“We call it ‘whiskey, wings, and wisdom’ but there was only whiskey at the first meeting,” says Chuck Kohl, a 56-year-old father of four. “We do occasionally have wings. And if we’re open to the Holy Spirit, maybe there’s wisdom.”
A lifelong Catholic, Kohl felt spiritual stirrings in his 40s and found himself hungry for something more substantive than men’s parish activities, all of which were primarily recreational. This led to a discovery of Ignatian prayer, which deepened his relationship with God, and eventually to helping found the group, now in its fourth year of biweekly gatherings.
“When my wife and I were raising our kids, there was a lot of ‘doing’: pancake breakfasts, coaching kids’ sports teams. For men, there is all that doing connected to the church—that ‘human doing’ not ‘human being’ perspective. There is the idea that I’ve got to ‘do’ to show others that I can protect and lead,” says Kohl.
The group gathers for an hour-and-a-half in members’ homes with an average of six to eight men. Kohl describes the group as a richer alternative to the “doing” he experienced in parish men’s activities when he was younger. Men ranging from their 30s to their 60s eat, share God’s movement in their lives, and close with prayer. Though confidentiality is agreed upon, the group doesn’t have many rules or a rigid structure. According to Kohl, this “allows the Spirit to do the Spirit’s work—it’s unpredictable and always fruitful.”
Kohl and his faith-sharing group are just one example of how a growing number of men are participating in new types of “men’s” ministries. No longer are men’s involvement in parish activities limited to planning the Lenten fish fry or leading a fundraising team. Instead, they are increasingly gathering to pray, share their lives with one another, and find a support system within their parish communities. Such groups can offer support and accompaniment for men growing in interior integration, emotional maturity, and faith. This can have significant positive ripple effects in their families, parishes, and workplaces.
No man is an island?
While Kohl is enthusiastic about gathering a group of Catholic men to share prayer and reflect on their lives, others are hesitant about participating in a men’s ministry focused on interpersonal sharing.
David Johnson joined a men’s small group hosted by a Catholic young adult ministry after relocating to Kansas City for work a few years after his college graduation. “I held off on joining. I initially saw it and thought, ‘This is not up my alley.’ Then I went through the year and hit a couple of low spots with my job. I had an aggressive travel schedule, so I didn’t develop many new friendships. I said, ‘You know what? This is an opportunity. If nothing else, I’ll meet new people,’ ” he says.
Mark Carbonara is an administrator at a small Catholic liberal arts university whose doctoral studies focused on masculinity. His experience echoes Kohl’s in that he sees more ministry opportunities for men focused on service or socialization, and he sees among many young men the hesitation that Johnson describes.
“Are men together in proximity, or emotionally and spiritually? Those are two different things. At the end of the day, are they still yearning for true, authentic community?” asks Carbonara.
Much of Carbonara’s work focuses on creating spaces of connection and reflection for college-aged men seeking to cultivate “true, authentic community.” However, he finds that there is simultaneously a deep hunger for and a resistance to participating in those spaces because of how boys and men are socialized in U.S. culture.
“Most men haven’t been taught to be vulnerable or have been punished for being vulnerable. That makes them avoid those faith-based spaces,” he says. “They want it, but knowing if they go there, they’ll have to be seen. And being truly seen—that’s the scariest thing in the entire world.”
Terrence Shaughnessy is a spiritual director trained at Creighton University who has facilitated a men’s group at Wisdom Ways, a spirituality center in St. Paul, Minnesota, for more than 10 years. Like Carbonara, Shaughnessy has seen both men’s desire for and their resistance to spaces of interpersonal sharing.
“When we invite men into spaces where they’re not doing something—raising money, studying—and focused on accomplishments, it may be uncomfortable and even threatening,” he says. “So the primary invitation is for them to move from their heads into heart space where real transformation occurs.”
Carbonara and Shaughnessy agree that when those barriers can be negotiated and men enter a space of authentic community, spiritual sharing, and peer support, the impact is tremendous.
