Masculinity: Where does a vocation fit in?

Masculinity: Where does a vocation fit in?

By Kieran Kellam

Students at St. Rita of Cascia High School in Chicago line up for a St. Blase Day throat blessing.


IT IS A CRISP OCTOBER MORNING, and I am at my desk sipping coffee, preparing to teach my first period history class. The five minute warning bell rings, and a few students saunter in. Danny enters, tucking in his uniform and giving Adam a hard time about his music. “I can’t believe that you listen to that chick stuff. You’re so soft.” This is typical banter at an all-male high school, and it presents me with another opportunity to challenge my students about their conceptions of masculinity.

Through my five years of teaching at St. Rita of Cascia High School (an all-male, Augustinian school on Chicago’s southside), I have become aware of the often misplaced ideas of “manliness” in today’s youth. Discussions in my American Government and U. S. History classes often segue into the topics of gender and gender roles. My students’ conversations, thoughts, and relationships are frequently framed around a hypermasculinity during this crucial period of self-identity building. Early on I began to notice commonalities in their sense of masculinity, which was usually linked to physical dominance, chauvinism, and emotional suppression..  It seemed to seep into everything they did. It was inescapable. I kept wondering “How can I attempt to address masculinity with my students?”

The dilemma was so fundamental, I concluded that it required a direct, specific approach. In consultation with many of my colleagues, I decided to create a new course: “Manning Up—A Course on Christian Masculinity.” The class was designed in hope of reframing the students’ concept of manliness to be healthier and more modulated. I hoped to also guide them through a discernment of their vocation.

In preparation I had concluded that the only way to really address masculinity was to have an honest idea of their personal conceptions of it. I needed to spend significant time truly listening to my students. Thus, at the outset of the semester, we spent hours discussing, writing, and examining masculinity. The boys made short films, completed surveys, and even interviewed their own fathers or father figures. These exercises were intended to help students examine their ideas of manhood.

When we came to a point where I felt I understood them, we began to break down some of their notions of gender.  We did so by analyzing masculine roles (sonhood, brotherhood, fatherhood, husbandhood, and the religious life). Furthermore, I attempted to rebuild their sense of masculinity by examining positive “masculine” virtues (courage, discipline, fidelity, honor, independence, industry, and wisdom). The course culminated in writing a manifesto (pun intended).

The students’ manifestos articulated their current understanding of masculinity, described where they were in their own vocational discernment, and explained how they planned to live out the virtues explored in the class. These papers are the most inspirational, insightful, and thoughtful I have seen from any of my students. It has been my most gratifying class to teach.

Concept of masculinity affects view of religious life

One key point I learned was that the way my students see masculinity dramatically affects how they relate to and perceive religious life. My students tended to fixate on physical dominance. It is how they determine a social hierarchy, the looming structure in their lives. In my experience, this dominance or need for control seems to have become more influential in recent years.. The word cloud on this page was created from initial class surveys. Students were asked to provide attributes of a man. The larger the word is within the image, the more frequently it was listed by the students. In our conversation about this word cloud, some points became clear. “Strength,” “respect,” “independence,” and “courage” all really came down to the same idea: being able to physically dominate others/not being physically dominated by others.

A large grouping of other words (“hard-working,” “mature,” “independent,” “responsible,” “supportive,” etc.) condensed to self-sacrifice, i.e. providing for one’s family. The students saw sacrifice as part of a man’s duties. Sacrifice of a man’s time, wealth, and body was championed as honorable and respectable.

At a glance, one can see that not a single word refers to any form of emotion. When I asked my students why “love” was not listed, some began to squirm and others laughed it off. In their culture, which focuses on physical dominance, any form of emotion was seen as a weakness. It was not that they did not have feelings, rather that it was considered unmanly to address them. I tried to capitalize on this moment and asked, “Why then is it acceptable for you guys to cry at the end of an athletic season if  you lose in the playoffs?” (This is an event I had witnessed numerous times as a soccer coach and as a fan at various school sports events.) They could not answer. The reality was that these tearful, emotional moments were socially acceptable, but to discuss it was a faux pas. The boys recognize the power of emotions. However, to them, a man’s duty is to overcome them, to ignore them, to choke them down. One can emote when the group determines that all are reacting emotionally in the same manner. Otherwise, you run the risk of being vulnerable. You are seen as weak and therefore less masculine.

This is a critical issue for society and the church. Many young men embrace the idea of sacrifice. Yet, they feel as if they cannot publicly embrace why they sacrifice. They are discouraged from expressing the love that is at its center. We need to find a healthy way for our young men to be men, men who know and live out the fullness of their masculinity. The archetype of manliness we must espouse and model should have a grounding in the love and empathy of Jesus Christ.

Perceptions of religious life

As stated, my students have a penchant for physical strength over emotional or spiritual strength. Spirituality requires self-reflection,  an understanding of one’s feelings. Again, this is a scary prospect for many young men. They recognize, value, and respect priests and religious brothers and sisters. Yet I believe they know these vocations require an openness to their personal feelings and an empathy for all. The resistance to examine their own emotions creates a struggle to empathize with others. I believe this particular social pressure whittles away at religious life as an option for them.

