A/Men talk, gathering of Catholic men
A/MEN TALK, GATHERING OF CATHOLIC MEN OF THE CANBERRA REGION
TUESDAY, 29 APRIL 2014
RHEINBERGER CENTRE CONFERENCE ROOM, CANBERRA
“MEN’S WEAKNESS IS GOD’S STRENGTH IN JESUS”
I’m delighted that we are all gathered together at this special event during Easter.
I can recall that my first experience of Catholic men gathering was when I was only 8 years of age!
My father invited myself and my elder brother to join him for what was then called the “Holy Name” Society function. We began with a Mass early in the morning at 7am in the local parish church and then we all went over to the parish hall for breakfast. I can’t remember a great deal about this event naturally, however, I do remember we had sausages, eggs and bacon for breakfast! I must have been hungry in those days! I do recall though it was good to be with my father and the fathers’ of so many of my friends for a gathering of men and their sons.
Over the years those sorts of occasions have largely disappeared. But they do seem to be making a return now with the renaissance or rebirth of a true Catholic mens movement, not only in Australia but throughout the world.
From the 1960’s to these early years of the millennium I suppose we have been going through a confused time regarding gender. There seems to be so much confused ideology in these discussions from a Catholic point of view, I’m more interested in the theology to be considered.
There seems to be a genuine movement of the Holy Spirit today not only in the mens movement but also in the womens movement. There are always fanatical fringes to any movement but we must be careful not to be too dismissive of what could be a real moment of the Spirit in this special area of female/male relationships.
Much of the literature that I’ve surveyed over the years about the mens movement seems to be mainly of a sociological/psychological commentary. Whereas this is a good start it can’t be seen as enough for us Catholics. When Catholics look at a particular issue we consider it from the four lights of our faith – that is, scripture, theology ,philosophy and the descriptive sciences (including psychology and sociology).
I’d like to make a modest contribution and offer some reflections on what might our scriptures say about manliness and what does it mean to be a man.
I’d like to begin by recalling an expression used by a very wise Jesuit some years ago. He had spent a lifetime in marriage enrichment and was involved in marriage counselling and helping marriages to be nourished. He offered me this expression which talked about the importance of married couples talking about their weaknesses and building on that to find a real strength in their relationship. I think the best way of finding out about the mens movement from the scriptures is to begin with this same topic of noticing the great biblical truth that in our weakness we find the strength of God building us up. At any rate, the Jesuit priest offered me this expression – it has three aspects:
- When power meets power there is a power struggle
- When power meets vulnerability there is alienation
- But when vulnerability meets vulnerability there is intimacy
The word intimacy today tends to have somewhat of an erotic expression. However, in the scriptures the word intimacy is a much broader term. It’s connotes deep friendship, a communication at a profound level. It reminds me of the motto of the Blessed John Henry Newman, “Heart speaks to Heart.”
So as we explore now some male personalities in the scriptures I’d like you to see that their weakness becomes their strength. Let me explain.
I begin with the personality of Job in the Book of Job. In 1:1 Job is described as “a sound and honest man who feared God and shunned evil.” He had seven sons and three daughters, 7,000 sheep, 3,000 camels, 500 oxen, 500 donkeys and many servants! In other words he was a very successful business man and a strong family man. The scriptures describe him as “a man of mark” among all the people of the east.
But then tragedy falls upon Job. God is so proud of Job, but when suggested by the devil that Job would no longer be faithful to God if he was under a bit of pressure, God allowed him the devil to tempt him somewhat to see how Job would respond to distressing situations.
All of a sudden disaster happens in Job’s life. In Chapter 1:21 Job in the midst of his suffering has this to say about his situation “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, naked I shall return, the Lord gives, the Lord takes, blessed be the name of the Lord.”
