drawn to the message on the conference materials: “Band of Brothers.” He volunteered to be a parish captain for the next conference. At one of the training sessions, he heard a talk by Father Phillip Chavez, who specializes in male spirituality. “He said, ‘Men work best in teams,’” Poulsen recalled. “I’d never heard that about the Church. Guys want to be on a team.”
Since that day, Poulsen has become deeply involved in the Catholic men’s movement in Wisconsin, helping organize faith-based groups. He shies from the term evangelization, saying men tend to tune it out. He opts instead for Father Chavez’s teamwork. “Why do men go fishing, why do they go golfing, why do they do anything?” Poulsen said. “It’s a band of brothers. The last thing they want to do is hear the term evangelism. They want to be better men, better husbands, better members of the community. You’re a member of the Catholic team.”
Burke-Sivers said it’s just that kind of response that these faith-based men’s groups should generate. “A disciple is one who hears, accepts, and puts into practice the teachings of Christ and his Church every day,” he said. “The solution is for men to be real men and take leadership and ownership of their roles as servant leaders of our households, Church, and society.”
Resources: A Catholic Men’s Faith Tool Kit
There has never been a better time for Catholic men to learn and reclaim their faith in Christ. Parish-based men’s groups are forming across North America. The supply of beautifully crafted Catholic learning materials—DVDs, streaming videos, audios, books, and more—is constantly expanding. These groups and information sources can help Catholic men anywhere start and supply faith-based men’s groups.