PHOENIX — The figures are not good: From 2000 to 2014, 14 million Catholics left the faith, according to findings from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University. In addition, there were drops in the total number of infant baptisms (28%), as well as adult baptisms (31%), sacramental Catholic marriages (41%) and religious education of children in parishes (24%).
Bishop Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix highlights these statistics in his new apostolic exhortation to Catholic men, promulgated on Sept. 29. Called “Into the Breach” (IntotheBreach.net), his exhortation invites men to courageously step into the critical fight of living out their faith and passing it along to others.
“The world is under attack by Satan, as Our Lord said it would be (1 Peter 5:8-14). This battle is occurring in the Church herself, and the devastation is all too evident,” Bishop Olmstead comments in his letter.
And it is among Catholic men that this devastation is often most evident. According to data from “The New Emangelization Project,” only 29% of Catholic men believe attendance at weekly Mass is “very important”; merely 34% strongly agree Catholicism is the “most important part of life”; only one-third pray daily; and less than a third believe confession is important.
Bishop Olmstead powerfully challenges Catholic men in the context of this masculine spiritual struggle: “As our fathers, brothers, uncles, sons and friends fall away from the Church, they fall deeper and deeper into sin, breaking their bonds with God and leaving them vulnerable to the fires of hell. While we know that Christ welcomes back every repentant sinner, the truth is that large numbers of Catholic men are failing to keep the promises they made at their children’s baptisms — promises to bring them to Christ and to raise them in the faith of the Church.”
At the outset of his apostolic exhortation, Bishop Olmstead issues a “clarion call” to “my sons and brothers” in Christ: “Men, do not hesitate to engage in the battle that is raging around you, the battle that is wounding our children and families, the battle that is distorting the dignity of both women and men. This battle is often hidden, but the battle is real. It is primarily spiritual, but it is progressively killing the remaining Christian ethos in our society and culture, and even in our own homes.”
Meeting the Attack
In 2013, Matthew Christoff launched The New Emangelization Project to help the Church meet these problems and turn the tide.
“Men are simply waiting to be called, to be challenged,” Christoff said. “We’ve been breathing on one lung too long, increasingly feminine in our focus, and that has turned many men away.”
The big challenge, he said, is to re-engage men in a robust way. “A huge number of souls are at play here,” he said. “It’s unjust to ignore them.”
“Gather men together in the spirit of Acts 2:42,” he counseled. “That’s how the faith has always been passed along — getting men together and telling them about the faith.”
The Men of St. Joseph is a prime example of the benefits of gathering and evangelizing men. Men meet weekly to pray together and encourage each other to be the spiritual leaders of their families.
Kevin Ryan, the organization’s executive director, detailed how the group started after 9/11, when a handful of men gathered together to pray about what the Lord might have them do in light of the dangers in the world. The answer became the first Men of St. Joseph group, at St. Ignatius parish in Mobile, Ala.
In 2009, that same group committed to 40 days of fasting and prayer and, at the end of the process, believed they were called to put the family in the hands of the Father. Ryan said, once they began that mission, the group “became 30; then 50; then 200.”
In one year, that first group produced nine chapters in three states. Today, the Men of St. Joseph has 110 chapters in the United States, plus chapters in 12 countries.
The usual weekly meetings of the Men of St. Joseph aren’t complicated. Ryan explained that men gather together for prayer and then share and discuss the Gospel for the coming week, focusing on how scriptural wisdom helps them to be better fathers, husbands, men and workers in the workplace.
“It’s a very practical translation of the Gospel,” Ryan explained. At home, the men share the Gospel with their families so that when they go to Sunday Mass the families are prepared. “It becomes a very dynamic way for people to encounter Christ,” Ryan said.
Mike O’Neill regularly attends the Men of St. Joseph group at Christ the King Church in Daphne, Ala., and other area parishes.
“It really helps me as a father to put my family in the hands of the Father,” O’Neill said. “We encourage each other and share the experience of literally praying over our families. I don’t know where else one can go in our Catholic walk and see Catholic men praying with their wives and children in such an overt way.”
He said that the meetings have allowed him to meet “other lay Catholic men helping each other become the spiritual leaders in their homes in a very practical way.”
“Our ministry is all about the domestic church,” Ryan explained of families. If the domestic church crumbles, the Church has a big problem, he said. “It’s well understood that the role of the father, taking that spiritual leadership, is critical for the family coming into that encounter with Christ and his Church.”
Christoff is of like mind. “In the Church, we’ve got to realize that men are essential for their families to uphold the dignity of women and to pass along the faith.”
In gathering with other men to learn, explore and discuss the Catholic faith and Catholic issues, O’Neill has found a wonderful forum to discuss apologetics in practical ways. “We’re talking about apologetics in marketplace terms,” he said. “We talk about marriage, abortion, religious freedom” and about specific Catholic truths like “the Blessed Virgin Mary’s perpetual virginity or the Eucharist.”
He meets and gets the viewpoint of other Catholic business owners, too. “We start talking about the unique Catholic issues, like the HHS mandate, from a Catholic businessman’s standpoint,” he said. “They say they would close their businesses before participating in abortion and other ungodly acts.” There’s added strength when another businessman “eyes you and says, ‘I would do that.’”
Bishop Olmsted encourages such comradery, calling laymen to “form small fellowship groups for mutual support and growth in the faith. There is no friendship like having a friend in Christ.”
Christoff, who is also a co-founder of CatholicManNight.com, explained that Catholic men’s fraternity matters because between those who have strong bonds of brotherhood versus those who don’t, “there is a fundamental difference in how they practice their faith,” he said.
The parish-based “Catholic Man Night” events work on a simple format: Men gather to meet Jesus in adoration, hear a priest teach about the Lord, receive the sacrament of confession, share a meal and fellowship and discuss how they can know and imitate Jesus better in their daily lives.
Christoff explained that when “men see other men standing up and evangelizing, it gives men confidence.”
“Those events are a catalyst to evangelize,” he said, noting that priests should lead because data shows “that when a priest shows up, the men show up.”
The Men of St. Joseph groups have chaplains and encourage pastor involvement, but men are trained to lead.
“Men’s lives and the lives of their families are being impacted,” observed Ryan. “We’re seeing people coming into a real encounter with Christ, moving from nominal Catholicism to a vibrant relation to the Lord and spreading [devotion] to the family.”
This is exactly what Bishop Olmstead stresses in his exhortation: “Herein lies the fullness of masculinity; each Catholic man must be prepared to give himself completely, to charge into the breach, to engage in spiritual combat, to defend women, children and others against the wickedness and snares of the devil!”
The good bishop further encourages men who are taking the lead: “Catholic men across the centuries have responded to the call to enter the battle, ever ancient and ever new, and I have confidence that you will respond alike to fill the breach in our time. Be confident! Be bold! Forward, into the breach!”
Joseph Pronechen is the Register's staff writer.