“It’s extraordinarily powerful to participate in an experience with men vulnerably sharing their lives, standing shoulder to shoulder, without coercion or shame,” Shaughnessy says. “I’ve been privileged to witness unforgettable spiritual openings and deeper dimensions of masculine growth over time, which sustains my faith and the hope I have for men going forward.”
“When men can be open to this deeper intimacy with God, which cascades into deeper intimacy with all creation, everything changes.” Chuck Kohl
Carbonara agrees: “Men’s-only spaces almost always end up being phenomenally cathartic and needed for men. They finally get something they didn’t know they wanted.”
Joseph Riva is a 29-year-old Catholic high school teacher (he asked that his name be changed for this story to protect his privacy). He’s part of both an online Catholic men’s group as well as a smaller, informal group of male teachers at his school who gather to share prayer and reflection. As Riva has become a husband and father in recent years, he values the support of Catholic men’s groups.
“It fills an emotional need. Regardless of how strong your marriage is, you need support outside of it. The communities I am a part of allow me to show more vulnerability and share what is going on in my daily life,” Riva says.
A friendship recession
Why men’s only spaces? Couldn’t men like Kohl, Johnson, and Riva have equally meaningful and beneficial experiences in adult faith-sharing spaces made up of both men and women?
Several men pointed out that many parish-based activities tend to be attended by mostly women. This reality was named in paragraph 61 of Enlarge the Space of Your Tent, the working document for the continental phase of the ongoing global Synod on Synodality:
“Women remain the majority of those who attend liturgy and participate in activities, men a minority; yet most decision-making and governance roles are held by men. It is clear that the Church must find ways to attract men to a more active membership in the Church and to enable women to participate more fully at all levels of Church life.”
Men’s group participants and leaders are quick to point out that there is value in co-ed spaces and in men learning from and with women. Yet they find that there is a need for men to be in spaces with other men to develop authentic peer relationships.
“Being with only guys helped me to be honest about struggles,” says Johnson. “You can talk more freely. There’s a benefit to the camaraderie with other men.”
According to a recent New York Times article by Catherine Pearson, “American men appear to be stuck in a ‘friendship recession.’ ” Men increasingly report being unsatisfied with the number and quality of friendships in their lives. The years of pandemic and working from home have exacerbated many men’s sense of isolation and disconnection. Unsurprisingly, substance abuse and suicide are higher among men.
Carbonara attributes this to “the pressure of social expectations. Knowing men are the privileged gender in our society—that’s not without its pressures. The second men feel like they can’t do what’s expected, they’ve lost their way . . . but relationships, friendships can save men.”
Men’s-only Catholic spaces, intentionally created and facilitated, can be a place for developing those all-important authentic relationships and reverse the “friendship recession” among U.S. men.
The power of mentorship
Peer friendships aren’t the only relationships formed within these groups. Whether it is formal or informal, mentorship is a key element of Catholic men’s groups. Carbonara says that most college-aged men with a strong faith can name at least one significant mentor who significantly influenced their development of faith and identity. “Guys with strong faith often went to Catholic high school and experienced their athletic coach as a mentor, not just in sports, but in faith and life. They want to make their coach proud,” he says.
However, Carbonara is quick to add that mentorship is not just for teens and 20-somethings but is necessary as men age and roles shift. “The need for mentorship doesn’t go away—you don’t know what the next phase of your life will be,” he says.
Gerry Crete is a Catholic marriage and family therapist with a practice based in Atlanta. He developed an online community called Catholic Journeymen where weekly gatherings and one-on-one mentorship help men overcome struggles and have better relationships.
“Men need to be mentored to flourish. Without that, men flail and are isolated and disconnected and don’t have good relationships,” says Crete.
Crete was inspired to create Catholic Journeymen after participating in Exodus 90, a 90-day spiritual exercise for Catholic men with the three pillars of prayer, asceticism, and fraternity. Crete’s experience, especially the co-mentorship he experienced with his accountability partner, was powerful. It led Crete to realize there is a need for more initiatives that guide participants in “creating a bigger program of life” and developing skills to live with greater freedom.
U.S. culture is in the midst of charged conversations about gender, gender identity, and gender roles, complicating the premise of men’s-only spaces and raising important questions about the nature of masculinity.