Then later on in Chapter 19 further disaster happens to Job. His friends come along and offer him free advice suggesting to him that he must have done something very bad in his childhood to be in this situation that he’s now in. But even at this stage, feeling totally alone and isolated from everyone else, Job has this to say about his perilous situation “This I know; that my redeemer lives and He, the last, will take his stand on earth. After my waking, he will set me close to him, and from my flesh I shall look on God.” (19:25)
But Job certainly has lots of questions to ask God. We can empathise with Job can’t we. When bad things happen to good people all of us feel that there’s some injustice at hand.
In the midst of all Job’s question God answers in Chapter 38 “from the heart of tempest”, God says “now it is my turn to ask questions and yours to inform me.”
Job immediately repents of his impertinence in asking God questions. He is as a good man standing before God. He knows that God is God. He is a man, he is simply a man. Ultimately Job bows before the majesty and the mystery of God. At the same time though he is immersed in the mystery of evil. He tries to make sense of this in the light of God’s prevailing presence.
There is so much to learn from this isn’t there about being a man. Even success and economic aspects of our life are transitory. Job teaches us that God is God and man is man. We must be manly enough to be able to realise that God is in control of our life not us.
I’d now secondly like to give a quick profile to an aspect in the life of Jacob from Genesis 32. This is the famous passage from verses 1-32 where he struggles with God.
Jacob is mentioned in Chapter 32:23 of having a successful life, somewhat like Job.
Then something strange happened to Jacob. “Jacob was left alone, someone began wrestling with him till daybreak.” During this unusual occurrence Jacob was asking his foe “what is your name?” He was given no answer but his adversary who was struggling with him said this to him “your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel because you have been strong against God.”
This episode has somewhat of a poetic tinge to it. In the struggles that we have with God, God gives us a name, we do not give God a name. This is something Job was learning, that God is the almighty one, he is the Saviour, he has control over us. It’s a little bit like the first commandment “I am the Lord your God you shall have no false Gods before me.”
Of course, struggling with God is not something just for men. Women of course struggle with God. But it could be true to say that men and women struggle somewhat differently. I can see that in my pastoral work with the way men and women respond to bereavement or a break up in a marriage. The conclusion is the same for both but the way they come to terms with it is often vastly different. It reminds me a little about the post resurrection stories in the Gospel. Both men and women are encountering the risen Lord but they are encountering the risen Lord very differently. In recent days we have examples of Mary Magdalene with the risen Lord and we’ve had examples of people like the doubting Thomas experiencing the risen Lord too. They both do this differently. Without stereotyping, I think both these responses are complimentary to each other. They both reach the same conclusion that God alone is God but they come to this conclusion by different roads.
I’d now like to move to the New Testament. My eyes are drawn to the men that St Mary of the Cross MacKillop chose to be biblical patrons of her new order of the Josephites. You may have noticed on the Josephite badge the three “J’s. They are the three men of the new Testament. Of course, the main one is Jesus and we’ll look at him as a symbol of manliness shortly. But the other one is John the Baptist. He is like the “Bear Grylls” of the New Testament. He is like a “wildman.” He loves adventure and is prepared to eat off the land with minimal effort. John the Baptist is described in Matthew 3:4 as this “he wore a garment made of camel hair and a leather belt around his waist and his food was locusts and wild honey.” He’s the archetypal wild man. He preached in the wilderness.” (Matthew 3:1). His message was conversion via repentance and belief.
The other “J” in the three J’s of Mary MacKillop is Joseph.
Saint Joseph is the spouse of Mary and the foster father of Jesus. He shows great manliness when confronted with the crisis of his early life regarding the pregnant Mary.
He could have publically and juridically dismissed her in the “courts” of the time. But he did not. He decided to issue a writ of divorce and separate privately. He didn’t want to “put her to shame” (Matthew 1:19).
