The Word Among Us

February 2020 Issue

I Saw That I Wasn’t Alone

The “ripple effect” of Catholic men’s groups.

By: Patty Whelpley

I Saw That I Wasn’t Alone: The “ripple effect” of Catholic men’s groups.
 by Patty Whelpley

On the other end of the phone, Mike could hear his daughter sniffling. “I miss you, Dad. When can I see you?” Without an answer and feeling powerless, all that Mike MacDonald* could do was to say “I love you” and hang up. Inside, he was fuming at his ex-wife. She had gone across the country to live with another man, taking their children with her. Mike was angry at his circumstances and angry at God. How was it “just” for a faithful, loving husband and father to end up alone, divorced, and unable to see his children? He still went to work every day and to Mass each Sunday, but his life felt mechanical and joyless.

Mike realized he had no one to love. There were no more school drop-offs, midnight feedings, baths, and library trips in his life. He begged his employer to move him to an office closer to his kids. Finally, he received permission for a transfer to Virginia, a few hours’ drive away from them. But on his own in a new place, Mike found himself listening to the voices of the world that tempted him to create his own happiness, live for himself, and have a good time. He began socializing with a younger crowd, indulging in drinking, and binge eating—all in the hope of fitting in. But nothing satisfied him. Deep down, Mike knew he had lost himself. But he wasn’t sure how to change.

Stepping into the Zone. During this time, Mike heard about a men’s group that met early on Saturday mornings at Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church in Alexandria, Virginia. Out of desperation, he decided to try it out. It was unlike any large group of men he had ever been a part of—different from guys at the gym, at work, and in parent circles. There were dozens of men, in their twenties all the way to their eighties, openly sharing about their insecurities, concerns as parents, jobs, dreams for the future, and difficulties and desires to live out their faith.

Mike talked about the heartache of his divorce, and to his surprise, the men there responded with concern, empathy, and prayer. Mike felt the group’s care for him and recognized that they were also giving him an opportunity to care about them.

“In that men’s group, I found that all men have insecurities and crosses to bear. Their willingness to share their struggles helped me realize that I wasn’t the only one struggling. I felt called to come back each week—not just for my own needs, but to stand firm and support the other men in my group,” he says.

Mike became a regular. The format was simple: share breakfast, watch a short presentation, and talk with an established group of six or seven men about life and faith. Faster than Mike expected, he became friends with the guys in his small group at Blessed Sacrament. They challenged each other to go to daily Mass, visit the Adoration chapel, and institute family prayers or Rosaries in their homes. They texted and prayed for each other during the week, attended each other’s family events, and looked for each other after Sunday Mass. Mike found that with their support, he was able to give up the vices that had formerly numbed his pain. Within a couple of years, the Holy Spirit led Mike to seek an annulment, and to his surprise, he found the process filled with grace.

At a time when many Catholic churches are seeing a dramatic decline in male participation—with only 35 percent of Catholic men reporting weekly Mass attendance, according to a 2014 Pew Research study—groups like the one Mike attends at Blessed Sacrament seem to be reversing the trend. Through a combination of spiritual renewal and Catholic fraternity, laymen participating in targeted men’s ministries are becoming committed leaders in their churches and families and becoming better men all around.

Something Just for Men. The Blessed Sacrament men’s group got started with the help of a nonprofit called Paradisus Dei, founded by Steve Bollman in Houston, Texas. In 2002, Steve was working in financial services when he began to sense God’s prompting to start a ministry to help married couples. As he started to respond to that call, he discovered a pressing need for outreach specifically to Catholic men. It wasn’t just that Catholic men attended church less often than Catholic women. They also volunteered less frequently at church and were less likely to take on positions of leadership. All of the symptoms pointed to a deeper spiritual and social disconnect between men and their parish communities.

In response to this, Steve decided to bring together the men in his parish for a weekly gathering. He advertised the first meeting for 6:00 a.m. on a Wednesday morning. Steve was shocked when one hundred guys showed up. The next year, two hundred men came, and he decided to leave his career to focus full-time on ministry to Catholic men and their families.

Over time Steve put together a “men’s ministry in a box” with everything a parish needs to get the outreach going, complete with faith-building videos, flyers, and more. He called it “That Man Is You” (TMIY). Sixteen years later, more than one hundred thousand men have participated. The program has become international, with men’s groups popping up in Germany, England, New Zealand, and on the African continent. There is also a Spanish version in the works.

A Seed for Spiritual Growth. Men who take part in TMIY seem to become more spiritually engaged and committed. Many participants in the program end up serving and leading in their wider parishes and communities.

In 2016, for example, Blessed Sacrament parishioner Andrew Lewis was balancing a high-pressure job at the Pentagon and mourning the deaths of his father, brother, sister-in-law, and friend—who had all died within a short period of time. During this time of grieving, he joined members of a men’s group at the parish to do service projects. Together, they delivered food to the poor through a citywide program, served at a youth work camp, and did yard work for families in need. Focusing on other people helped Andrew to step out of his pain. It cemented his friendships with the men in the group. And through their support and spiritual wisdom, he was able to find meaning in his suffering and stay rooted in his faith.

Chris Isham, a retired Marine, found the TMIY program to be a helpful way to share fellowship with men on the base where he works in Stuttgart, Germany. Even when Chris or the other service members had work duties that made weekly attendance difficult, they kept up with each other through online videos and e-mailed prayer requests. The men’s group also became a source of encouragement for Chris to get more involved at Holy Trinity Catholic Church of Stuttgart, where he became a lector, started teaching Confirmation classes, and joined the parish advisory board. Now Chris wants to help other military bases get TMIY off the ground.

The Ripple Effect. Some participants in TMIY have gone on to start their own ministries for men. In Baton Rouge a few years ago, several men’s groups banded together to form The Men of the Immaculata, whose mission is “to unite and build up other men to become models of faith in the family, the workplace, the Church, and the community.” This cohort of men decided to take action by hosting a Catholic men’s conference in their city, which has been repeated with more than a thousand attendees each time.

At Blessed Sacrament in Virginia, the TMIY group branched out to become its own self-sustaining men’s ministry. Instead of using videos generated by TMIY, they started asking the men’s group participants, local priests, and other men from the parish to share their own faith stories. Hearing real and vulnerable stories of hope from each other further deepened the bonds between men in the parish.

“When you’re around other good men, it changes you. You become better and your parish becomes stronger,” says Timothy Goodic, a longtime men’s group participant at Blessed Sacrament.

Grateful for the Cross. Mike MacDonald, who is now happily remarried to a supportive Catholic wife, agrees. “God has helped heal my heart through the pain,” Mike says. “He has given me the opportunity to share in his passion through the tears and the lonely nights.” Participating in the men’s group taught Mike that in order to become strong, he needs to have the humility to acknowledge his own shortcomings. The verse that sums it up for him is this: “I will . . . boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me” (2 Corinthians 12:9).

Although Mike doesn’t see his children as often as he would like, he has come to believe and to accept that God has a plan for his kids’ relationship with him. Not everything in his life is fixed or put back together, he says. But now what is different is that when Mike sees the crucifix, he sees love.

“I am a new man in Christ,” he says. “I know my cross is still significant; however, I am confident in the Lord’s goodness. I also know that everyone else carries significant crosses in their lives, and I am called to be Christlike for them: to help other people carry their crosses and to encourage them.”

*A pseudonym has been used to protect privacy.

Patty Whelpley lives in northern Virginia and is a frequent contributor to the magazine.