Many who don’t comfortably fit into traditional cultural and religious norms around gender expression and sexual orientation may simply opt out of participating in Catholic spaces and seek community, spirituality, and connection elsewhere. Johnson says that one member of his parish men’s group “ghosted, just went AWOL, and later came out as gay. He privately shared with me that he felt he couldn’t share what was going on in his life . . . there were two guys who were more dogmatic about sexual matters.”
The larger cultural grappling around questions of gender challenges Catholic institutions to present not just clear pastoral teaching but also offer healthy models of masculinity.
“What is a good and true masculinity?” asks Crete. “It is often defined by what it isn’t: We’re not women. That’s not enough. What is often an image of masculinity is stoic, isolated, independent, and not very good in relationships. That’s a bad image.”
The term toxic masculinity was coined by psychologist Shepherd Bliss in the 1980s and has gained traction in recent years, becoming something of a catchall term for male violence, competition, and entitlement. Carbonara defines it as “adhering, consciously and unconsciously, to externally defined hegemonic standards of domination among men.”
According to Carbonara, toxic masculinity can be manifested in behaviors such as “aggression, excessive drinking, commodification of women, not dealing with emotions . . . and society can reward men for those behaviors.”
“Most men haven’t been taught to be vulnerable or have been punished for being vulnerable.” Mark Carbonara
However, the term can be a flashpoint and not all find the concept helpful. Brian Pinter is a cradle Catholic who has been part of men’s spirituality groups for the last 11 years. He teaches at a Catholic boys’ high school and serves as a part-time parish associate in New York. Like many, Pinter is critical of the term toxic masculinity.
“I don’t use it and I don’t like it,” he says. “I tell my students, ‘You are not toxic.’ You have dignity. There are some men who make choices to do things that are harmful to others—we can call those behaviors toxic and talk about archetypes that men are pressured to live up to—or live down to.”
Others find the term useful in describing a reality that needs to be named and addressed, work that can be done through communal prayerful reflection and accompaniment in men’s groups. For Shaughnessy, toxic masculinity is “an expression of violence” that reflects male suffering. He believes men need spaces to “explore how men cause harm by being that way,” as well as peer accountability.
Riva agrees that participating in Catholic men’s groups can invite meaningful reflection on gender roles. “There is the idea that being a man is about dominating other people. It doesn’t mean we cave into stereotypes,” he says. “How can I interrogate what it means to be a man? If I think strength is a male characteristic, what kind of strength? Is there strength in disclosing to others, not just physical strength?”
Whether or not spaces for Catholic men to pray, share, and reflect together use or endorse the concept of “toxic masculinity,” they provide an opportunity to interrogate what it means to be a man. What is a good and true masculinity? At their best, these groups can serve as spaces for men to honestly wrestle with that question and discern what it means to live it out in the nitty-gritty of life, work, and relationships.
Small “c” catholic
Catholic Journeymen, Exodus 90, and parish-based groups such as the ones Johnson and Kohl participate in are explicitly Catholic and geared toward men who are actively practicing their Catholic faith. However, not all the men’s spirituality spaces that Catholic men seek out are explicitly Catholic. Illuman is a global nonprofit that was founded in 2012 by Franciscan Father Richard Rohr to help men do inner spiritual work through men’s rites of passage, national gatherings, and local chapter offerings.
“Illuman’s work reflects small ‘c’ catholic,” says Steve Hicken, the chair of Illuman’s board. “We access several spiritual traditions.”
Hicken has a master’s degree from the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley and served overseas as a Maryknoll lay missioner for more than 25 years. He credits his international experience and Maryknoll lay formation with giving him a more expansive understanding of the Catholic faith, especially as expressed in different cultures.
Terry Symens-Bucher, who has a master of divinity degree from the Franciscan School of Theology and served previously as Illuman board chair, agrees with Hicken. “We’re grounded in Judeo-Christian tradition and scripture and at the same time trying to be as inclusive as possible,” he says.
Symens-Bucher describes the men who seek out Illuman as “mostly between 30 and 50” and hungering for something more than what they find in their local parish.
