[NOTE: The photograph referenced in this text, ‘Reaching Out’ by Larry Burrows, can also be found online at https://www.google.com/search?q=burrows+reaching+out&client=firefox-b-1-ab&tbm=isch&source=iu&ictx=1&fir=jKbvdie-D5dK-M%253A%252CauPlYwwITPjOcM%252C_&usg=AFrqEzcD82BiTH2JX-ZKKmkBhtoGH04L_Q&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwiup7GpqtbcAhUtrVkKHRysBmYQ9QEwA3oECAUQBA#imgrc=jKbvdie-D5dK-M:]
I spent the 1960s studying to be a priest, so I was exempt from the military draft. I never served in Vietnam. I can’t and don’t claim to know what combat is like. But I have friends who did serve, and no one in my generation could really avoid the war because it dominated our country’s life for more than a decade. The Vietnam War intersected with a sexual revolution and a wave of social turmoil here at home that, in some ways, remain with us today. And yet, along with the war’s bitterness and suffering, there were moments that are frozen in time because they had an impossible beauty. They can move the heart even now. I want to focus on one of them.
In your conference booklets, you’ll find a photograph with the title “Reaching Out.” I want you to study it. October 1966 saw a series of heavy firefights between American Marines and North Vietnamese regulars in the jungles and hills just south of the DMZ. This photo was snapped on Hill 484, moments after a hand-to-hand battle for the hill had ended. The man with the head wound is a gunnery sergeant, or “gunny,” the senior enlisted man in a Marine company.
Two things are obvious. The Marines around the gunny are trying to get him to a medic. And the gunny is doing the opposite – ignoring his own pain to help a wounded young Marine bleeding in the dirt. What’s not obvious is something outside the frame. The same Marines had just dragged the sergeant away from the body of their dead company commander, who had called down friendly artillery fire on his own position to keep his men from being overrun. The beauty in this photograph – what the poet William Butler Yeats called “a terrible beauty” – is the love among men in the shadow of death; men in the extremes of pressure and suffering. Not a romantic love. And certainly not an erotic love. But the loyalty-love of men made brothers by the tasks and burdens they share.
Men don’t often talk about this love, but it’s real. It’s the love that enables a man to sacrifice his own life in service to someone or something more important than himself. It’s the love that takes the male of our species and remakes him into a man. And that leads us to our theme this afternoon: why men matter.
It’s an odd question to ask, isn’t it. Why do men matter? In a healthy time and culture, we wouldn’t need to ask, because the answer is obvious. The role of good men is to provide, to protect, to build, to lead, and to teach, both by our words and by the example of our lives. None of these things is exclusive to men, of course. Women can do all of these things in their own way, with their own particular genius. But men have the special responsibility to create a secure and just society where new life can grow and thrive to ensure the human future.
The trouble is, we don’t live in a healthy time and culture. We live in an on-going civil war in this country over the meaning of sex, gender, family, marriage, human nature and whether our lives have any higher purpose at all. And that makes the sound of any sane voice all the more precious.
Abigail Shrier is a writer based in Los Angeles. Last month, for the issue of July 21-22, she wrote a remarkable piece in the Wall Street Journal with the title “Masculine dads raise confident daughters.” If you want some homework from our time together today, find it. Read it. And take it to heart. It’s a better debunking of today’s attacks on masculinity than a man could ever write. To borrow from just a couple of passages, Shrier notes that
“My father never hid that he had high expectations of me . . . He admired smarts less than grit, found surface beauty less enchanting than charm. The woman he admired most was our mother, not for her intelligence or accomplishments, though she had plenty of both, but because of a strength that took his breath away and on which he often relied . . .
“My father’s own unapologetic masculinity made us feel secure . . . [He] never let me get away with self-pity. Never allowed me to win an argument with tears. He regarded unbridled emotion in place of reason as vaguely pathetic . . . And when young men didn’t like me or were poised to treat me badly, it was my father’s regard that I found myself consulting and relying upon. When a man tries to mistreat a woman . . . he is unlikely to get very far with [someone] whose father has made her feel that’s she’s worth a whole lot . . . [So] Dads, whatever you’re doing for your daughters, double it.”
The point of Ms. Shrier’s article is the shocking claim – shocking to some people, anyway — that men and women are different. They need each other’s distinct and particular gifts to flourish. In other words, an agenda of demeaning men, effeminizing boys, and trashing chivalrous behavior, which seems to be the goal of at least some of today’s “progressive” politics, does nothing to advance women. It does exactly the opposite. It cripples them.
