Diocese of Phoenix Combats Crisis of Men in the Church
Building on Bishop Thomas Olmsted’s recent ‘Into the Breach’ apostolic exhortation, the diocese is rolling out new initiatives, with the help of others, to assist Catholic men in fulfilling their call to spiritual arms.
PHOENIX — The Diocese of Phoenix is helping to spark a movement to bring men back into the life of the Church and encourage them to answer their calling as Catholic men who are fathers, husbands, sons and brothers.
The blueprint for this effort came last September, in the form of a 40-page apostolic exhortation from Bishop Thomas Olmsted. Titled “Into the Breach,” it struck a nerve nationally for the simple-yet-bold call it issued to Catholic men to step up and engage in the spiritual battle raging around them, from their homes to their local parishes and beyond.
“To me, it’s really just a simple call to action,” said Steven Pettit, co-director of the Catholic Men’s Fellowship of Phoenix, a lay organization that works closely with the diocese.
“Men are rarely hearing this message in homilies, and, many times, they don’t believe the Mass is directed towards them. So this is being seen as an abrupt wake-up call by men,” Pettit added. “Bishop Olmsted is calling to every man, ‘You are to be involved, and here are the reasons why, and here are the things that you’re called to do as men.’”
The extent to which that message is resonating is evident in the group’s annual men’s conference, which was held in early February and was dedicated to the exhortation. In a first for the conference, it sold out a little over three weeks in advance and could easily have drawn hundreds more men than the 1,300 reserved seats. Participants also came from farther than usual, including some from Kansas, Chicago and even Alaska, according to Pettit, who serves as coordinator for the conference.
“Into the Breach” has had an impact beyond the United States as well, with translations in German, French, Portuguese and Hungarian, according to a local diocesan official.
Other dioceses in the United States are themselves already heeding the call in a big way. In the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, Jeff Cavins, the former director of evangelization and catechesis, said he had it on his heart to form a diocesan Catholic Watchmen organization. (The name comes from Ezekiel 22:30, the same verse from which the title for “Into the Breach” is taken: “… And I sought for a man among them who should build up the wall and stand in the breach before me for the land.)
Cavins was in the midst of building up the organization when Bishop Olmsted’s exhortation came out. “I would say that his letter woke us up to the reality of the man crisis, No. 1,” said Cavins. “No. 2, his letter provided us with a game plan and structure to rally men to become modern-day disciples.”
Cavins and other planners flew to meet with Bishop Olmsted. He said the two dioceses have pledged to work together to address the “man crisis” in the Church.
The effort has already born fruit in the St. Paul-Minneapolis area: In late February, the diocese held its annual men’s conference, which was focused on the exhortation, according to Cavins, who served as the founding host of EWTN’s long-running Life on the Rock show. At the conference, an estimated 1,800 men pledged to keep “Seven Disciplines,” a regimen of prayer, devotion and various spiritual practices inspired in part by “Into the Breach.”
That number has since doubled, while local Catholic Watchmen groups have been formed in 30 parishes, and a diocesan-wide group has formed to support and pray with its bishop.
The Diocese of Phoenix, meanwhile, is doing everything it can to get the message out locally. The exhortation itself had an accompanying promotion video for those hesitant to read the document. The diocese has followed up with a short documentary, A Call to Battle, and an audiobook version of the exhortation.
Next is a new website, IntotheBreach.org. Once fully developed, it will offer specific advice for how men in all stages and ages of life can adopt the principles of “Into the Breach.” It will also have short educational videos on such topics as how fathers can pass their faith on to their children, according to Mike Phelan, director of the Marriage and Respect Life Office and another co-director of the Phoenix men’s fellowship.
The hope is that men inspired by the call to spiritual battle will bring the message to other men in their parishes. After the release of his exhortation, Bishop Olmsted held a breakfast with some 30 men from across the diocese. A luncheon for Spanish-speaking men drew nearly double as many attendees, according to Cristofer Pereyra, director of the Hispanic Mission Office.
“He asked us all to be part of this effort,” Pereyra said.
More action at the diocesan level may be in the pipeline — it’s just a matter of asking the Lord what he wants done and to await his guidance, Phelan said.
The “breaches” that the diocese is combating include the loss of 14 million Catholics in the last 16 years, a nearly quarter decline in the number of children in parish religious education, and a 41% drop in sacramental Catholic marriages across the United States, according to figures from the Center for Applied Research Into the Apostolate (CARA) cited by Bishop Olmsted.
Pereyra, a Peruvian-born immigrant who grew up without a father and is himself now the father to four children, said he has been personally affected by the bishop’s message.
“The thing that was new that came out of it was that we can no longer be these lone rangers that try to do it all. Many men do that. I do that,” he said. “It is necessary for men to come together in brotherhood with other men to support each other. That was very new to me — completely new territory. I’m a pretty independent guy.”
Pereyra’s experience in media came in handy in promoting the document. Now he says he wants to spread the message directly himself by giving talks on the exhortation’s message at local parishes — particularly those with large Hispanic-speaking congregations. “I believe that from here on it is no longer about large things. It is going to be about many little things. Now we need to take it down a little bit and go to the grassroots level,” he said.
Breaking the Ground
Much of the groundwork for “Into the Breach” was laid by the Catholic Men’s Fellowship of Phoenix and the annual conferences it has held — this year was the ninth — to evangelize men. But the idea of a pastoral letter addressing the topic came from Dorinda Bordlee, the co-founder of Bioethics Defense Fund, a national pro-life legal organization with offices in Louisiana and Arizona. She made the suggestion at a keynote address at a local luncheon held for pro-life leaders in September 2014.
She told the Register that her suggestion stemmed from a discussion with her law partner Nikolas Nikas, as she was preparing for a 2014 symposium of women scholars convened by the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington to discuss Pope Francis’ call for “a more profound ‘theology of women.’”
“It was my observation that the Church also needed to call men to live the Christian life more fully: that the focus on women was very important, but that the critical crisis in the Church was men fleeing from their responsibilities to follow Jesus completely as men — to love, protect and sacrifice for their families, the Church and society,” Nikas told the Register, recalling their conversation.
After the respect-life luncheon in Phoenix, Bishop Olmsted immediately started laying the groundwork for his apostolic exhortation. The first step: what diocesan officials described as a “mini synod” on the issue of masculinity and men in the Church in February 2015 in Phoenix. Bordlee and Nikas were among those invited to participate and share their thoughts with the bishop.
“We have made advances in our understanding of the dignity, value and contribution of women in society and the Church in recent years,” Nikas said in a written draft of his remarks for the mini synod. “Not so for men — and the result is creating a crisis.”
That “crisis” obviously continues, in Phoenix and elsewhere — but a year later, it’s now abundantly clear that Bishop Olmsted has marshaled the energies of his diocese to assist in the rebirth of authentic Catholic masculinity.
Register correspondent Stephen Beale writes from Providence, Rhode Island.