Measures of Manhood
Not Your Average Joe
Joe Freedy enjoyed the kind of life my friends and I envied when we were teens. He was starting quarterback for the State University of New York at Buffalo. The Bulls are an NCAA Division I team, so his games were broadcast worldwide on ESPN and other sports networks. As a senior, he finished fourth in his conference in passing yards. Two of the men ahead of him, Ben Roethlisberger and Byron Leftwich, would go on to be superstars in the National Football League. He was on the “must invite” list for the best parties on campus, and with his linebacker roommate he went from one to the next. He had movie-star good looks—even when he wasn’t wearing his helmet and face mask—and most of the university’s thousands of young women knew who he was.
My buddies and I dreamed of such a life, with sports to gratify our competitive urges, television cameras to feed our egos, beautiful girls to confirm our sex appeal—and the promise of prodigious earning power, from a professional contract and endorsements. For us, that all added up to fulfillment. It marked a certain pinnacle of manhood.
Joe Freedy was Catholic, one of five children raised by devout parents, but God was second-string in his life and spent most of the time forgotten on the sidelines. Joe later recalled for a reporter: “I was into football and image. I’d put in an hour Sunday and as soon as I hit the parking lot I forgot about God until next Sunday.”
Football and image remained his preoccupations. What else was there? Old Milwaukee used to advertise its beer with scenes from the sporting and partying life. They ran with the tag line: “It doesn’t get any better than this.” Maybe that’s what Joe Freedy believed.
Gridiron and Grace
Then his father loaned him a book about the Mass. Joe started reading and found he couldn’t stop. The book presented the Mass in terms that were unfamiliar to him. Drawing from the vision of John in the Book of Revelation, the author spoke of the Mass as “heaven on earth” and drew out the implications of the Catholic doctrine of the Real Presence. Jesus is truly present in the Eucharist—body, blood, soul, and divinity—and this is the fulfillment of certain promises he made during his earthly ministry. “I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh” (Jn 6:51). “And he took bread, and when he had given thanks he broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body which is given for you’?” (Lk 22:19). “I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Mt 28:20).
As Joe read on, he learned that when the priest speaks the words of institution, “This is my body,” Christ is present, attended by all the angels and the saints. He comes in glory—all the glory that he has possessed since the beginning of time, all the glory he will have at the end of time. And this presence is the very definition of heaven. It is a foretaste, because we cannot yet see him in his glory. It is, however, no less real and no less glorious.
These truths upended Joe and revolutionized his experience of going to Church. Here’s the way he explained it: “If someone never watched football and went to a game without knowing the rules and the strategies, they probably wouldn’t enjoy it. When I learned what was happening at the Mass . . . I enjoyed it more.”
Joe started going to Mass more often, and then every day. His teammates noticed a big change right away. Joe was still Joe, but he had matured, grown more serious about life. He wasn’t interested in partying.
The new experience woke him up to something more. Now listening more closely in prayer, Joe soon discerned God’s call. God was calling him to the priesthood.
He went on with the season and finished very well, ending up third in career passing yards at Buffalo, whose football program stretched back more than a hundred years.
In spring of 2002, he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in communications; three months later, he began studies at St. Paul Seminary in Pittsburgh, a demanding six-year program in preparation for his ordination. He went on to score two graduate degrees, one from a Roman university, and in his spare time complete Spanish-language studies in Mexico.
On the morning of Saturday, June 21, 2008, Bishop David Zubik ordained Joseph Freedy to the priesthood of Jesus Christ. It was more than a new game, more than a new season, more than a new team, even more than a new career. For Father Joe it was a new life, a new way of being. (More on that later.)
Within a year he found himself serving as a chaplain for the Missionaries of Charity, the religious order founded by Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta. They, in turn, inspired him to spend his Christmas break in 2008 in Ethiopia, among the poorest of the poor. Once back in Pittsburgh, he soon made the news when he was among the first clergymen to show up at the scene when a mass murder had taken place at a suburban fitness club.
Many are called to the priesthood. Not every man who answers the call comes with a story like Joe’s—though they all come with a story—but they all receive what Father Joe received. They receive the priesthood of Christ and the divine power to bring his sacraments to a world that needs them.
Every priest gets what Father Joe got. Ultimately, they get a supernatural fulfillment of something God gave them by nature: manhood, masculinity. That’s why we address them as “Father.”
Manhood, fatherhood . . . it doesn’t get any better than this.
Masculinity and Its Counterfeits
The television commercials, however, tell a different story, don’t they? All the popular media, in fact, draw from certain stereotypes when they want to convey masculinity. Instead of the real deal, they give us machismo, which is a caricature of masculinity.
They show us men who are sexually promiscuous, physically aggressive, and ostentatiously wealthy. They would have us believe that the measure of manhood is to be found in a guy’s bedroom and backseat exploits, his fistfights (sublimated, perhaps, into competitive sports), or his prodigal spending.
The stereotypes would have us believe that the Y chromosome—maleness—will remain unfulfilled as long as any of these things is lacking. My friends and I believed this when we were teenagers, though I don’t think we could have articulated it. Our male role models were professional athletes, rock stars, and young, successful entrepreneurs who lived large. We would have been baffled by quarterback Joe Freedy’s vocational decision as well as Father Joe Freedy’s sense of fulfillment.
Please don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against professional sports, rock music, or the free market. I’m an avid fan of all three. I don’t believe the media, however, give us the best images of men in these fields. The cameraman gravitates toward the wide receiver who does an elaborate dance in the end zone. The reporter rushes to the boxer who will make the most outrageous claims. Paparazzi chase a stoned singer-songwriter through Southern California just to get a snapshot of him with his mistress. Why? Because provocative movement makes for “good” TV. Scandal makes for “good” newspaper copy.
Again, I’m not bashing the sport or the music. For every steroid- or cocaine-fueled prima donna out there, there’s someone like Lou Gehrig, the Yankees first baseman, who quietly and courageously shows up for thousands of games, even when he’s injured—who tips generously but not in a showy way, and who takes good care of his mother. There’s a Roberto Clemente, the Pirates outfielder, who risked his life at the peak of his career, and lost it, trying to help the victims of a natural disaster in a faraway land.
Nevertheless, we have to admit that the stereotypes dominate the media and dominate the consciousness of young males (and many not-so-young males). When a young Joe Freedy said that his whole life was “football and image,” the image he had in mind was surely that of the “guy’s guy,” which he picked up from the halftime beer commercials. In time, he learned that machismo does not satisfy, does not fulfill, a man—and he learned of something that does.
The Hidden Truth About Men
Why do so many men seek fulfillment and satisfaction where it cannot be found? Why do we settle for counterfeits rather than the real thing? Why do we believe the media’s distortions of masculinity?
We believe them precisely because they are counterfeits, caricatures, and stereotypes. All such falsehoods depend upon a basis of truth, which they oversimplify, distort, or exaggerate.
When the media portray men as libidinous, aggres- sive, and greedy, they’re grossly distorting authentic male roles—fatherly roles— namely, life-giver, protector, and provider. In the normal course of family life, a father is progenitor; he gives life, through the sexual expression of his love for his wife. In the normal course of family life, a father is the one who defends the family from outside threats; in extreme cases that can involve a violent intervention. In the normal course of family life, a father provides for his wife and children, as wage-earner and breadwinner, but also as a wise counselor, patient teacher, and steady emotional support.
What happens when these roles are severed from one another, severed from fatherhood, and deprived of their religious meaning, which is deeply theological?
When that happens, we encounter men in society as we find them in the media.
When it happens to us personally, we feel continually frustrated, confused, dissatisfied, unfulfilled.
What I hope to do in the course of this book is to recover the biblical and theological truth about priesthood and fatherhood. Here’s why: Those two realities are profoundly related to each other. What’s more, those terms describe the roles for which men—males—were created. God made men to be fathers. He called men to be fathers. And our hearts are restless till we rest in the role for which we were created, body and soul, and for which we were called by God and his Church.
I am a happily married man, proud father to five sons and a daughter and grandfather of three. I thank God for the fatherhood he has conferred upon me. Yet I believe that he has conferred a more perfect, and ultimately more fulfilling, fatherhood on Joe Freedy and those he has called to the priesthood.
Freed Up for Service
But I’m getting ahead of myself. That’s the truth I want to work out in the rest of this book. It’s a truth that God has revealed from the beginning of creation, in nature and in Scripture. In the chapters that follow, we’ll trace the story line of “salvation history,” highlighting the development of fatherhood and priesthood as God’s people try, sometimes succeeding and sometimes failing, to live out those roles.
If we understand fatherhood and priesthood from God’s point of view, we’ll be better equipped to help men discern their vocation and live it out faithfully. For many are called. In fact, all men have a vocation to fatherhood of one sort or another. But many are called to the fatherhood of priesthood.