The Man of God Is a Man for Others
By Bishop Gregory John Mansour
In recent years there has been a great deal of profound reflection on the spirituality of women, but less on the vocation and mission of men. Coupled with some worrisome trends in our culture to undermine masculinity under the guise of remedying past chauvinism or over-reliance on patriarchal structures, not to mention the absence of dads in far too many homes in our country and the need for inspiring male role models, many young men are growing up without effective guidance about how to live out their male identity.
I hope to reach above all the hearts of men, but I would be grateful if this nourishes women and youth as well, because so much of this can be helpful to everyone interested in the spiritual life.
God’s Grandeur, Man’s Longing
When I see your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and stars that you set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of the man that you care for him? (Psalm 8)
We see here that man has a special calling, indeed a wondrous one. The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council understood this very well and summarized the human vocation, “Man cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of self” (Gaudium et Spes 24). If only man could understand how intentionally and beautifully he was created, in whose image he was made, he would then be able to find himself more easily through self-giving love in imitation of the God who is love. He would also then realize just how far he has sometimes strayed from that noble state and calling.
It bears repeating that if a man truly grasped and believed he was created in the image and likeness of God and beloved to his Heavenly Father, he would far more naturally assume the role of a faithful son, a caring father, a protector, and a guide to his family. Men who live as “chips off the old (divine) block” are the greatest need today; women and children long for this—many men also long for this. Whether a man is called to be a father, husband, generous single man, celibate priest, monk, or consecrated religious, if he is truly a man of God, prayer, and integrity, he will necessarily be a man “for others.”
How then can we discover man’s spirituality? We can learn a lot by reflecting on our Lord’s witness as a “man for others.” Jesus said, “The Son of Man has come not to be served, but to serve, and to offer his life as ransom for others” (Mt 20:28).
We can also learn a great deal from the prophetic encyclical of Pope Saint Paul VI, Humanae Vitae. His insights into the interpersonal damage of sex without commitment or consequences, and how easily a man can lose his true, natural, and profound respect for his life-long spouse, are at the heart of the wounds so many are suffering today. The true meaning of sex has been lost. It is now considered a means primarily of personal pleasure or satisfaction, pursued even to the serious harm of the other. Sex for some is mainly or exclusively for personal benefit, no longer the imitation of the Creator’s wonderful self-gift made for noble purposes. Sex for selfish gain or pleasure, using a spouse solely as a means of gratification, not only leads a man to lessen his commitment to care for his wife but also to decrease his commitment to care, protect, and cultivate the world God created for him. Instead, he can begin to use this world, and those within it, for self-directed aims, without a true sense of life’s value as a gift.
Man’s True Calling
Pope Saint Paul VI asserts that a man needs to learn the value of sacrifice to be able to place others first and to adapt himself to the needs of women and children.
This lesson is taught very clearly by a third passage of Sacred Scripture, namely Jesus’ actions and instructions at the beginning of the Last Supper. After washing the feet of his disciples, Jesus says: “What I have done for you, you also are to do for others” (Jn 13:15). In this striking gesture of cleansing the dirt from his disciples’ feet, Jesus teaches all of us, but especially men, a form of servant leadership. His apostles, intentionally all men, were thus asked to follow him and do as he did.
What was in our Lord’s mind when he did this? Jesus wanted to teach men how to undo the sin of the first man, Adam, who after the Fall would “rule over” his “helpmate” Eve (Gn 3:16). He was thus making service his privileged way. The path of redemption would involve self-mastery rather than domination of others, and the purpose of self-mastery would be to serve others with self-sacrificial love.
Following our Lord’s own example, no man—whether in the Church, in the family, or in society—can ever claim the right to dominion over another, whether he be a father, a husband, a single man, a priest, monk, or religious. All men are therefore called, by the Last Supper’s command, to servant leadership in the footsteps of the Master.
