One of the great impoverishments of contemporary American life is the difficulty of forming and maintaining strong male friendships. (Women, on the whole, seem to do much better in befriending one another.) Virtually the only time I see groups of men meeting together regularly occurs in front of a television – at home or at a bar or restaurant – watching sports. Most of the time, these men are primarily enjoying not each other but the game. Now, there is nothing wrong about enjoying sports together or enjoying other hobbies and social activities. An important aspect of male bonding occurs around the pursuit of vocations or avocations. Still, a deeper dimension of friendship often seems missing.
Psychologically and emotionally, the dearth of deep friendships among American males is a significant cause of perhaps the greatest plague affecting modern-day American society: loneliness. There are many reasons for this, including absent mothers and fathers; frequent family moves that uproot individuals and families from the support of extended family and friends (Facebook and Instagram, being poor substitutes); our consumerist culture’s marketing of material possessions over human relationships; the worship of youth.
As one author once wrote, “the average American male has one good friend, and that is his wife” (or, more likely in our era of declines in marriage, his ‘significant other”). Anyone who has spent an extended period in a country with a Catholic cultural background (whether or not actual religious practice has plummeted) has probably noticed how profoundly American men have been affected by our overwhelmingly Protestant culture, with its emphasis on individualism. There is a very powerful image of the strong, isolated male figure in American culture: the autonomous adventurer who rides off into the sunset; the “strong, silent type” who hides his private feelings behind a crusty exterior; the man who is ultimately answerable only to his own conscience.
The decline in traditionally male enclaves, such as single-sex colleges and high schools, together with the shrinking (and surrender to the culture) of such former bastions of American boyhood as the Boy Scouts, have made it more difficult for young people to form deep and lasting friendships. On the adult level, the demise of many formerly male clubs and fraternal organizations has a similar effect.
To move from comrades, coworkers, or acquaintances to friends, we have to become “present” to them. We cannot really say that true friendship exists until we have opened up the deepest human questions: who man is, where he comes from, where he is headed in the faith, his family, and his work. Such friendships among Christian men lead men to grow and be transformed in Christ, with the inevitable result of creating a Christian environment around them.
That is why true friendships have implications for all dimensions of the human person – including the spiritual. Throughout the history of the Church, starting with Our Lord himself, Christianity has been spread principally through the one-on-one encounters that (along with procreation) have fueled its dynamic growth from the twelve apostles to 1 billion Catholics today. But billions more await the good news, and many cradle Catholics must be re-evangelized.
Among the saints and blesseds who have championed and exemplified the importance of Christian friendship, Blessed John Henry Newman ranks near the top. Throughout his life, Blessed John Henry had a great talent for making and keeping close, Christ-centered friendships. In one of his Plain and Parochial Sermons he asks, “what is it that can bind two friends together in intimate converse of a course of years, but the participation in something that is Unchangeable and essentially Good, and what is this but religion? . . .The Saints of God continue in one way, while the fashions of the world change.”
Newman’s intellectual brilliance never blinded him to the crucial importance of the human element in transmitting and conserving the faith: “Persons influence us, voices melt us, looks subdue us, deeds inflame us. Many a man will live and die upon a dogma; no man will be a martyr for a conclusion.” In his sermon on Love of Relations and Friends, Newman drew on the example of Our Lord’s special love for St. John:
We find our Savior had a private friend; and this shows us, first, how entirely he was a man, as much as any of us, in his wants and feelings; and next, that there is nothing contrary to the spirit of the Gospel, nothing inconsistent with the fullness of Christian love, in having our affections directed in an especial way towards certain objects, towards those whom the circumstances of our past life, or some peculiarities of character, have endeared us.
He continues: “There have been men before now, who have supposed Christian love was so diffusive as not to admit of concentration upon individuals; so that we ought to love all men equally. . . .Now I shall here maintain, in opposition to such notions of Christian love, and with our Savior’s pattern before me, that the best preparation for loving the world at large, and loving it duly and wisely, is to cultivate an intimate friendship and affection towards those who are immediately about us.”
Just as Christ, although he died for us all, has a different degree of love for different people, Newman too would say we are called to be concerned with the salvation of all, but, at the same, time enjoying various degrees of intimate friendship according to God-given tastes and characteristics.
Like Newman, I am convinced that the Gospel will be most effectively spread throughout society not from the sanctuary of local parishes but through true and mutually enriching friendships. Both individuals and the Church as a whole will be handicapped if those true friendships remain largely lacking among one half – the male half – of the Body of Christ.