Father's a Man's Man

"Be a man" is the message Father Larry Richards offers this Father’s Day.

Father Larry Richards is a popular speaker at men’s conferences and hosts the radio program “Changed Forever.”

He recently published the book Be a Man! Becoming the Man God Created You to Be (Ignatius Press), which challenges men to embrace their God-given roles as Christian men.

A priest of the Diocese of Erie, Pa., Father Richards spoke with Register senior writer Tim Drake about the book.

What led you to put this book together?

Well, I’ve been dealing with men’s conferences for a long time. I taught boys for years at an all-Catholic boys’ high school and I saw these boys struggle. There’s no pattern out there that gives them what it is to be a man. Years ago when someone asked me to write a book on men, I said, “Only if I can call it what I want to call it — Be a Man!

Those are the last words of King David to his son Solomon. In 1 Kings 2:2, right before he dies, David looks at Solomon and says, ‘I’m about to go the way of all flesh. Take courage and be a man.’ They are the last words that a father gives to his son before he dies.

In society and the Church these last 40 years, there’s been such a problem with masculinity and femininity and getting the two confused. God created us to be men and women, not better than each other, but different from each other. Men are different. We’re made different in God’s image, so we need to do what God created us to be.

There are those who say that women are more naturally spiritual. Do you buy that?

That’s just garbage. Look at the Muslim faith. How many of the men are leaders there? They are willing to go to the mosque a couple of times a day, and willing to pray in public. The men are the leaders by far.

So, the reality is that it isn’t just a female thing. Men are innately spiritual also. The problem is that men have not been challenged to be men in the Church the way that we need to challenge them. For the last 40 years, we’ve heard in homilies that God loves us just as you are. But God is not Barney. God will meet you where you’re at, but he’s not going to leave you there. If he loves you, he’s going to challenge you.

Dealing with high school boys, I’ve found that the big fight was: What’s more important: God or sports? And sports always won. Every day these boys would give four hours to practice and become state champions in every sport there was, because they were challenged. But in Church, we would say, “Can you try to come to Church on Sunday if it’s not too much trouble?” I’ve always thought of myself as a spiritual coach. You need to be the best you can be because that’s what God created you to be. It doesn’t matter if you become a state champion or professional football player and make millions of dollars. You can still die and go to hell. The reality is: Are you going to go to heaven? Are you going to be a saint of God?

Share your story about the guy who challenged you in racquetball.

Many years ago a guy asked me to play racquetball. I didn’t know how to play, so he killed me in four games. He was in my face saying, “I beat you.” After my shower, as I was leaving, this college guy said, “I spend two hours every day working out on my body.”

“Ewww,” I said. “How much time do you spend working out on your soul?” He replied, “Two minutes.”

I told him, “I’ve been to a lot of funerals in my life. After someone has died, and they put them in a hole six feet deep and put dirt on top of them, and everyone goes home and eats potato salad, I’ve never once heard someone say, ‘Did you ever see the ripples in that guy’s stomach?’”

No one cares. They become worm meat for the worms, but the soul is the most important thing. Let’s get real.

There is a difference between men and women physically and spiritually. So, why have so many tried to make us out to be the same?

I think part of it was the radical feminist agenda, for a while. It made us feel bad for being men. What ended up happening is that many of them became more like men than a lot of us. It became a power thing. That’s the struggle.

Yet, there is no struggle when people are who they are, and they complement each other. When God made them male and female, there was no competition. We complement. A guy is different physically than a girl and they complement each other when they come together. God made us whole by making us different. When we come together we become whole.

Some people have really given us the wrong examples of Christ. They’ve made Christ into a tiptoer-through-the-tulips. Yet, his love was quite strong. He said, “You cannot be my disciple unless you deny yourself, pick up your cross every day, and follow in my steps.” In my book, I ask men to read the Gospels, look at Jesus’ personality and write down those characteristics. You’re going to come to a very different image of Christ. At times, he could be very in-your-face. He would not be welcome in most churches today because he made people feel uncomfortable.

So, what’s missing?

Men are called to be the protectors. When I do a men’s conference, I’ll ask, “Gentlemen, if someone was going to break into your house tonight and kill your wife and children, would you do everything in your power to stop them?” They always respond, “Yes, Father!” I respond, “Well, gentlemen, the world, the flesh, and the devil are going after your wife and kids every day, but because you’re a spiritual wimp and you’re not praying and not being the man God created you to be, you’re leaving your family unprotected. Now is the time to become a man of prayer, a man who stands up to the world, the flesh, and the devil and says, ‘You have to go through me to get to my wife and kids.’” That has to be the challenge.

If you look at Adam and Eve, you’ll see that Adam wasn’t being the man that God created him to be. He did not protect Eve. He was right there during the temptation, but he kept his mouth shut. He was not the leader. He was doing the exact opposite of what he was supposed to be doing. That’s where all sin came from.

It’s the same today. In the culture, there are more and more people coming against the Church. In the next 10 years, there will be great tribulations. We can’t sit back. We need to be men who protect the Church, and be who we are called to be. We have to be willing to die for the Church, and give up our life for the truth and others. We need to do that every day. We just haven’t challenged men to be men in the Church these last years. But that’s changing. Men’s conferences are exploding across the country. Men have a hunger for that.

And being man and woman isn’t about struggle, but service, isn’t it?

Exactly. I do about 25 weddings per year at my parish. Every time, I’ll ask the bride, “Sweetheart, do you read the Bible every day? Have you ever read Ephesians? It says there that wives are to be submissive to your husbands. Do you think that’s what it means?”

