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The Christian Male: CUA’s ‘Esto Vir’ Swims Against the Cultural Tide

statueIt’s a problem in all Christian denominations throughout the Western world: the relative dearth of committed men.

American women are twice as likely as men to attend a church service during any given week, reports pollster George Barna. Rev. Patrick Arnold, S.J., author of Wildmen, Warriors, and Kings: Masculine Spirituality and the Bible, claims that at Catholic churches he has visited “it is not at all unusual to find a female-to-male ratio of 2:1 or 3:1. I have seen ratios in parish churches as high as 7:1.”

This problem has manifested itself to some degree at Catholic University as well. For years Campus Ministry sponsored a men’s prayer, fellowship and Bible study group, and every year it seemed to peter out by the end of the academic year.

That pattern changed in 2002. That year, CUA’s chaplain, Rev. Robert Schlageter, O.F.M. Conv., asked a handful of undergrads to design and form a Catholic men’s group that would capture men’s imaginations and hearts, garner commitment, bring out the masculine side of the Christian message and be able to sustain itself for longer than one academic year. He asked for one other thing: that the group be attractive to men who aren’t usually comfortable at Campus Ministry events but feel more at ease in the gym, in bars or doing normal day-to-day “guy things.”

The fellowship of Catholic knighthood and chivalry that the students came up with — called Esto Vir — has not only sustained itself for five years now, but has spread by word-of-mouth to three other campuses — DeSales University in Center Valley, Pa.; Ave Maria University in Naples, Fla.; and, this coming year, John Carroll University in Cleveland. CUA students told friends at these campuses about the group, and those friends have gone on to found chapters. Students and campus ministers at additional campuses — Catholic and secular — have read about Esto Vir in the Catholic press and have called CUA inquiring about how they can start chapters.

Here’s what the National Catholic Register said in 2006 about the men of Esto Vir: “Just when you thought chivalry and healthy masculinity were dead — hordes of young men having fallen prey to the collegiate model of the reckless, boozing, womanizing male as the ideal ‘real man’ — along comes a small band of college men determined to set things right.”

“Esto Vir” is Latin for “Be a man.” The choice of the name was inspired by this quote from St. Josemaria Escrivá’s 1934 book, The Way:

“Don’t say, ‘That’s the way I am — it’s my character.’

It’s your lack of character. Esto vir! — Be a man!”

The number of CUA undergraduates in Esto Vir has risen steadily since the group’s founding — last year the membership stood at 42. The members, or knights, strive to live out the ideals of Christian knighthood, treat women with the utmost respect, kneel together in prayer, and as a group have a good time, serve others, share their struggles and hold each other accountable. Each man pledges to pursue five key virtues, which are at the heart of the fellowship: prayer, brotherhood, chastity, self-sacrifice and fortitude.

As Esto Vir’s written constitution puts it, “In an age when basic values of chivalry and decency have become marginal, when men are encouraged and commended when they act as beasts and predators, Esto Vir will stand as a reminder of a better way of life.”

Has the group been successful in meeting its chivalrous goals? Listen to one alumna, Laura Cartagena, B.A. 2005: “I’ve gone out with guys before that I thought were really great but who didn’t treat me right in this way or that way. I used to get feedback from some friends who said, ‘Oh well, that’s how guys are’ or ‘He’s 20-whatever years old and what else can you expect?’ But I would say, ‘Oh no, I can expect more because I knew this group of guys at college [especially those in Esto Vir] who didn’t treat women like that. So I can ask for someone to be respectful of me.’ ”

What’s at issue is bigger than treating women gallantly, however.

“A lot of guys I’m friends with dismiss the Church and God as things they had to be involved with when they were little — they think the Church is for people who aren’t that cool,” says Cartagena. “I just wish they could see this group of [Esto Vir] guys because I feel that they would see the faith in such a different light. They’d think, ‘Hey, these are guys I can relate to, who have had some of the same struggles I’ve had and that really want to live this life heroically — how can I find out more about that?’ ”

Theologian John K. White wrote in 1990 that “a devastating criticism of Christianity is that many men see it as not only irrelevant, but as effeminate. Phrases such as ‘unmanly,’ ‘for women and kids,’ ‘wimps,’ and ‘they can’t make it so they hide behind God’ are common.” The principles behind Esto Vir make the opposite case — that following Jesus requires heroism. The group’s constitution speaks of “the manliest of all acts — the surrender of our will to that of God.”

“I think the ideal of chivalry makes every man’s heart beat faster,” says Father Schlageter (known as “Father Bob”). “I think men can be heroic. And I think men who are heroic are an incredibly positive force. They transform life in amazing ways. The men in Esto Vir are willing to look the culture in the eye and swim against the tide. They’re willing to show other people that they are practicing Catholics and willing to hold each other accountable for appropriate behavior.”

Sometimes Christian men’s groups fail by not asking enough of their members and by not calling them to rise to a challenge, according to the 2005 book Why Men Hate Going to Church by David Murrow. Esto Vir seeks to avoid that error, engaging prospective members with a challenging rite of passage called “the Week of Fire.”

