With the feast of St Joseph coming up, let’s hear some cheers for men. For the male of the species. For manly courage and manly endurance, for things borne in silence, for manly strength used in the service of others.
Yes, yes, I know. Women can be brave, enduring, patient and physically strong. We all know that. But the point is that we are very frequently told about it. At present we get endless celebrations of female achievement, female wisdom, female overcoming of great odds to win a particular goal. We are told a great deal, too, about the under-representation of women in history books or the over-representation of men in the folklore of major events in the human story. Some of this has been necessary: a balance to a longish period of marginalising and trivialising of the feminine in some quarters. But it’s now getting daft – and unjust.
The biggest single cause of death in Britain among young men is suicide. There are more – far more – men than women in prison. There are more men than women sleeping rough. More boys than girls struggle to learn to read: boys predominate in remedial reading classes. The breakdown of marriage has hit boys hard: many lack the presence of a father and must endure a matriarchal household with the intermittent arrival of confusing male figures of uncertain status.
Boys often struggle at school because the way they show boredom, unhappiness or confusion tends to be far more noisy, infuriating and chaotic than that of girls. It is no use saying they should be like girls: they aren’t. They have different ways of showing their feelings. They are less verbal. They may go silent when asked to explain why they are being a nuisance, whereas a girl can express herself quite helpfully and even initiate a solution to a difficulty.
Boys are competitive; that is not necessarily unhelpful. They also like being part of a team where a clear leader sets high goals. They function less well if told that everything must be a group decision or that there are no winners, all must have prizes.
Most Catholics, if asked to name a saint, will tend to opt for a female name – Thérèse of Lisieux or Bernadette. Most of us heard our first prayers in a female voice. The Church has long understood this – she knows that it is important to emphasise the special strengths of men. She is a mother who loves her sons, and wants them to show Christian leadership and Christian initiative, in the family and the church and the community and the workplace, in public life and in great adventures. She wants their stories told: as missionaries and martyrs, heroes and scholars, and teachers and visionaries. We need to tell the stories of our male saints, and indeed the great male figures from the Scriptures: kings, prophets and Apostles.
The priesthood is male because Christ became incarnate as a man – and the significance of this is becoming more and more clear as we ponder the development of doctrine shown, notably, in the teaching given by St John Paul. The pattern for any heresy is always the same: someone – or a group of people, or a large movement – presents the heresy, and in answering it, the Church discovers more of the truth of her own doctrine. Thus with the debate about female priesthood: we know more now – and will know more over the next centuries – about just why the priesthood is reserved to men.
But that’s not the real issue here. Joseph was not a priest. He was the husband and father in the Holy Family, provider of food for the table, protector of the mother and child in the flight into Egypt. He was the mentor and teacher of his divine foster-son from childhood into manhood.
Sadly, pictures and statues of St Joseph have too often been vaguely feminised: a rather sentimental chap with pink cheeks and soft robes, holding a lily and somehow not looking very reliable. The reality was more likely a sturdy son of David, with dark hair and the strong build of a man who worked hard at his daily duties.
There are certain areas where we ought to recognise the needs of men. These include a dignified liturgy: the set pattern with its formal invocation-and-response, the sound of strong voices speaking up, time-honoured chants and hymns, the whole echoing with the theology of sacrifice and communion with God. How cruel it is when Catholic schools or parishes seek to replace this with children reading home-made prayers (at which girls tend to be better than boys) or with attempts to make everything artificially informal.
And finally: one place where men are at least properly recognised is on our war memorials. Long, long lists of male names. Young men who never reached their full potential: lives given in sacrifice. The familiar names on a parish war memorial, vaguely imprinted into one’s consciousness along with the statues and candle-stands and Stations of the Cross.
On St Joseph’s Day, let’s hear it for men.
Joanna Bogle is an author, broadcaster and historian