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A priest and author explains why so many men today seem lost

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Marzena Devoud - published on 02/03/23

“The heart of the male soul is self-giving; it is the very soul of fatherhood."

“One is not born a man, one becomes one,” said Erasmus.

It’s difficult to deny the current crisis: today’s men seem to be lost. Is masculinity on the way out? How can we help a man find the right road? What conditions must be met for men to peacefully assert their masculinity?

These are the questions that Fr. Philippe de Maistre, pastor of the parish of Saint-André-de-l’Europe and author of “La voie des hommes” (“The Way of Men”), answers for us.

Aleteia: You note a decline of masculinity. The typical identity crisis in adolescence and the crisis of responsibility in mid-life seem to crystallize the problem. Is masculinity on the way out?

Philippe de Maistre: There’s a real crisis of masculine character. Among many young men, I observe a lack of self-confidence and a certain passivity in life, as if it were difficult to assert themselves as men. As a priest, I’ve often seen this on two levels. First of all, that of education and building an identity: men find it difficult to leave the indeterminacy of adolescence. Then comes the midlife crisis around the 40s: they question their life choices, experiencing a deep malaise, with the feeling of having missed out in their life. The crisis of masculinity is therefore particularly noticeable during adolescence, and then around the age of 40.

In your book, you speak of a new species of men: the “adulescents.” Michel Houellebecq calls them “diminished” adolescents. Who are they?

They are neither children nor adults. They’ve lost the grace of childhood, and although they have the physical appearance of adulthood, they haven’t acquired the corresponding maturity. They adore adolescence and claim their status of eternal teenagers.

If we take a step back, we realize that before the beginning of the 12th century, it was accepted that we were children, then adults. The educational system was organized to allow children to become adults. Adolescence was only a transition. Today, this “in-between” stage is prolonged in time until it becomes a state in itself that many want to be permanent. It’s no longer a difficult age that we must try to outgrow as quickly as possible. It has even become the golden age of our society! Eternal teenagers thus reflect an “adulescent” society. But this “adulation” is a real poisoned gift.

Why is this state of adolescence so dangerous?

Our consumerist society maintains these eternal adolescents who have an adult body and a childish, immature, infantile mind. Today, a young man doesn’t ask himself what society expects of him in terms of duty. He claims his rights first of all. There’s no notion of sacrifice for the common good. This is the attitude of a child: his mother feeds him and gives him everything he needs. They no longer make the transition to adulthood. The initiation process no longer exists.

However, the world’s traditions generally speak of some sort of rite, of a moment when a child switches from the world of childhood, determined by his mother, to the adult world, the external world, that of responsibility, determined this time by his father. It is the latter who then enters the front line. Among the Masai, the father makes his son follow a rite; he helps him to overcome some ordeals during a ritual in the forest. In the Jewish tradition, there’s the bar-mitzvah: a little boy goes to the synagogue with his father to proclaim the Word. He becomes a man, someone who is in possession of the Word that tells the truth and fights evil. It’s a break with the world of childhood, a departure towards adulthood.

Our Western society has made all these stages disappear. We have young men of 30 or 40 who have not passed this test of confirmation; they haven’t passed into another dimension. They’re in between, they aren’t sure of themselves. As a result, they don’t know how to commit themselves in their work or their personal life. This happens because their passage to adulthood has not been encouraged or blessed.

All this is very much linked to the father figure who, in certain rituals, blesses the child. Sometimes he also gives the child a different name, or even marks his body with a tattoo or scarification, something that symbolizes that the body is made to give itself, to commit itself.

How can men regain confidence in their own character and forge their identity?

For the younger generation to take their place in the world, their fathers must give them that place. If fathers do not accept growing old or dying, if they don’t even know well what their own place is, they cannot leave it to the younger generation and thus fulfill their role of transmission. 

In history, there are very inspiring examples. Hugues Capet (a 10th century French king, Ed.) – what a genius of royal transmission! He anticipated his death: he crowned his son while he was still alive, he already passed on his place.

One episode in Picasso’s life made a deep impression on me: when his father realized that his 12-year-old son was gifted, he gave him all his own brushes, and he confirmed that he had a place as a painter. This helped him a lot afterwards. This transmission takes place when the father does not see his son as a threat, when he sees that his son is entering a new stage of his life, while his own is entering another dimension of wisdom and depth.

Growing old does not mean that life is meaningless; handing on our place is an opening and a journey towards one’s own eternity. We have lost the notion that life is like a journey of initiation, with stages of transformation. If life is an eternal youth that we artificially maintain, we go nowhere; we try to maintain an eternal adolescence. Yet, isn’t old age synonymous with wisdom? We see it in the Bible: a wise man is an accomplished man. It’s someone who makes his life bear fruit for others, in the field of fatherhood and transmission.

What then is the road for men to take?

It’s admirably described by Péguy when he describes a man of 40 who sees that his life is perhaps not as fulfilled as he wanted it to be. But instead of going back and breaking everything, instead of clinging, instead of focusing on himself, the man – who is a father – discovers a secret he didn’t know before. Although he sees that he doesn’t have the happiness he was looking for, at the same time, he recognizes the wonder of having a 14-year-old son. He will discover happiness in giving himself. There’s more joy in giving than in receiving, as the Gospel says. This is really experienced in the process of transmission. The heart of the male soul is self-giving; it is the very soul of fatherhood.

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