Every time, the bride will say, “Oh, no, Father.” I’ll jump up and down and say, “Yes, that’s what it means. For the rest of your life, when you wake up in the morning, you need to think, How can I serve my husband today? How can I put his needs in front of my own?

Then, the girl is ready to die. She’s wondering why we got this priest. All the women’s heads are spinning and there’s green vomit, and they’re saying, “We hate this priest. Die, die, die.” I’m an equal opportunity offender, so then I turn to the groom and ask, “Do you know what it says after it says: ‘Wives be submissive to your husbands’?” They always say, “No, Father.”

“It says, ‘Husbands love your wives as Christ loved the Church and gave his life for her.’ You know what that means, son? Your life is over. You have one point, for the rest of your life. Every day, when you wake up, you need to ask, How can I die for my wife?”

A man isn’t someone who lords it over others, but lays his life down in service of others.

As a priest and confessor, what do you find that men struggle with most?

I read a homily by St. Francis de Sales some years ago. In it, he said that the two things he struggled with more than anything was inordinate love and inordinate anger. Lust and anger are the two things of every man. Those things we all struggle with, and they don’t magically go away when you’re ordained. I once asked an old monsignor, “When is the time when we finally get over sexual temptations?” He said, “Ask me tomorrow, Larry. I’m still not done.”

This is part of who we are, but temptation is not sin. I used to tell the boys that you can let a bird fly over your head, you just don’t want it to nest in your hair. When temptations come, you just have to let them go.

The reality with anger and lust is that a man has to realize that he can’t deal with it himself. You have to surrender your life to the Holy Spirit, get out of the way, and let Christ live his life through you.

I hear thousands of confessions from men every year. I always stop them at the word “I” and tell them they have to surrender to Christ. Most Catholics think being Christian is doing the right things, but you can be an atheist or pagan and live a moral life. Galatians 2:19 says that being a Christian means you no longer live, but Christ lives his life in you. If you’re going to deal with the sin in your life, you have to get out of the way and let Christ deal with it inside of you. The way Jesus dealt with the devil when he was tempted was he took the word of God and shoved it down the devil’s throat. We can take the word of God who lives in us and let Christ deal with our very temptation. Strength comes from surrender.

In the book you use the word slave, and tell men they need to be slaves to God. There’s a cultural aversion to that word that makes it hard for us to hear.

I love that word. Part of that radical feminist theology has even taken the word Lord out of the Church because it makes us subservient. The reason we become slaves is found in Philippians, Chapter 2, where it says that, “Though he was in the form of God, Jesus did not deem equality with God something to be grasped at, but emptied himself and took the form of a slave, being born in the likeness of men.”

So, if the King of kings and Lord of lords, the God of the universe can become a slave to us, if the God of the universe becomes a piece of bread and feeds us himself and becomes a slave to us every day in the Eucharist, how can we not be slaves?

Paul introduces himself as a slave of Jesus Christ. Jesus is the Alpha and Omega of all men. He came to serve and give away his life.

I encourage men and women to put three words on their bathroom mirror: “I am third.” That’s to remind them that they need to be last. Every night before you go to bed, you should examine your conscience and think, Did I commit one unselfish act today? If the answer is “No,” then you wasted your whole day in Christ, because you only lived for yourself. To become a slave means you lay down your life for others on a daily basis in imitation of Christ who did that for you and still does that for you.

You hold up the examples of King David and Paul in the book. What qualities can men learn from these men?

Both of them were human. David was a man who was a murderer and adulterer, yet God says of him, “Here is a man after God’s own heart.” Even though he was weak and fell, he saw God’s will and wanted to please the Father.

Everyone who has been baptized has Christ living inside of them. We are the tabernacles or temple of God. We can let the world see us, or let the world see Christ. If you truly want to be a man, you get out of the way and let them see Christ.

What tools can help men to be holy?

The first thing a man has to do is have a daily, committed time of prayer with the Lord. It doesn’t have to be hours. If you love God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength, you’ll make God first in your life. You don’t fit God into your day — you build your day around God.

Men also need to spend time with God’s word. It’s the owner’s manual for how to be a man. I say “No Bible, no breakfast. No Bible, no bed.” That means you don’t eat breakfast in the morning until you’ve read from the word of God, and you don’t go to bed at night until you’ve read from the word of God.

How do you do that? You get a Catholic Bible and you put it next to you on the nightstand. The first thing you do when you wake up is you pray to the Holy Spirit, asking God to speak his word. Then you read the word until he hits you between the eyes. You write that down on a piece of paper and put it into your pocket. Throughout the day you keep taking it out. Now you’re in an ongoing dialogue with God that started with God speaking to you in the morning. At night, it’s his word that takes you to sleep. Three minutes in the morning and three minutes at night, and your day is enveloped with God’s word.

You also talk about the necessity of men’s groups. Why does a man need other men?

Every man needs a man in their life to challenge them to become a better man. Iron sharpens iron, just as one man sharpens another. This is why men do sports together. Your wife cannot challenge you the way that a man can. As a priest, I hang out with a bunch of priests, and a group of Protestant pastors. We pray together and they challenge me to be a better follower of Jesus Christ. If you don’t like groups, you can find a spiritual director who can help you. Timothy, who was a bishop, had Paul as his spiritual father. The way that Paul challenged him was by writing him letters. Men need mentors to form them to be better men.

Tim Drake writes from St. Joseph, Minnesota.