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The Sons of St. Patrick at Boston College go beyond the shamrocks and green beer to connect with their patron saint.
BY GAIL BESSE
St. Patrick’s Day in Boston: noise and beer.
Green-haired Irish wannabes pack bars and compete for bragging rights as the
last “pub crawl” survivor left standing.
of St. Patrick, a band of Boston College undergraduates, should easily blend
into this overindulgent crowd, right?
on your Blarney Stone.
warned them that around here that name sounds like a drinking club,” said
Father Paul McNellis, a BC philosophy instructor who moderates the
four-year-old fraternal group.
is not an official BC organization. It’s a grassroots “society of Catholic
gentlemen,” according to its mission statement.
hundred or so members really aim to imitate the patron saint of Ireland and
Boston by leading virtuous lives and evangelizing. They want their actions,
“particularly in their interaction with women, to reflect an understanding of
what it means to be a disciple of Christ.”
on the pillars of faith, fortitude and fraternity, the Sons of St. Patrick is
“dedicated to fostering a community of virtue, character and faith amongst our
peers and surrounding society.”
St. Patrick’s Day surely doesn’t go unobserved, said junior Max Bindernagel of
Cleveland. Of course there’s a party: music, food, a bit of Gaelic prayer, Irish
step dance and “a Guinness on hand for those of age, but that’s it,” he said.
Valentine’s Day, the group hosts a dinner for Gratia Plena,
a BC women’s prayer group. They’ve run an Oktoberfest, movie nights and other
events where “blacking out” isn’t a concern, explained senior Grayson Heenan of
said the group was founded by men hungry for socializing without morning-after
regrets. Like many undergraduates, the seven founders struggled with
temptations and “pressures to take part in a heavy-drinking culture, the
hook-up scene, etc.,” Heenan wrote in a recent BC student newspaper article.
became “dissatisfied living a life of compromise and contradiction, and they
knew a fraternal group could withstand the tide. They were right,” he wrote.
“We are not a secret society. We are not an exclusive cult. And most of all, we
are not ‘holier than thou.’ Sons is not a group of saints. It’s a group of
sinners who want to be saints.”
commit to daily prayer, Mass once a week in addition to Sunday, and monthly
hold a weekly meeting with Evening Prayer and a talk by a guest speaker on a
topic relevant to life at BC. Usually 35 to 40 members attend. On Fridays, some
venture into Boston to distribute sandwiches to the homeless.
McNellis said those students who gravitate to leadership mainly come from solid
faith backgrounds. But for all freshmen, there are temptations to jettison
their values that first year on campus.
group says, ‘Not so fast. You don’t need to forget about what your parents told
you,’” he said.
experience in joining was typical. Raised Catholic, he had decided to
“appropriate the faith” as his own in high school. But at college he became
distracted — “moving almost imperceptibly further and further from the center.”
I went on a 48-hour retreat during winter of my freshman year, I acknowledged
this interior cooling and resolved that something had to be done,” he said. So
he attended his first Sons meeting and found himself “warmly welcomed into a
group of between 10 and 15 guys enraptured with the Catholic faith, all
encouraging and looking out for one another.”
this group, my faith life (and the rest of my life as well) gradually became
stronger, richer, more serious and more centered,” Heenan said.
‘Time to Fertilize Our Faith’
start each semester with a working retreat — a “Week of Fire” — to put the
months ahead in perspective. Mornings begin with Mass. Each day the men focus
on a different theme for reflection as they attend classes and close with
communal night prayer.
wonderful to have like-minded friends,” Bindernagel said. “These are the guys I
hang out with on weekends. I see them in class, at lunch, in church. We go into
the city for restaurants and sports events together.”
faith-based bonds help Sons to grow in fortitude as well. “Fortitude is not only having a faith life,
but also not being afraid to take pride in that in the classroom or with
friends,” Bindernagel explained. “I can say — with fervor — ‘This is who I am.
It’s my religious heritage, and I’m proud of it.’”
point hit home with junior William Cody of Wilton, Conn., at his first meeting.
heard about the group from a priest, but thought this might be ‘too Catholic’
for a first-semester freshman,” he recalled. “Then a friend invited me, and the
speaker that night talked about the danger of compartmentalizing your faith. It
was a spiritual punch in the face for me. What got me coming back, though, were
the other guys. They were very joyous, very welcoming.”
fraternal group has its benefits, members say.
can do ‘guy things’ together,” Cody said. “Our culture has a real lack of male
companionship, of brotherly friendships. I know I’ll keep in touch with these
friends my whole life. They’ll help to hold me accountable.”
Zender, a German exchange student, agreed. “It’s just different, easier to talk
about problems,” he said. “I think the women in Gratia Plena
would agree. And many of us go to the St. Thomas More Society meetings, too, so
there’s a nice mix with the girls there.”
men-only group would not fly in German colleges, according to Zender. “Many
people would criticize it,” he said. “It’s the old thinking that there’s no
difference between guys and girls.”
is liberating to be able to talk about what it means to be a true man,” Heenan
added. “These qualities are so infrequently discussed.”
fact, he said, the original group just aimed at resurrecting manly virtues in a
general way. “Then people started bringing in faith. Someone suggested adding
Evening Prayer to the meetings. That’s when the group’s direction was taken out
of the founders’ hands. Membership spiked; people came out of the woodwork when
the society became specifically Catholic.”
is a time to fertilize our faith for life after college,” he noted.
weekly meetings conclude with the Breastplate of St. Patrick prayer, which
ends: “Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me, Christ in the mouth
of everyone who speaks of me, Christ in every eye that sees me, Christ in every
ear that hears me.”
Father McNellis, “This sounds especially beautiful when you hear 40 guys
praying it together.”
Gail Besse writes