In the new Testament Joseph is described as a just man. He aligns himself with the great men of the Bible to entirely dispose his life to the justice and the control of God. His motivation is pure love for Mary and he doesn’t want some sort of denunciation of her. In Psalm 1 we often hear of the just man as the “one who delights in the law of the Lord” Verse 2… “he is like a tree that is planted beside the flowing water.” Joseph, is the just man who has a great openness to God. He lives in dialogue with God. As Pope Benedict XVI says in his writings of St Joseph “in St Joseph, law and love come together in a unity.” There is a great capacity here to perceive the divine and to discern the self-divine. This requires extraordinary courageous faith. When the angel tells Joseph to take Mary as his wife he obeys completely because he sees this as the will of God. Again John the Baptist and Joseph are a bit like the Old Testament figures. They place their lives completely under the control of God. This doesn’t mean that they don’t have their worries and their struggles. Quite on the contrary. But ultimately they allow God to win in their lives. This must be one of the great signs of being a true man under God.
Finally we have the great personality of Saint Peter. In recent days in the scriptures we’ve had the marvellous encounter in John 21 of Peter and the apostles fishing up in Galilee after the death and resurrection of Jesus.
It’s before Pentecost so they are still not filled with faith. They are probably filled with a great deal of guilt feeling that they’ve let God down in Jesus Christ. And maybe they are even thinking about whether the last three years with Jesus was a waste of time. They are uncertain and they go back to something that they are totally familiar with….. fishing!
It is interesting isn’t it that people go back to what they’re most familiar with when there is uncertainty or a lack of clarity about matters in their life particularly in the religious area.
I recall recently a parish situation. I was encouraging the priest to make a time when I could meet as many parishioners as I could. When I arrived at the place there were about 25 women present. There were no men. When I asked the predominately elderly ladies where their husbands were the answer was immediate. “There either dead or in the pub!”
And then sometimes when I go to parishes for Mass I can see that there is a predominance of women and a lacking in numbers of men. Why is this the case? Are they like St Peter and the early apostles who know of Jesus’ life death and resurrection but have not yet been filled with the Holy Spirit to give them power to take up real manly leadership in the Church?
I recall another time when I was visiting a parish I went past a golf course on a Sunday morning on the way to the Church. The golf course seemed to be filled with men with perhaps their younger sons playing golf. When I went to the nearby Church it was mainly full of women. So they may not necessarily be at the pub or dead but they may also be on the golf course. And sometimes too I see many men on a Sunday morning riding bicycles around the countryside. I am wondering whether these men have taken up lycra more than taking up the Lord on a Sunday morning!
But here we have St Peter, still impetuous as ever. They sense that it’s Jesus calling them to breakfast on the shore and Jesus asking them to bring some of the fish. Peter decides to bring his whole yield of over 100 fish. There’s much in the unspoken in this scene rather than the spoken. Somewhat of a typically manly way of going about facing realities. But it’s quite clear that Jesus is merciful and he shows forgiveness in the hospitality he offers them. The men of God of the early Church respond totally to this forgiving mercy and respond with great gratitude and great strength of character later in the post Pentecost times.
So to conclude my presentation with you may I say that I believe the profile of a man must be based on Jesus himself. Look at the crucifix. This is the symbol of not only Christianity but obviously the symbol of what it means to be a man under God. Jesus has become totally weak in the hands of men, for our sins and weaknesses. He has nailed himself to the cross. Through his blood we are redeemed. Men who want to be strong in the Lord must see themselves with Jesus nailed to the Calvary Cross. In our weakness we entrust ourselves to God’s redeeming and merciful love in our lives. There we become strong in God.
I think Australian men will struggle with this. Men do struggle with weakness as being something positive. It doesn’t match up to a profile of a strong Aussie type. But indeed the evangelisation we must give to men today is to see that you start with our vulnerability which meets the vulnerability of God and true intimacy with God and under God and through, with and in Jesus is the result of a life given over to God. Let us pray for this now as we move to the Church for some quiet time and conclude with Benediction.
Thank you so much for listening to me.