On July 13, when Catholics worldwide were focusing attention on Brazil’s upcoming World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro, those in the United States were forced to divert their attention instead to a Florida courtroom. In the wake of a six-woman jury’s acquittal of George Zimmerman on charges of murder and manslaughter, fair-minded Americans of all faiths and ethnicities can agree on one thing: Trayvon Martin’s death was a senseless tragedy.
And many will readily accede to the call made afterward by prominent African-American leaders for a respectful, nationwide dialogue regarding the controversial issue of “profiling” of suspicious strangers.
After all, while the precise circumstances that led to Martin’s death remain shrouded in uncertainty, there is no dispute that Zimmerman profiled him beforehand or that this profiling contributed directly to the fatal confrontation between the volunteer neighborhood watchman and the unarmed, 17-year-old teen.
But the tragedy of Martin’s death has also prompted commentary on the scourge of violence committed by young men and the message our culture sends about what it means to be a man today. There is a dark irony to the story of Zimmerman’s decision to follow a young man he suspected was up to no good, only to be the one who ended the life of an unarmed teenager. And while Martin’s death has stirred up frustration from black Americans who fear the acquittal will send the wrong message to self-appointed vigilantes, it has also stirred complex reactions from Americans who fear they will be held to account for making a similar decision in ambiguous circumstances.
Yet the larger issue that needs to be a part of the dialogue is how we can effectively address the crisis of masculinity in our culture, influenced by the glorification of violence and the collapse of the family.
A substantial contingent of violent young men routinely disturbs the peace of many neighborhoods in and around the nation’s major urban centers. Crime statistics indicate that African-Americans are disproportionately represented among this young criminal cadre.
But this has little to do with race — and everything to do with the breakdown of the family.
For the last half century, this breakdown has blighted the African-American community, leaving vast numbers of boys to grow up without positive role models of masculine service and leadership and without strong fathers capable of correcting them when they stray into violence.
This breakdown of the family was never exclusive to the African-American community and has accelerated across U.S. society since the 1960s. The Church has been a powerful voice in warning against the damage being inflicted by pandemic family disintegration and defending the crucial social role of fathers against unceasing attacks by political, academic and cultural elites who despise traditional masculinity as inherently destructive and oppressive.
But even more than an explanation of the importance of traditional families and a rebuttal of the false arguments against fatherhood, what American society really needs is the promotion of “positive profiles” of masculinity. To meet this need, the Church holds up three fundamental images.
The first is God the Father, who deliberately revealed himself to humanity in an image of paternity, thereby communicating the mystery of the unfathomable power for good possessed by human fathers conformed to his image and likeness.
The second is Jesus, who revealed perfect male humanity, especially in his self-giving to the point of the cross, and who, through the exercise of his divine Sonship, enabled all believers to become adopted children of an infinitely loving “Daddy.”
The third is St. Joseph, the holy archetype of the strong, silent father, who dedicated his entire being to the selfless protection and service of his holy spouse, Mary, and his Divine foster son, Jesus.
These are truly profiles of Christian masculinity to inspire today’s young men yearning for authentic role models, just as they inspired previous generations. But in our particularly turbulent time, the Holy Spirit has directed the Church to initiate a new imaging instrument through which youth and their elders alike can better envision young people’s identity as children of God.
A vast international throng of young Catholics is assembling in Rio de Janeiro for World Youth Day 2013 to celebrate their faithful vitality in the presence of their South-American Holy Father, Pope Francis.
In the person of Pope Francis, these youth and others across the globe see a model of masculinity worth emulating. No one has ever accused this Pope of ducking the more disadvantaged members of the human family.
Instead, as archbishop of Buenos Aires, he was famous for his insistence on ministering personally to “the poorest of the poor” and for directing his priests to make this a central aspect of their own pastoral outreach.
The inspirational power of World Youth Days is immense, as documented in other articles posted on our website. And so many young people gathered together joyously can have very tangible social consequences, as witnessed at the last World Youth Day held in the Americas.
Kevin Newman, a former newsanchor for a national Canadian TV network, commented last year about how, for two days, WYD 2002’s “faithful youth” packed the streets of Toronto and “changed its character.” Wrote Newman, “Toronto was briefly a place where young people roamed with broad smiles and embraced strangers.”
We pray that the American youth who participate in World Youth Day 2013 bring an abundance of similar goodwill back home. If so, their evangelical witness will help transform our nation into a place where young neighborhood strangers of every racial background can be embraced, not profiled as dangerous threats, as in the tragic case of Trayvon Martin. And we pray for the eternal rest of Trayvon’s soul and for the consolation of his grieving family and friends.
Editors' note: An earlier version of this article inadvertently mischaracterized the death of Trayvon Martin as a “murder.” The article has been corrected to remove this unintended mischaracterization, which did not accurately reflect the verdict of not guilty in the trial of George Zimmerman.