Shrier isn’t alone in her thinking. Plenty of data exist showing that strong, involved, masculine fathers produce confident, successful, feminine daughters. And likewise, fathers play a crucial role in forming boys and young men in habits of mature self-discipline and excellence. Masculinity is learned; and the right kind of masculinity is learned from fathers with deep moral character and other adult men of virtue. The presence of a loving father radically improves the environment of a family. It results in lower rates of poverty, less crime, better psychological health, and higher rates of education and career achievement for children of both sexes. None of these realities is a surprise or a news flash. All of them are simple matters of social science fact. Another simple fact is that the absence of a father hits the lower social classes especially hard. It makes the cycle of poverty and crime even more difficult for single mothers and their children to escape.
The irony is that, despite all these facts, the leadership elites in many of today’s Western countries have never seemed more skeptical of natural gender roles and never been more hostile to what they describe as “toxic” masculinity. Examples are legion, and we have limited time, but I do want to share just one of them. Rudyard Kipling’s classic poem of boyhood, “If—,” was recently stripped from a mural at Britain’s University of Manchester by the self-described “Liberation and Access Officer” of the school’s Student Union. The reason she gave is that “Kipling stands for the opposite of liberation, empowerment, and human rights — the things that we, as [a Student Union], stand for.”
For those of you who don’t know how dangerously regressive and masculine Kipling’s poem “If—,” can be, here’s a couple of stanzas:
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise . . .
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue
Or walk with Kings nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the earth and everything in it,
And — which is more – you’ll be a man my son.
One of the strangest results of my own generation’s – the Boomer generation’s – thirst for sexual liberation is that we now have a regime of sexual Stalinism to enforce it. Almost any imaginable sexual behavior is allowed and even approved for public consumption — — unless men want to be men, and women want to be women, and they want to behave accordingly in a traditional moral sense. That kind of deviance is suspect. Sexual freedom turns out to be a grim and exacting business.
Whining about things doesn’t achieve much, though. So how do we live right now with some hope and meaning as Christian men? Sometimes looking to the past makes the way forward easier to see. So let’s do that. History is a good teacher.
Medieval knighthood began as a profession of heavily armed male thugs, men obsessed with vanity, violence, and rape. It took Europe’s warrior class – guided and influenced by the Church – several centuries to limit and channel its dark side. Chivalry became the code that made this transformation possible. Chivalry gave knighthood its dignity and meaning. The true chevalier, or knight, was duty bound by oath to be a man of courage, loyalty, generosity, and nobility of spirit; a man committed to respecting and defending the honor of women, and protecting the weak.
This same spirit animated the new crusading religious orders like the Knights Templar, which sought to build a new order of new Christian men, skilled at arms, living as brothers, committed to prayer, austerity, and chastity, and devoting themselves radically to serving the Church and her people, especially the weak.
Of course, the ideals of chivalry and knighthood were often ignored or betrayed. Then as now, human beings are inventive and experienced sinners – every one of us. The author Karl Marlantes – who fought as a young Marine officer on exactly the same Hill 484 in Vietnam, two years after the photo in our booklets was taken – says that there’s a reason we humans are at the top of our planet’s food chain. Our species has an instinctive appetite for aggression that every civilization, and the Christian religion in particular, struggle to tame and redirect. In that light, the astounding thing is how often and how fruitfully the ideals of chivalry were actually embraced, pursued and lived by medieval men at arms, rather than abused.
My point is this. C.S. Lewis described Christianity as a “fighting religion.” He meant that living the Gospel involves a very real kind of spiritual warfare; a struggle against the evil in ourselves and in the world around us. Our first weapons should always be generosity, patience, mercy, forgiveness, an eagerness to listen to and understand others, a strong personal witness of faith, and speaking the truth unambiguously with love. For the Christian, violence is always a last and unwelcome resort. It’s to be used only in self-defense or in defending others. But at the same time, justice and courage are also key Christian virtues. And they have a special meaning in the life of the Christian man.
Men need a challenge. Men need to test and prove their worth. Men feel most alive when they’re giving themselves to some purpose higher than their own comfort. This is why young men join the Marines or Rangers or SEALs. They do it not despite it being hard, but exactly because it’s hard; because it hurts; because they want to be the best and earn a place among brothers who are also the very best. Men joined the early Capuchins and Jesuits not to escape the world but to transform it; to convert the world by demanding everything a man had – every drop of his energy, love, talent and intelligence — in service to a mission bigger and more important than any individual ego or appetite.
This is why the ideal of knighthood still has such a strong hold on the hearts and imaginations of men. Again, as men, we’re hardwired by nature and confirmed by the Word of God to provide, to protect, and to lead – not for our own sake, not for our own empty vanities and appetites, but in service to others.