“A majority come to us when something has shaken their world. They have gone through divorce, suffered a death, received a diagnosis, lost a job. Something has shattered their idea of what life is about. They come seeking to make sense of it,” he says.
Illuman offers five-day men’s rites of passage retreats that include rituals, teaching, private reflection, and small group sharing that seek to create an embodied experience that “reframes the stories they’ve been given about Jesus so they can feel that truth in their own bodies,” says Symens-Bucher. “As we work through masculine paths to healing—they see Jesus on the cross in a whole new way. There’s both heart knowledge and head knowledge.”
Like Shaughnessy, Symens-Bucher sees men’s-only spaces as an important place of healing for men that has ripple effects. “The masculinity that we have inherited in Western culture is a traumatized masculinity expressed as sexism,” he says.
Hicken sees the work of Illuman and similar groups as addressing “the systemic reality that men also suffer from patriarchy . . . as you dig down deep and do the healing, it releases gifts and talents to build life in the world,” he says.
Pinter participated in one of Illuman’s men’s rites of passage, sensing that as an adult he needed to build on “the foundation of traditional piety” from his 12 years of Catholic school education. Pinter describes the weekend as “a road to shadow work . . . becoming more self-reflective, cultivating a mystical life, seeing God in all things, being more attentive to how God is trying to break through to guide me to who I am made to be.”
Will the real Jesus please stand up?
For all Christians, Jesus—fully God and fully human—is the prime model of how to live faithfully. For those in the realm of men’s spirituality work, Jesus’ example is seen as offering something particular to men on their spiritual journeys.
However, not all in the world of men’s spirituality focus on the same characteristics of Jesus. In her book Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation (Liveright), historian Kristin Kobes Du Mez traces the development of men’s ministry in U.S. evangelical Protestant churches over the past half century. She proposes that American masculinity and militarism are linked to a very particular reading of Jesus by certain faith leaders. Revelation’s apocalyptic image of Christ as a triumphant conqueror becomes the model for male aggression and dominance.
“When evangelicals define themselves in terms of Christ’s atonement or as disciples of a risen Christ, what sort of Jesus are they imagining? Is their savior a conquering warrior, a man’s man who takes no prisoners and wages holy war? Or is he a sacrificial lamb who offers himself up for the restoration of all things?” Kobes Du Mez asks in the book.
“When we invite men into spaces where they’re not doing something—raising money, studying—and focused on accomplishments, it may be uncomfortable and even threatening.” Terrence Shaughnessy
While Kobes Du Mez’s work is focused on contemporary evangelicalism, the question is an important one for Catholics who see Jesus as a model of masculinity. Which specific attributes of Christ are seen as central for men, in particular, to emulate?
For Shaughnessy, truly embracing Christ as a model of masculinity doesn’t mean “identification with roles or some hypermasculinity,” he says.
Instead, Shaughnessy consistently sees generative service emerging as a core attribute expressed in Christian circles of men. “If authentic inner transformation has occurred, men will naturally need to move outward in some form of ministry, service, or generosity,” he says.
Crete also focuses on service as a core element of Jesus as a model for men.
“Christ was a man who went out and found people, loved people, empathized with people, relieved their burdens, brought them into community, and called them to action. Christ is the perfect model for masculinity,” he says.
Both in teaching high school students and in his journey as a husband and father, Riva likewise sees the life of Jesus as the primary source of guidance.
“I look to Jesus, the real complexity of Jesus’ life—being a witness and sacrificing himself. There is strength and humility there. It shows me how to put others ahead of myself,” Riva says.
From a Whiskey, Wings, and Wisdom weekly gathering to an Illuman retreat to an online meeting of the Catholic Journeymen, there are many options for men’s-only spaces of reflection, community, and fellowship that are focused on being, not doing. Kohl believes passionately that “when men can be open to this deeper intimacy with God, which cascades into deeper intimacy with all creation, everything changes.”
In the words of Crete, “What is needed are spaces that communicate: ‘God created you and loves you. You are his son, and I am deeply excited to see what you do with your life, and I’m here beside you.’ ”
This article also appears in the March 2023 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 88, No. 3, pages 26-31). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.
Image: Unsplash/Adrianna Geo