This June I had the good fortune to accompany a group of students on a hiking trip in the Alps. In the course of strolling through the beautiful alpine scenery around Mont Blanc I fell in with two Israeli men, both in their late thirties. One of them told me he was squeezing in a week in the Alps before returning to Israel for his son’s Bar Mitzvah – the all important ceremony marking the transition from boyhood to manhood. And what did we do to mark this rite of passage in Christianity he asked me. I was stumped. Could I really say Confirmation? I had to truthfully reply that we don’t really have one. And this got me thinking about the situation back home in Ireland. Societies everywhere have recognised the importance of guiding boys out of boyhood into manhood, often formalising it through some rite of passage; rites often entailing terrifying challenges for the boys in question. The initiation is always overseen by other men, and often involves a symbolic abandoning of the mother’s protection, of the cosseting feminine world.
At what age does a Irish boy become a man? Who are the men who guide him? Do Irish mothers consciously step aside to allow the males take over? Does he even “become a man” at all in anything more than a biological sense? These questions have been made problematic by several decades of anti-masculine thinking and practice in the English speaking world at least, part of whose fruit is the gender confusion rife in so many young men.
Perhaps the Church – in her role as an “expert in humanity” as St John Paul II put it – needs to be at the vanguard of the recovery and defence of masculinity, knowing as she does that no man can become a saint without first being a man; for, as the theological tag puts it, “grace builds on nature”. Increasingly it appears that the Church may be the last refuge of unabashed masculinity (and pari passu of unabashed femininity). But this role requires that the Church herself overcome a centuries’ old distortion which has downplayed human virtues (in this case the virtues of manliness) in favour of supernatural qualities, and thus has tended to present a distorted ideal to men, the ideal of the homo religiosus. This is the man whose masculinity has been damaged, even completely eclipsed by his supernatural life. It is the kind of man presented in much unfortunate hagiography and even in lives of Christ himself. This has led in places to a Church which, in the vivid words of Dorothy Sayers, “has very efficiently pared the claws of the lion of Judah, making him a fitting pet for pale curates and pious old ladies”.
Another conversation I had recently reminded me of how inspirational boys can find tales of manliness. A recently ordained American priest, passing through Ireland en route home, told me after a gap of several years he’d be meeting up with his US Army Ranger brother just back from Afghanistan. The Rangers are an elite corps of men selected from the very best soldiers. He told me that his brother had wanted to be a Ranger since his early boyhood – on account of the autobiographies of US Rangers and Navy Seals that he’d read as a child. The priest remarked in passing that this was the way to inspire young boys to be saints: challenging them to manliness and holiness. This reminded of the words of St Josemaria Escriva in The Way: “Be firm. Be virile. Be a man. And then… be a saint.” Every male saint in the Church’s canon of saints – if the portrayal of their personality is not distorted by a misplaced piosity – can serve to inspire young boys. Think of the manly heroism of the martyrs: Paul, Thomas More, Oliver Plunkett, or of the manly charity of men like Damien of Molokai or Don Bosco. These firm, virile and manly saints can serve to guide young boys – through inspiration – from boyhood into saintly manhood.