We men – all of us, both clergy and lay — bear a special responsibility because the Gospel tasks us as leaders. That doesn’t make us better than anyone else. It takes nothing away from the equality of women and men. But human beings are not identical units. We’re not interchangeable pieces of social machinery. Christian equality is based not in political ideology but in the reality of the differences and mutual dependencies of real men and women. As creatures we’re designed to need each other, not replicate each other.
Men are meant to lead in a uniquely masculine way. This is why bishops who fail to live up to that standard are so profoundly damaging. There was nothing effeminate or devious or ethereal or bent about Jesus Christ, or the men who followed him. The Son of God called men – real men — to be his apostles, the first bishops. And the great saint of the early Eastern Church, John Chrysostom, described every human father as the bishop of his family. All of you fathers here today are bishops. And every father shapes the soul of the next generation with his love, his self-mastery and his courage, or the lack of them.
In the end, protecting and building up the Gospel in our age is the work of God. But he works through us. The privilege and challenge of that work belong to us. So we need to ask ourselves: What do I want my life to mean? If I claim to be a believing Catholic man, can I prove it with the patterns of my life? When do I pray? How often do I seek out the Sacrament of Penance? What am I doing for the poor? How am I serving the needy? Do I treat the women in my life with the honor, love, and fidelity they deserve? Do I really know Jesus Christ? Who am I leading to the Church? How many young people have I asked to consider a vocation? How much time do I spend sharing about God with my wife, my children and my friends? How well and how often do I listen for God’s presence in my own life?
The Church has lots of good reasons why people should believe in God, and in Jesus Christ, and in the beauty and urgency of her own mission. But she has only one irrefutable argument for the truth of what she teaches: the personal example of her saints.
So what does that mean? It means the world needs faithful Catholic men, men with a hunger to be saints. The role of a Catholic husband and father — a man who sacrifices his own desires, out of love, to serve the needs of his wife and children – is the living cornerstone of a Christian home. The Church in this country will face a very hard road in the next 20 years, and her sons need to step up and lead by the witness of their daily lives. We need the friendship of real brothers in the Lord to be the disciples and leaders God intends us to be. And there’s no better place to pursue that friendship and renew our vocation as Christian men than right here, today, in the time we spend together as brothers.
I want to end these thoughts by going back for just a moment to that photograph of Hill 484 in our booklets. Today it’s recognized as one of the great modern portraits of men at war. But at the time it was ignored and forgotten. In fact, it wasn’t even published until 1971, after the photographer had been killed in Laos. You’ll notice that the sergeant with the head wound is black. The young Marine who’s lying in the dirt is white.
Those of you who are my age will remember the 1960s. They were a time of intense racial hatreds and violence – riots in dozens of cities; police water hoses and attack dogs; the Black Panthers and the Ku Klux Klan; and the murder of Martin Luther King. Racial poison penetrated nearly every aspect of our nation’s life, including the military in Vietnam.
The sergeant in our photo was named Jeremiah Purdie. He had a tough young life. His mother died just a few weeks after he was born. He grew up poor and the wrong color in a segregated South. He entered the Marine Corps to better himself and fight for his country; a country that treated him as a second class citizen. Because he was black, he was barred from a combat unit. Instead, he was sent to food services school and put on kitchen duty — more or less as a paid servant. But he never let the bigotry that he endured infect him. He never became bitter. He simply did his job, and did his best. When segregation ended in the Corps, he transferred to a combat unit, and worked his way steadily up the ranks.
He’s an old man in our 1966 photo – a man in his mid-30s leading 18 and 19 year olds after a ferocious firefight, most of them frightened, some of them dying. And all the while he has a piece of shrapnel in his head, and he’s bleeding down his neck. But his heart and his focus are entirely fixed on someone else — one of his young Marines, a white kid, wounded in the mud.
Why do men matter? I study that photo, and I know that at our best, we matter as men because when a man gives himself completely to the needs of others, even to the point of laying down his life for a brother or friend or wife and family, God shows us a particular face of his own love. And that love draws the world a little closer to the beauty that God intended for us all.
Jeremiah Purdie won the Bronze Star and left the Marines in 1968, after two decades of service. But he was never an “ex-Marine.” There are no ex-Marines. There are only Marines and former Marines. He was never forgotten. Many of the young men he led, both black and white, stayed in touch with Purdie until his death in 2005. And it will surprise no one in this room that the central passion of his life, from the time he was a young boy, through all of his military service, on Hill 484, and until the day he died, was his Christian faith. Jesus Christ was the Lord and anchor of his life, not just on that day in 1966, but on every other day before and after.
The lesson today, brothers, is very simple. Photographs fade. The legacy of a good man is forever. We remember the best among us for the excellence of their lives. But we’re each called, no matter where God places us, to that same kind of witness. So may God grant all of us, as men, the courage, the grace and the integrity to be remembered in the same way.