This second word cloud on this page provides a visual of the attributes of a priest according to my students’ completed questionnaires. There is a glaring difference between the two word clouds. The priesthood word cloud resonates with emotion and spirituality. According to the questionnaires, most of my students do not see themselves as worthy to be a priest or brother. This is understandable if we consider their situation. If they cannot freely express emotions, how could they possibly be in a position intended to foster spiritual growth within a community?

I believe this dilemma is a factor for many of them when they quickly conclude that religious life simply isn’t for them. In addition I believe the dilemma can make the students who are more self-reflective and connected to their emotions feel isolated. In today’s society, secularism challenges our faith. A subset of this battle is that, for some young men, the modern concept of masculinity challenges religious life as well.

Leo: reluctant about religious life

Leo was a student of mine in Manning Up. We have an amiable relationship built upon the two classes he had with me and a senior retreat we shared. Leo is an affable, perceptive, and diligent young man who connects well with his peers and is respected among the faculty and staff. There is no overtness to his religious beliefs. His viewpoints on religion and religious life are not particularly different from my other students. Generally Leo does not seem to be a student that many would think of when considering who might be a priest. Yet within his manifesto, he revealed that this was exactly what he had been doing, and it was causing him a lot of distress.

In his discernment Leo struggled because he wanted to “live a more regular lifestyle.” He only shared his deliberation with a few people. (In fact, Leo is a pseudonym. He did not want his name published.) I asked him why he was keeping quiet about his vocation interest: “I want the information held to a selective few because I don’t want to deal with people who will negatively judge me because of ignorance or a lack of understanding, nor do I want to deal with people who may take advantage of it, as in, trying to recruit me into parts of the church.” Leo was careful in sharing his discernment because he was looking for people to aid and respect him, not admonish him. Leo used a particular priest as an example: “He was a good reference for me because he did not coax me.” Also Leo appreciated the priest’s personal story as a model. “He did not finally decide what he is doing now (priesthood) until he was in his early 30s. Before that [he was] living a normal lifestyle in normal occupations.”

In reading Leo’s words, it is apparent that he feels, or is at least concerned, that following a path to priesthood is not socially acceptable. Therefore, he cannot openly share his thoughts on the matter. He referred to the non-religious life as “normal” and “regular.” The priesthood is an option that he finds non-conventional and alienating. To consider the call is to run the risk of damaging relationships. When asked what made the religious life so taboo, Leo said, “Today’s life is becoming pretty secular, and just the thought of not living the usual life is what’s weird. Being celibate, living in church or whatever.” The “usual” that Leo refers to, I believe, is the concept of masculinity portrayed in the manliness word cloud. He has struggled in considering the path of spiritual self-sacrifice associated with the priesthood in contrast with the physical self-sacrifice associated with non-religious manhood. Leo, as many men (young and old), feels constrained by this form of masculinity. At 18 he can recognize and understand how our culture is impacting his life and his church.

Before more young men like Leo turn away from religious life, what can we do to reframe the masculinity of our young men and their perception of the religious life?

Young men must know that it is manly to communicate and reflect upon their emotions. I believe the church and, in particular, those who work in her schools, should take a much more active role in fostering a sense of masculinity that is resolute, understanding, courageous, and empathetic.

Young men should be free to examine their emotions and still feel that they are men—to  know that it is simply a human thing to do. In the words of our spiritual father at St. Rita, “Men go abroad to wonder at the heights of mountains, at the huge waves of the sea, at the long courses of the rivers, at the vast compass of the ocean, at the circular motions of the stars, and they pass by themselves without wondering” (St. Augustine, Confessions, 10.8.6). It is our obligation to ensure that our young men understand that all people are called to their lives intentionally.  

Men must see Christ as fully human, fully a man. The archetype of masculinity must be re-formed in the image of Jesus Christ; the path to manhood must follow the Gospel. Our young men need models of Christianity in their lives so they know how men live the Gospel. We need to create environments where they can live out the fullness of positive, Christian masculinity. We are called to do so: “Therefore, as most beloved sons, be imitators of God. And walk in love, just as Christ also loved us and delivered himself for us, as an oblation and a sacrifice to God, with a fragrance of sweetness.” (Ephesians 5:1-2).

As we foster these changes, our youth will see that being a man can be raising a family and sacrificing themselves primarily for their family. They will also see that being a man can be leading a spiritual community and sacrificing themselves for their church family. In both they will witness and manifest the love of Jesus Christ that is the source of those sacrifices.


Kieran Kellam is married, is an Augustinian educator, and is chair of the Social Sciences Department at St. Rita of Cascia High School in Chicago.  As an alumnus of the school, he takes interest and pride in molding not just his students’ minds, but their spirituality as well. 

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