Against the Grain

The Sons of St. Patrick at Boston College go beyond the shamrocks and green beer to connect with their patron saint.

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.

Sons of St. Patrick, a band of Boston College undergraduates, should easily blend into this overindulgent crowd, right?

Not on your Blarney Stone.

“I 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.

Sons is not an official BC organization. It’s a grassroots “society of Catholic gentlemen,” according to its mission statement.

Its 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.”

Founded 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.”

But 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.

On 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 Detroit.

He 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.

They 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.”

Members commit to daily prayer, Mass once a week in addition to Sunday, and monthly confession.

They 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.

Father 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.

“This group says, ‘Not so fast. You don’t need to forget about what your parents told you,’” he said.

Heenan’s 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.”

“When 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.”

“With 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’

Sons 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.

“It’s 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.”

Fraternal, 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.’”

That point hit home with junior William Cody of Wilton, Conn., at his first meeting.

“I’d 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.”

A fraternal group has its benefits, members say.

“We 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.”

Toni 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.”

A 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.”

“It is liberating to be able to talk about what it means to be a true man,” Heenan added. “These qualities are so infrequently discussed.”

In 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.”

“This is a time to fertilize our faith for life after college,” he noted.

The 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.”

Said Father McNellis, “This sounds especially beautiful when you hear 40 guys praying it together.”

Gail Besse writes

from Boston.