Our website is made possible by displaying online ads to our visitors.
Please consider supporting us by whitelisting our site.

From anonymity to fraternity

First slide

At Sunday Mass the other day, I had a flashback to what Mass was like 10 years ago, when we were new to our 13,000-member parish.  

I’d enter the sanctuary a bit like I would a big train station. I’d see the altar and lots of nameless fellow commuters shuffling around. Even though I was with my wife and growing family, I felt detached. Like the man in the station, I had a destination — the best, actually, in the Eucharist — and walked purposefully to find a seat. And as I did, I walked within a cone of anonymity.

Back then — when investing in friendships with fellow Catholic men in my parish seemed impossible alongside my job, commute and welcoming our newest baby — I was like so many guys today: busy, lonely and isolated. When these guys skip Mass or hop over to a neighboring parish, no one notices. And in the process, their faith is at risk of becoming more private, individualistic and attenuated.

That was me — until one fellow parishioner stepped forward a decade ago, introduced himself, and invited me to the twice-monthly men’s mornings of recollection group. Not long after, at 7 a.m. on a Saturday morning, I stepped into a room packed with men intent on putting faith first in their lives.

One hour later, I left that room a better man. Through a brief talk on some aspect of the faith, a discussion, examination of conscience and time of prayer, everyone in that room found a takeaway. If you’ve ever worked out at a gym for an hour, then you know what it was like — not every minute was easy, but you leave better than you arrived. It’s an hour that you know will pay dividends in the days ahead.  

But like developing a new habit of exercise, it didn’t happen overnight. It took time for me to let my guard down, to invite iron-sharpens-iron accountability, to challenge others, and to unpack Scripture and church teaching in the open arena with other men. It took time for me to learn other guys’ names, begin praying for them and invite other men to try this spiritual workout.

But how can I not? After all, these men left their comfort zones to invite me. They trusted me by letting down their guard and sharing their setbacks, questions and goals. On so many mornings, their witness stiffened my spine. They got me out of my head, back into the game. It sounds over the top, but it’s true: God spoke to me through these men, and still does. 

Flash forward. My massive parish is no longer a train station. One glance around me on a Sunday morning reminds me of a hundred stories — of real Catholic men, husbands and fathers who have traded in Lone Ranger discipleship for something better. They’ve traded "Bowling Alone" Catholicism and virtual reality for embeddedness in community. They’ve heard Jesus’ call to go "two by two" — never alone — and to make disciples.

Sure, I know that not every Catholic man needs his local parish men’s group — the That Man is You group, Knights of Columbus Council, Cursillo, prayer group, or other bands of brothers — in order to forge authentic friendships and be in mission with his brothers. But in our fast-disaffiliating cultural moment, these men are the exception, not the rule.

Statistically, American men have never been lonelier. "New research shows Americans have fewer friends than in the past, and are less likely to have a best friend," Axios’ Mike Allen summarized. "We realize the importance of friendship, and we’re just not investing the time," said scholar Daniel Cox. Some guys, despite all this, are undoubtedly cobbling it together on their own. 

But for the rest of us, these scrappy little local platoons have become, like our gym or exercise routines, part of the deep structure of our Christian witness. The incoming fire from the culture and our own wounded and prideful hearts are too relentless for us to turn back and reenter the cone of anonymity. And our mission calls us forward.

A decade later, I am grateful. And alongside every man who has been handed the exquisite gift of friendship and common mission with brothers in Christ, I also know that this gift, if hoarded and turned into a clique, will be rescinded. So, invoking our Blessed Mother who "set out … in haste," may we set out in greater haste to invite our brothers. And let us beg "the master of the harvest to send out laborers for his harvest" (Mt 9:38), beginning with the laborer we see in the mirror.

Johnson and his wife, Ever, are cofounders of trinityhousecommunity.org.

Find out more

For a complete list of men’s groups in the Arlington diocese, go to arlingtondiocese.org/family-life/mens-and-womens-ministries/parish-programs-for-men.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021