Just when you thought chivalry and healthy masculinity were dead — hordes of young men having fallen prey to the collegiate model of the reckless, boozing, womanizing male as the ideal “real man” — along comes a small band of college men determined to set things right.

As members of Esto Vir, they’re dedicated to living the ideals of Christian knighthood and the virtues of their faith. They kneel together in prayer, treat women on campus with utmost respect, help people in need and band together as brothers in a common cause.

Taking the Esto Vir pledge before God and each other, they promise to daily practice five key virtuous activities: prayer, Catholic brotherhood, chastity, self-sacrifice and fortitude.

“We realized that, as a band of brothers, we could make a difference for each other and combat those bad peer groups that had formed out of weakness,” says recent grad and Esto Vir founding member David Nerbun.

Esto Vir took shape in the fall of 2002 at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. In Jan. 2003, the first group of men was knighted members. Conventual Franciscan Father Bob Schlageter, CUA chaplain and director of campus ministry, provided the inspirational spark.

He called together a group of nine guys and told them he saw a hunger for spirituality on the part of the men on campus but they needed a proper vehicle that would capture their imagination.

“The men came with the whole idea of knighthood as an ideal they wanted to present, and they were intrigued by (St. Josemaría) Escrivá’s writings,” says Father Schlageter. “They decided to put those two together.”

Indeed, while Esto Vir is independent and not connected with Opus Dei, the students got the name from Opus Dei founder Escrivá, who inspired men to rise to their Catholic calling in Latin or English: Esto Vir! — “Be a Man!”

“The secret of Esto Vir is it’s dressed up in knighthood,” says Luke O’Connell, another founder and 2004 grad. “We didn’t reinvent the wheel, but we put new rims on it. It captured the imaginations of the guys and fostered prayer and brotherhood among the men.”

From the roots of prayer and brotherhood, the other virtues immediately grew. Next, there came old formulas for knighting ceremonies and a stirring letter from Bernard of Clairvaux to 12th-century knights on fighting both temporal and spiritual battles.

“We saw ourselves basically being in a spiritual battle at every moment,” says Nerbun, a former Esto Vir paladin, or president.

They also heard St. Paul tell them as he did the Ephesians (6:10-17) how to clothe themselves in spiritual armor and battle gear. Esto Vir’s handbook relies also on the Catechism of the Catholic Church, along with the Fathers and doctors of the Church.

“Esto Vir,” says O’Connell, “challenges guys in the best of ways.”

In fact, from the start they prepare themselves for membership with a week of fire. Monday they meet at 1 a.m. to pray; Tuesday, the Rosary at 2 a.m.; and so on. On Friday they assemble at 5 a.m. That week, explains Nerbun, they go to confession, attend daily Mass, do community service and write a chastity pledge that will be burned as a symbol of leaving their past behind and moving into the brotherhood of Esto Vir.

Then comes the knighting ceremony with their formal pledges to live the five virtues, the chaplain knighting each with a real broadsword, Mass and a big feast.

Father Schlageter finds the most beautiful and unforgettable moments for him are during the week of fire. Among them are the vigils by Our Lady Seat of Wisdom statue outside of Caldwell Hall.

“It’s a huge sacrifice for a young adult male in college to get up at 3 or 4 in the morning,” he says. “What’s beautiful for me is all of a sudden to see these sleepy guys from all over campus bundled up in their Esto Vir shirts walking to Our Lady Seat of Wisdom. They help each other. That week is a real strong bonding moment for them.”

Undaunted by Adversity

Same when Esto Vir men begin each week attending early Monday morning Mass together. “[Morning] is the middle of the night for them,” says the chaplain.

Periodically each semester, the men go through another week of fire to renew their own commitment, especially soon after the fall semester begins.

And because knights need some fraternal recreation, there are fun activities like barbeques, camping trips and football games.

At first people didn’t understand what Esto Vir was all about. Nerbun says some initial reactions were negative, like the time the men decided to act as waiters for the girls in the dining hall. Several people thought they had ulterior motives.

“We took a lot of flak from it when we were pretty new,” says former paladin Patrick O’Malley, now a grad student at CUA. But once people saw Esto Vir’s true intentions, attitudes changed. Everybody appreciated their chivalry at a concert when they gave each girl there a rose and a prayer.

“We’re trying to be a silent witness to manliness and manly purity and what it means to be a man,” says CUA senior and current paladin Steve Mariconti. “Some women on campus really appreciate that.”

Nor can people miss the examples of Christian brotherhood Esto Vir men try to be. Mariconti echos the strong sentiments every member has: “Each guy should know what’s going on in the other guys’ lives.”

Word Goes Forth

That translates into supporting and helping each other through any rough times.

Esto Vir has already spread to DeSales University in Center Valley, Pa., going into its third year with 20 members. This chapter’s co-founder and former paladin Fernando Cartagena will never forget the major realization he had when the DeSales and CUA groups got together at Bethany Beach in Delaware.

“You first realize you’re part of something much larger than just yourself and your school, just knowing there are other men out there who want to be good men and are there to support and encourage you,” he says.

Nor can Cartagena forget that night when these Esto Vir men set up a little crucifix on the sand and prayed the Stations of the Cross on the beach.

“Seeing 30 men standing around together and kneeling by the cross was a really powerful and fortifying moment,” he says. “That’s one of the coolest memories I have, hearing the sound of all these men praying as one.”

Joseph Pronechen writes from
Trumbull, Connecticut.


To learn how to form a chapter of Esto Vir, contact Father Bob Schlageter at The Catholic University of America: (202) 319-5575.