How Rethinking “Retreats” Could Change the Church
We need to pay attention to what we do, and how we present the faith.
What does “retreat” sound like to you?
In my experience as a teacher and speaker addressing young people, to many young men, a retreat sounds calm, reflective — and like something their moms would like.
Does it sound like anything that would stir the heart of a young man seeking to unleash his inner warrior, with the mentorship and guidance from the most skilled of men?
No. Most often, not even close.
Why then are we shocked then that many young men avoid retreats? To voice a desire to go on a retreat is sometimes perceived as wussy and or even feminine. To “retreat” is what people do when they are about to lose a battle. How many young men are excited to sign up for something they might associate with losers (as in, people who lose)? Not many, that's for sure. In fact, in my days teaching in an Islamic school (as a practicing Catholic), I can tell you that the reality of young men gravitating to a “winner” (or a person who is winning “military campaigns” - which is how things were described in their Quran), is something that’s cross-cultural. It’s as though the desire to win is wired into boys, but conditioned out of them. I can only imagine how our world would be different if we presented Jesus Christ first and foremost as Bloodied Victor as opposed to being some whitewashed nice-guy. The point is that, in all ways, the boy’s perceptions matters.
Why does it matter? When young men reach that age of awakening where they need to belong to the “pack,” they will strive to conform to the pack. And if the leaders of that pack perceive things like retreats (and church overall) to be “not befitting of their desired rite of passage from boyhood into manhood,” then they will gravitate away, and will indirectly influence other young males to do the same.
The question to ask is this: Are we first and foremost trying to attract and foster young men who are the leaders of the pack? Or are we not? Of course we want all men to find a home in the Church, but what people forget is that the substance of the critical mass will dictate who will be stirred to follow.
If we don’t intentionally focus on how to attract the young men who are the leaders, then we practically guarantee that we will continue to lose them. They are looking for other leaders, and if they don’t see the Church as being a place where they can find those other leaders (whether peers or mentors), then off they go. And that’s on our hands for as long as we use what is often seen as a feminine approach.
I saw the oppose of this as true in my days teaching at the Islamic school, for when the Imam would pop in, the young males (grades 6-9) would stop everything, jump out of their desks, run up to the door, and swarm him for handshakes, affirmation and approval. They saw him as a mentor they wanted to follow. He was seen as a leader; an extension of the founder of their faith. Do our Catholic young men do that? Not typically. And that’s our fault.
A Difficult Self-Reflection
In any Catholic Church, are the young leader-males eager to follow? Perhaps they are, perhaps they are not. Perhaps it depends to some degree whether there is a masculine place/role for them to grow into that they see as desirable to pursue. If they don’t see that, then we are doing something wrong. Very wrong. And it’s up to us to get over ourselves and admit it, so that we can turn that around, all the while remembering that no parish “program” could ever replace the influence of gaining a critical mass of leader-males. This is not something we can throw a “program” at, becauseWE are the program. Therefore, we need to pay attention to what we do, and how we present the faith.
Do we present the faith first and foremost about relationships with one another where good relationships are the objective? Or do we present the faith first and foremost about the pursuit of truth, where good relationships are the fruit? And which of the two will draw a young person to be more attached to maintaining good relationships above pursuing and upholding truth? You guessed it: the first one. And which one will draw a young man further into the mystery of pursuing that which is true, discovering it to be upheld by the Catholic Church? The latter. The latter is also what will appeal more so to persons more inclined to be task-oriented (which tend to be males). So, let’s get our young men on that train — pursuing truth and giving them something to stand for (and with honor and conviction of truth), instead of leaving them to see the Catholic Faith merely as some nice-feeling belief system. Furthermore, I don’t think it takes a rocket scientist to figure out that if people don't believe something is true, they will not strive to uphold it when the times get tough (as in, in the times ahead). For that reason alone, a shift in this way is necessary for the health of our faith overall, let alone the success of our retreats.
I am not saying that retreats should stop, but I am saying that we should strive to no longer present them, or our faith overall, in ways that might make a young leader-male want little or nothing to do with it.
In the meantime, of course God can still speak to young men who are on retreat (and in our churches), but that doesn’t change the fact that we have a role to play in intentionally adjusting our approach. Overall, to ignore psychological development patterns in males when examining why males are disinterested in retreats and our faith overall is simply irresponsible.
Furthermore, I see this not merely as a matter of one preference over the other but rather as a matter of shifting from our own attachments and comforts to best practices of what actually works. If you don’t believe me, go into a church where there already exists a critical mass of young leader-males, committed to growing into manhood within their faith and examine what is different within that church (and community). It’s not an accident that those young leader-males are there, invested in the pursuit of God and His truth. Rather, there is an intentionality behind it. And this intentionality is too important to neglect, given that the presence of young leader-males is what significantly influences the state of the Church on earth in every age.
With hope (and our cooperation with God), perhaps some intentionality might eventually bring about the situation where young leader-males won’t even lose interest in the faith to begin with. Perhaps that intentionality will instead stir their hearts to take one step further into the Mystery of our Catholic Faith. And perhaps, that intentionality will lead to them to desire to, as mentors, foster leadership skills among the other young men who are being raised up behind them.
Just imagine how that could transform our Church, and our culture.