Moreover, in our Lord’s discourse on marriage and divorce, Jesus rebutted the religious leaders of the day who were justifying divorce by referring to how Moses allowed a man to divorce his wife for any reason whatsoever. Jesus, however, stated that it was God’s intention from the beginning that what God has joined no human authority should separate. This new command shattered all previous rights to male domination in marriage. Jesus, it should be noted, was speaking only to men, because women did not have the “right,” given by Moses, to divorce their husbands. Thus, Jesus was indicating that a woman and a man are, by nature, and by the intention of the Creator, of equal importance and dignity.
A clear masculine spirituality thus emerges from Pope Saint Paul VI’s prophetic call to men to never “forget the reverence due to a woman” (Humanae Vitae 17), from Jesus’ example of washing his disciples’ feet, and from his clear prohibition against divorce, seeing one’s wife as a possession to be discarded even at a whim. God’s challenge, therefore, to men is to be, by their very nature, godly men, respectful men, men for others.
Thus, we men need to ask ourselves: With such a clear, strong, and challenging imperative from Christ himself, am I still willing to be his follower? Can I willingly embody the virtues of respect and responsibility to which he summons me? Am I willing to place limits upon myself for others’ good? Will I use my strength and passion to care for, protect, and cultivate those entrusted to me?
The Gift of Self to the Other
Far too often we go through life unsure of why God created us or what is our purpose in life. We often do not understand how we were created out of love in order to love (see CCC 1604). Instead, we define or even label ourselves based on externals or non-essentials and sometimes even reduce ourselves to sexual preferences, orientations, or attractions, yet there is much more that defines us.
The most important aspect of our human identity is what is in our soul, our longing for God, our desire for the good of others and for ourselves as God’s beloved. Since we were created by Love for love, our spirituality, philosophy of life, and Christian worldview should be grounded in our firm belief that God created us good so that we might be morally good. This should be the moral compass guiding all the decisions of our lives.
By each decision we either build up or weaken our relationship with God and others. Regarding the choice of giving ourselves to another through the mystery of Marriage, we are called to be ever so careful. From Christian Tradition, when a man loves his spouse, he will necessarily place her first, before himself, just as Christ placed the Church, his Bride, first. Saint Paul reminded all Christian men of this in his letter to the Christians of Ephesus. “Husbands,” he wrote, “love your wives even as Christ loved the Church and handed himself over for her to sanctify her, cleansing her by the bath of water with the word, ... that she might be holy and without blemish” (Eph 5:25-27). This kind of love draws a man to sacrificial self-giving and invites his spouse to make a similar gift herself.
According to our Catholic understanding, marriage is meant to be a covenant—“until death do us part”—between the spouses as well as between spouses and God. Marriage is not a contract, which means, “I promise to do this as long as you do that”; rather, it is a covenant, which means, “I will do this no matter what.” A covenant is a complete gift of self, without reservations or conditions. Covenantal love is therefore by nature unitive, life-long, exclusive, and pro-creative, giving the husband and his wife a secure and nurturing place in which to raise their children (see CCC 1601).
A Man of Prayer
We cannot speak of a masculine spirituality without also speaking of the necessity for all people to pray. A prayerful man comes to recognize that the purpose of his life is rooted in the universal call to holiness. This life of sanctity, however, cannot be achieved by man’s own doing. Rather it requires that pride be put aside and replaced with a constant and consistent openness to grace.
The encounter with God requires docility, often achieved through an attitude of detachment. We can see in Saint Joseph the model par excellence of the man who listens and generously responds. Saint Therese of Lisieux asks us to “decide to choose what I have not chosen.” Thus, each man is asked to detach from his ideas, his point of view, his way of doing things, his “wisdom,” and do as God asks. Consequently, small practices of detachment are of great value because they will impact positively a man’s relationship with his spouse, his children, his colleagues, and especially with God. To pray like a man, therefore, is to pray with a vulnerable heart, one docile to the Holy Spirit, allowing God’s grace to enter and mold that prayerful heart.
