He Treats Men like Men

After serving as a Presbyterian minister for 10 years, he converted to the Catholic faith. He directs the Family Life Center and St. Joseph Covenant Keepers — a Catholic response to Promise Keepers — in Port Charlotte, Fla. He has been married for 21 years and has eight children, ages 5-19. The author of Christian Fatherhood, he recently spoke with Register correspondent Tim Drake.

Drake: You started out as an Evangelical Presbyterian minister. How is that you came into the Catholic Church?

Steve Wood: I had been active in the pro-life movement and it was through the reading of Pope John Paul II's [1981] apostolic letter Familiaris Consortio [The Family in the Modern World] that I felt compelled to investigate Catholicism. This ultimately led to my conversion in 1990.

I was very concerned about the reaction that I would get, but it wasn't nearly as bad as what I thought it would be. The difficult part of my conversion is that there was a gap of a few months in between the time I had become “Catholic” in my views of indis-soluble marriage and the Catholic teaching on birth control, and officially becoming Catholic. I felt as if I were in no man's land. I knew that I had to follow my convictions and that I could no longer serve as a pastor. When I left my calling and my vocation I thought that it would be the end of any kind of apostolic ministry work.

What led to the creation of the Family Life Center and St. Joseph's Covenant Keepers?

Within a year of my conversion I had the opportunity to attend the first international pro-life summit in Rome. It was there that the Holy Father addressed pro-life leaders telling us that we would not be able to end abortion by treating it as an isolated phenomenon. He said that all forms of assault on life were a departure from God, the author of all life, and that the world desperately needed to be brought back to God.

My first reaction to what the Holy Father was saying was that this was impossible. I couldn't understand how we could reaffirm life, evangelize and bring others back to God. The Pope's strategy for bringing the world back to God was through the family.

I came home and thought about what Pope John Paul II had said for about a year. Eventually I knew that this is how I wanted to devote the rest of my life. We started the Family Life Center in 1992. Its beginnings were small, but we found an extremely strong interest among Catholics for practical assistance in applying Catholic truths to daily family life.

After about two years, it occurred to me that there was something wrong with the marriage seminars we were leading. Wives were appreciative, but they wished that their husbands were with them. Promise Keepers was taking off at the time and I recognized their wisdom in reaching men by themselves and challenging them in their roles as husbands and fathers.

In response, St. Joseph's Covenant Keepers was launched in 1994. The response at first was minimal and we wondered if young Catholic men would respond. Six months later it took off. Since that time we have tried desperately to keep up with a runaway horse.

Men can be a hard group to reach. How does St. Joseph's Covenant Keepers do it?

It is far easier to reach men in a men's-only setting than it is to get them to attend a marriage and family event with their wife. The person who is aware of this strategy and how well it works is the wife. The spread of St. Joseph's Covenant Keepers is due primarily to Catholic wives. Two-thirds of our newsletter subscriptions and conference registrations come in from the wives.

At our recent conference in Rochester, Minn., the wives of those husbands attending gathered before the Blessed Sacrament throughout the conference to pray for their spouses and the success of the conference. I am profoundly thankful for their support, and they seem thankful for what we are doing.

You mentioned Promise Keepers. Where do you see the Catholic men's movement going?

Calling St. Joseph's Covenant Keepers a men's movement is a misnomer. Our emphasis toward Catholic men is more appropriately called a fatherhood movement. We are responding to the fatherlessness crisis in the modern world. The crisis in marriage [is] causing the crisis in fatherhood. At the recent governor's meeting held in Arkansas, for example, the governor called for ways to reduce the divorce rate by as much as 50%.

Therefore, the fatherhood movement is really a marriage movement … a family movement. Not all men's movements make this wider concern for marriage and family life their primary concern. We will probably see some men's movements drying up as we enter into the next millennium because of this.

What is the mission of your work?

The mission of the Family Life Center is to take the historic truths of the Catholic faith and provide practical assistance and application for families. With St. Joseph's Covenant Keepers, in this the Year of God the Father, we are trying to get fathers in touch with their Heavenly Father. The changed hearts of men will transform their family life for generations to come. We want their faith strong and robust enough that it not only makes a difference through their children's teen-age years, but so that it also touches their grandchildren.

Can you provide some practical examples for how the Family Life Center is achieving that mission?

Two remarkable examples come to mind. In one of our tapes, titled “Raising the Standard in Your Marriage,” we try to show how the sacrament of marriage ties into the sacraments of reconciliation and the Eucharist. One man told us the story of how he had been separated from his wife and was waiting for the paperwork to carry through with divorce. While waiting his wife picked up a copy of our tape, listened to it, and forwarded it to him. As a direct result of that tape, the man returned to his wife and was reconciled with her. We met him not more than a week afterward and he told us how the tape had transformed him overnight. His faith life was on fire and his family life had been reconciled.

My favorite story is about a man who ended up sitting in front of me on an airplane. He recognized me and told me that he and his wife were convinced that they did not want any more children. My greatest privilege at our conferences is to teach against birth control and ask couples to be generous in their service of life. In particular, I ask couples to pause for 60 seconds and suggest that they might ask God, if he wills it, to put the desire for another child into their hearts. Well, this father on the plane had had another child as a result of that prayer and I cannot describe his happiness and gratefulness.

Being able to hold babies that are the result of that prayer … that's the tops! That is being truly pro-life, not just anti-abortion. It's as good as it gets.

How many families would you estimate that the Family Life Center has touched? In what ways do you reach them?

So far, we have networked with more than 35,000 families in 41 different countries. We reach families in a variety of ways. We offer a newsletter for members. Our television series, “The Carpenter's Shop” airs on EWTN [Eternal World Television Network]. We also have a live call-in radio show titled “Faith and Family.” By the end of the month [November] we will be launching the electronic version of our St. Joseph's Covenant Keepers newsletter via the Internet. The electronic newsletter will allow us to increase our outreach without increasing our costs.

Last year I published the book Christian Fatherhood. It outlines the eight commitments of St. Joseph's Covenant Keepers. That book has been put on tape. We also have a video series coming out and a companion study guide.

Our new initiative for the next millennium will be to promote what the Catechism describes as “honorable courtship” to help prepare young people for marriage. We will be reworking our fatherhood and marriage materials for young adults and are planning a book on this topic. We have had an unusually strong demand by parents and young adults. By working on the front end of marriage we can give young couples a solid footing and hopefully reverse the crisis in family life.

Have you had any criticism of the work you are doing?

In a few places where I have presented I have been asked to omit or delete my emphasis on the Church's teaching on artificial birth control. There is a false belief that men will not accept this teaching. At one location one of the conference organizers reworked the St. Joseph's Covenant Keepers eight commitments and left out the commitment regarding not using artificial birth control. I don't accept censorship and so I still spoke on it, although charitably and graciously. Afterward the men gave me a standing ovation.

I have also spoken out against classroom sex education. I have received some criticism of that, but never by a parent.

What have you seen happening to men's practice of their faith life over the years?

Over the last 30 years large percentages of men have ceased practicing their faith. That has translated into men not attending Mass, not participating in parish life, and not exercising religious leadership in the home. The research indicates that some churches go light on some aspects of Church teaching. What men need to hear is what I call the “double-fisted Gospel.” Unless men hear both the fear of the Lord and the mercy of the Lord they will ditch their faith.

Priests have remarked that they have never seen so many young Catholic men gathered together in one place as they have seen at our conferences. When you have the men by themselves you can be as straight and direct as a coach at halftime. Men come up afterwards, shake my hand and say, “Thanks for treating me like a man.”

Tim Drake writes from St. Cloud, Minnesota.