My father was a boy during the London Blitz. My grandfather recounts how one day he drove into London to find his office building in rubble. No files, no reports, no nothing of what was so important just the day before. My grandmother served as black-out warden for their neighborhood, an hour outside of London. She recalls how from the end of their road they could see the London skyline burning. Planes returning to the airbase near their home would pass overhead, and shrapnel, bombs, and long nights spent under the stairs, or in their Anderson shelter, were routine.
In those days of the dogged fight for Western civilization, heroes walked among us. Soldiers, airmen, seamen, reconnaissance operatives, and brash world leaders with resolve for the fight.
Today, we are in a different kind of battle. We are in a battle for the soul of humanity itself, and the battle is taking place one household at a time, one neighborhood at a time, one human being at a time. We are in a fight to retain truth, objective reality, selflessness, and the enduring human spirit.
And, in this battle, acts of greatness must be noticed, affirmed, and encouraged. Why? Because the younger generation is watching us. They are watching us to understand how they should define themselves. They will be as great as the example we give to them; they will follow the model we set for them. And they will hope to see us asking them for their very best.
Take my two neighbors, Bob and Brendan. Bob is a baby boomer, the unelected mayor of our block. If it snows, Bob is first out with his plow. He does not define his task as finished when he reaches the end of his own driveway. A good father and a good neighbor, he does not see life in terms of property lines, but in terms of families helping one another.
Brendan is a successful Millennial, able to work from home or go to the office, able to define a great deal of his reality. And in the generational transition from Bob to Brendan, the example of Bob is paramount. Just this morning, we had a magnificent snow day. No school, no obligations, and plenty of heavy, wet white. I ventured out with my trusty shovel, and who should come plowing up the driveway? Brendan. With his awesome, new Craftsman snowplow. “It was a wedding present,” he proclaimed proudly. “I am glad to be able to use it.”
While the evening news is telling us that the new generation of men don women’s swimsuits and win medals at female sporting events, the real men are out snowplowing.
Just last Sunday, on my way home from Mass in a depressed downtown area, where the most beautiful churches in many cities are located, I hit a pothole. The PSI on my front right tire fell to 1, then 0. Indecisive, I called my brother, a priest at the seminary, who offered to come and assess the situation. Just then, I heard shouting. Freddy, a man standing at the curbside bus shelter, was flagging me down.
“Mam!” he shouted, waving his arms like an airplane ground controller. “Mam! You can’t drive that car!” I pulled to the curb and rolled down my window. He shouted at me again that I could not drive my vehicle. So, stuck between the reality of my distress and the fear of trusting a stranger in an unfamiliar area, I took a deep breath and followed Freddy’s instructions.
Like a guardian angel straight from Central Casting, Freddy took care of everything. Joined at this point by his friend, Anthony, who also appeared out of nowhere, the two men taught me where to place the jack on my car frame, removed my flat tire, put on the spare, and sternly warned me how to make it safely home. My brother joined them, and the three chatted and exchanged tire analysis and time and effort. Freddy, it turns out, grew up in Mississippi and learned mechanics in his father’s machine shed. Anthony stood guard and imparted wisdom.
Freddy and Anthony. My brother. Real men.
While the evening news is telling us that the men in the inner city are proving their manhood by lighting dumpsters on fire and expressing rage through violence, the real men are out helping others, unseen by the cameras.
The world, the culture, the nation: these are not collective, faceless entities. They are made up of individuals. The qualities and values of our world, our culture, and our nation, individually, comprise the whole.
In the years leading up to the Nazi persecution, St. Edith Stein, who died in Auschwitz, wrote about the menacing and intentional shift of her society from a community to an association. While a community comes together as subjects for a shared meaningful relationship, an association interrelates as objects for a transactional purpose.
The danger, which lurks in the dark societal redefinition of the Third Reich, is the replacement of communities with associations. When our view of other human beings becomes de-personalized and merely transactional, the humanity of the whole is lost.
And so, our real men matter a great deal. As they led a generation to defend Western civilization, so now they can lead a generation in what it means to be a male. To serve, to protect, to sacrifice, and to ennoble the human condition, are all critical contributions of our best men.
The battle depends upon each one of us. And the role of our men on the front lines of that battle is irreplaceable. The fight for our civilization is a battle for the soul of humanity. One human being at a time.
*Image: The Good Samaritan by Jacopo Bassano, about 1562-63 [National Gallery, London]
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