However, to be vulnerable as a man is no small request, for by his nature as protector, provider, and cultivator it would seem almost contradictory to be at the same time vulnerable. For this reason, it may be difficult for men to enter more deeply into prayer, for it is difficult enough for a man to admit that he needs help and cannot do something on his own, but to also enter into a prayerful state requires a man to now go a step even further, and to stand vulnerable before another man, that is before the God-man, Jesus Christ, and ask him for help. Perhaps some men avoid going deep into prayer because they are afraid of what they might hear. The stillness of God’s voice, which is often a long-desired peace and an answer to prayer, requires a vulnerable and docile heart.
A good father, husband, friend, priest, or consecrated man carries the responsibility to not only answer his call to holiness, but to also help bring others to holiness as well. Near-sightedness in this regard is harmful; as a provider, father, husband, friend, priest, or consecrated man he is expected to not only prepare himself and those he loves for what they will encounter in this earthly life but also to prepare them for eternal life as well.
Fatherhood is expected of all men, whether biological, natural, or spiritual. For some men, such as those that God blesses with the gift of biological children, their fatherhood would carry with it all three dimensions, biological, natural, and spiritual. For others, such as a godfather, celibate priest, or religious monk, their fatherhood would take on natural and spiritual dimensions. Each dimension holds with it a responsibility, allowing a man to discover his God-designed fatherhood.
Biological fatherhood carries with it an echo of Christ’s name for his Heavenly Father, “Abba.” (Lk 11:2). Since we call God “Father,” our Christian identity and our communion with a heavenly fatherhood makes earthly fatherhood even more important and meaningful.
Natural fatherhood is a role in which a man teaches by example, providing proof that what the father teaches is possible in one’s life. The natural father also holds the responsibility of being a steady emotional support and influence, which perseveres through the turmoil presented to the child individually or to the family collectively. This emotional support requires much prayer and grace. For this reason, the natural father is called to showcase a virtuous life that embodies a lifestyle worthy of imitating.
Whether one is both a biological and natural father or only a natural father, both roles are ordered to an even greater level of fatherhood: spiritual fatherhood. This is a fatherhood expected of all men of goodwill, focused on accompanying one’s loved ones through this temporal, earthly journey while keeping their eyes fixated on eternal life. This fatherhood engenders grace for those he cares for and those whom he encounters, through a consistent act of mentoring and prayer.
Full Stature in Christ
We can now come closer to a deeper understanding of masculine spirituality. Jesus chose twelve very different men to be his apostles; although they were far from perfect, our Lord slowly shaped and taught them, not without trials, to be perfect, to be one with him and his Father. Saint Paul says that each man is called “to come to full stature in Christ” (Eph 4:13). Thus, our Lord prepared men to make a positive impact on the world and gave them an identity like his own: beloved by the Heavenly Father and called to be men of God, men for others, entrusted with a mission of love and servant leadership.
Being a man does not exclude a certain manly tenderness for others, as Pope Francis has so often told us. Rather a “masculine spirituality,” when complementary to a “feminine spirituality,” helps men and women cooperate with God so that we may see those most vulnerable, and in need, and find our courage to care, protect, and nurture.
Following our chaste Lord Jesus Christ, may we too bring joy, despite our small sufferings and loneliness, into this world as married, single, ordained, or consecrated men, and may we bear abundant fruit, as our Lord Jesus promised: “I have come that you might have life and have it abundantly” (Jn 10:10).
The Most Reverend Gregory John Mansour is Bishop of the Eparchy of Saint Maron of Brooklyn. His episcopal motto, “No Greater Love” is taken from John’s Gospel (see Jn 15:13) and expresses the depth of God’s gracious love for us in Christ Jesus. This essay is an abridgment of Bishop Mansour’s pastoral letter, The Man of God is a Man for Others.