The phrase prompts images of grim faces, stuffy and dimly lit rooms, hopelessness, grief and stale coffee. Men who are led to the St. Augustine Men’s Group, however, are often surprised and even delighted to find meetings where joy and laughter are not forbidden, but rather, welcomed.
St. Augustine Men’s Group is a ministry supported by the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend that began in 2016. It uses the slogan “our hearts are restless, until they rest in you.” Group members hold meetings both in Fort Wayne and South Bend with the purpose of helping men discover and embrace freedom from the sin of pornography and rebuild their lives through faith and brotherhood.
Father Benjamin Muhlenkamp, pastor of St. Louis, Besancon Parish, New Haven, helps lead the meetings. He noted: “These men come to the group thinking that they’re the worst of sinners, and worried that they would be judged, but then come to realize that’s not the case. We have a great time together.”
“If all we did was focus on the problem and our struggles, it would be a sad, uninspiring and hollow meeting,” said Glen, a group leader. “Instead, we focus on the positive and what we can do to overcome our daily struggles. While this is a serious topic, even in the darkest moments when men share their struggles, we still lift each other up. That happens in prayer, words of praise and when appropriate, laughter. Humor helps bring needed levity to balance the seriousness and focus of the discussions.”
Over the summer, St. