These days, there are plenty of magazines and TV shows sprouting information about what a “real” man ought to be. If you look through any of these articles, you might find that today’s man is defined by the gadgets he owns, the car he drives, the money he earns and the number of girls he can seduce. The boy next door is passé. The metrosexual is in. This man exudes confidence and charm because deep down he knows that he really is all that. Sometimes, if you’re a lucky girl, he’ll let you see him under his armor and you will get a glimpse of his sensitive side.
On the other end of the spectrum is the “real” man who only exists in women’s imaginations. He’s sensitive and loyal to a fault. He’s never interested in appearances because he always sees deep into the soul of women. He’ll never say something stupid like, “Yes, it does make you look fat,” and “No, I don’t feel the need to get along with all your friends.” He’s man enough to cry and strong enough to beat any man who’s out to hurt the one he loves to a pulp. Think Edward Cullen of Twilight fame.
The thing is, neither of these guys exist. The men I know are all flawed in some way and yet they are still lovable. Sometimes, I think there’s not a lot of difference between women and men and other times I think we might as well just be a different species altogether. For most of my life, I never had to consider what it takes to grow into manhood. I’ve never had a brother and I’ve never had to raise a son. It wasn’t until I started teaching adolescent boys that I began to see that there is a terrifyingly huge hole in society of where good male role models ought to be (the same can be said for women but I’ll talk about that some other time). So when I attended my friend’s ordination to the priesthood, and saw row upon row of men dressed in white, I wondered if perhaps the lack of strong male role models wasn’t because men had stopped becoming good men but rather society had lost its focus.
I wondered what the men’s magazine editors would have to say, as priest after priest after priest came in white chasubles. There was nothing fashionable or metrosexual about it at all. Shapeless white robes (and a white pointy hat for the bishop) that did nothing to broaden anyone’s shoulders or narrow anyone’s waist. And as the ceremony went on, there was a lot bowing and hand-kissing. And there were hugs all around. This wasn’t your typical butt-slapping, high-fiving show of testosterone at a sports arena. This was some down-to-earth, good-natured show of affection one might find among brothers or good friends.
And as my friend and his fellow ordinandi vowed to live lives of poverty, chastity and obedience, I thought, “what do you say to that, Edward Cullen?” Here were men, in the prime of their lives who were so secure in their masculinity, they promised to be chaste, who were so grateful for the bounty of this earth that they decided to embrace poverty, who were so strong in their will that they submitted it for a purpose greater than themselves, whose love was so strong that they let go of the dream of biologically fathering one or two or even ten children but chose instead to father God’s people.
I know that when I say it like that it seems as if I am canonizing the priests but I am well aware of the fact that priests are imperfect people too. But to me, it is precisely this weakness that makes them most effective role models. Some people get turned off by the fact that an imperfect priest should be the means to a perfect God. And yet, I’ve found that God’s universal message of love and mercy can often be found in life’s little ironies. And what could be more ironic than asking forgiveness from a man who is himself sinful? Than asking the blessing of the dying from a man who is himself mortal? Than seeking validation of conjugal union from a man who is himself celibate? Than receiving the body and blood of the Son of God through a man who is himself…well, just a man.
God’s awesome goodness and bountiful mercy shines most in priests because they are so imperfect and because they are so aware of their imperfections. And yet despite their struggles, many of them do remain faithful to their vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and to their ministry of being “fathers.”
And I think this is what young men can learn from good and holy priests (even if they never enter the priesthood themselves)—a “real” man is not defined by what he has or what he acquires or what he accomplishes or even what women think of him, a real man is defined by how much of himself he is willing to give up and how much of his weaknesses he is willing to accept, in order for the love of God to transform him into the kind of man he was born to be.