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    Behold, the Real Man

    What is the essence of authentic masculinity?

    Mike Phelan says meeting his wife, Shannon, encouraged him to embrace a true understanding of masculinity — one rooted in sacrifice and prayer. (Spirit Juice Studios)

    What does it mean to be a “real man”?

    In popular culture, masculinity is too often equated with machismo, measured by traits such as physical power, aggression, pain threshold, alcohol consumption and even coarseness in speech or behavior. Think of your typical action hero or “tough guy” from the movies, and you’ll get the idea.

    From a faith perspective, men certainly are called to be heroes, but not in that way. Authentic masculinity is something quite different. We’re called to be heroic in virtue.

    “We want to be a hero,” said Matt Birk, a former NFL center, two-time All-Pro and Super Bowl champion. “We want to fight for someone, for somebody, for a cause.”

    Dave DiNuzzo, founder of TrueManhood Ministry, defines authentic masculinity as “living for excellence … living virtue.”

    Birk and DiNuzzo were among Catholic leaders interviewed for the “Masculinity” episode of the Into the Breach video series produced by the Knights of Columbus. The series is based on the 2015 pastoral letter by Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted of Phoenix that challenges all Catholic men “to do the work of Christ’s soldiers in the world today.”

    For men, that work involves being a provider, protector and spiritual leader — roles that are essential to marriage and fatherhood. And those roles, which all involve meeting the needs of others, demand self-denial and self-sacrifice.

    For a model of masculinity, we need look no further than the image of Christ, who gave his life to save us. Men are called to give of themselves similarly for their families, which is why St. Paul exhorts husbands to “love your wives, even as Christ loved the church and handed himself over for her” (Eph 5:25).

    “Male spirituality is this call to lay down our lives for our bride,” said Father Burke Masters, director of adult formation in the Diocese of Joliet. “For married men, of course, it’s for your wife and children. For priests, it’s the same thing: I’m called to lay down my life for my bride, the Church, and all my spiritual children.”

    Mike Phelan, director of the Office for Marriage and Respect Life in the Diocese of Phoenix, experienced a kind of conversion to a true understanding of masculinity when he met his future wife, Shannon, at the Arizona State University Newman Center. He admits he had made poor choices in college and lived in a “typical knucklehead college athlete way.” But after meeting Shannon, he focused his life on “becoming the kind of man that was worthy of building a life with her.”

    He made new friendships, went deeper into his Catholic faith and prayer, and prepared himself for married life.

    “Authentic masculinity would be a man integrating all his God-given powers to become someone who brings life, someone who lays down his life for others, someone who becomes a provider for others, and someone who is, in the spiritual realm, an important leader,” Phelan said.

    Shannon said that Mike’s masculine strengths complement her role as a wife and mother.

    “We have different strengths, we have different gifts, and we are called to use them in different ways in our family,” Shannon said. When Mike leads with his gifts, she added, “that’s when he’s most himself and most manly.”

    Some “macho” traits, properly ordered and understood, come into play in authentic masculinity. For example, a man does need to tolerate pain well because sacrifice for others means suffering for others. And power and aggression can be channeled into vigilance and initiative in protecting his family from anything that might harm or threaten them.

    That threat might not come from a physical enemy, explained Scott Hahn, professor of theology at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. “It might not be a soldier or a burglar who’s trying to break into our homes, but it might be the internet,” he said. “We are called, as men, to protect our family.”

    Birk stated it plainly: Men must protect their families from the devil. And not just in a defensive way, but as part of an active spiritual battle against evil.

    “We have to attack Satan,” he said. “We don’t sit back and just try to ward him off, but we go forward with our faith. We put on the armor of God and every single day try to slay that dragon.”

    That all-important battle is how Catholic men, by God’s grace, become heroes of virtue. It might sound like a task that’s too big for us, but this is the role for which truly masculine men of faith are built.

    “You are made for greatness,” Mike Phelan said. Because men are made in God’s image, he explained, “You are made for this fight. You are made for this battle.”

    To view episodes of the Into the Breach video series and to access the study guide and other resources for promoting the series in your parish, visit


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