During the Week of Fire, the aspirants and the already knighted members get out of bed at 1 a.m. on a Monday to gather around the outdoor statue of Our Lady Seat of Wisdom between McMahon Hall and Caldwell Hall. There they hear a student give a reflection on one of the five virtues and they recite a decade of the Rosary together. Each of the following weekday mornings they gather at the same statue an hour later — e.g., at 2 a.m. on Tuesday and 3 a.m. on Wednesday. After their 5 a.m. meeting on Friday, they fast until eating a 6 p.m. supper together. During that week they also go to confession and attend daily Mass. Each aspirant also writes a pledge of chastity — of sexual purity in thought, word and deed.

At a formal ceremony the following Sunday, each aspirant swears to live by the five virtues and each burns his handwritten pledge of chastity “to let our prayers rise to heaven with the smoldering remnants of our past,” as their liturgy puts it. Then each is knighted with a real broadsword by Father Bob, Esto Vir’s chaplain.

The commitment asked of the students remains high after they become knights. If someone can’t make the group’s weekly meeting, which often consists of fellowship, prayer and teaching, they need to make their brothers aware of their planned absence. They attend 7:30 a.m. Mass as a group each Thursday — a sacrifice for the typical night-owl college student. Some of the students also choose to do an additional Week of Fire with one or two others as a personal discipline.

The group elects its leaders, who take the knightly titles of paladin (president), sword-bearer (vice president), treasurer, herald (public relations), advocate (events coordinator), scribe (secretary) and educator (one who specializes in teaching the others at meetings).

Esto Vir’s once-a-semester weekend retreats might include playing tackle football on a Delaware beach or going off two-by-two on an “Emmaus walk” in which each man talks to his walking partner about where he’s at in his life, what he’s struggling with and how his spiritual life is going. On campus, brotherhood is lived out by planned and spontaneous socializing. The virtue of prayer is lived out in a number of ways, such as a small group choosing to recite night prayer together from a breviary. A member of the DeSales University chapter exemplified the virtues of fortitude and chastity by publicly confronting male classmates who were speaking to a woman in a demeaning way and threatening to post nude photos of her on a Web site.

The knights of Esto Vir have sought to display a spirit of chivalry toward women through public gestures such as giving a rose and a prayer to each woman attending a concert on campus, and by donning their gothic-lettered “Esto Vir” T-shirts or sweatshirts to serve as waiters for the females in the dining hall. The latter activity, which occurred early in the genesis of the group, was less than a success, as some of the women suspected the knights of ulterior motives. But much of this kind of skepticism about Esto Vir has waned, according to the group’s leaders. Though some CUA students still see the members as “those crazy guys doing their knighthood stuff,” the group has earned the respect of the campus, says Steve Mariconti, an engineering major from Warwick, N.Y., who was the group’s paladin during the 2006–2007 academic year.

The men of Esto Vir are well-known, mainstream guys who are accepted by other students, says Vice President for Student Life Susan Pervi. “They’re not a fringe group or off to themselves, and their membership is very diverse,” she says. “Wherever students are interacting with fellow students, an Esto Vir member can be found in the heart of the activity. As they support each other, they encourage and bring out the best in others — whether cheering on our Cardinals athletes, painting a local school as part of a Campus Ministry service project, or just hanging out in the Pryz.”

Indeed, Esto Vir has been able to fulfill Father Bob’s mandate to reach a wide spectrum of men: athletes on CUA’s sports teams, members of rock bands, those who were already living the Christian life and those who hadn’t been doing so — guys with every academic major, both underclassmen and upperclassmen.

“It’s been the best experience of my life,” says Kyle Bakas, a junior biology major from Victorville, Calif., “just being able to go anywhere and seeing any one of the guys in Esto Vir and knowing that I can talk to any of them about anything. I’m respecting all these new types of people that I didn’t think I liked before and realizing that I do like them.”

Father Bob says he has seen positive changes in the men: “I love the way they enjoy each other’s company. Men don’t often feel permission to be in community in our culture. A lot of our men say this is what they’ve been looking for. They challenge each other one-on-one. I see more frequent attendance at Mass, and guys going to Mass more than once a week.”

One of the tensions of Esto Vir is balancing the exalted ideals and aspirations of knighthood — “ever striving to be the vanguard in the fight against evil,” as its constitution puts it — with each member’s humble acknowledgment that he is a needy and imperfect person. That same constitution makes the latter point explicit: “Esto Vir was founded upon the idea that each man alone is too wounded to fight the entire battle for holiness by himself,” but men, “united with brothers who all conform themselves to the will of God, can surmount any obstacle in their path to eternal life and perfect holiness.”

“We all know that we ourselves are sinful men and that we’re just trying to do better,” says Mariconti. “And just because you’re not in Esto Vir doesn’t mean you’re not a good Catholic guy on campus.

“A lot of people have lost the conception of what it means to be a strong man,” Mariconti adds. “We’re constantly being bombarded with messages about what men are supposed to be like, and a lot of those messages conflict with our faith.”

One of those messages, transmitted via movies and television, is that it’s acceptable to have premarital sex and that it’ll make you happy. Another false message is that being a Christian man means being a nice guy all the time and always rolling over for people, says Joe Lanzilotti, a former member of the DeSales University chapter who helped start the chapter at Ave Maria University.

“The secret of Esto Vir’s success is Christ,” says J.P. Winchester, B.A. 2001, CUA’s associate campus minister for retreats and men’s issues. “It’s no secret. Esto Vir is boys being men. Too often it’s just boys being boys on college campuses. All the guys hold each other to a higher standard, the standard of Christ. Christ is the model of a good man.”

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Revised: July 2007

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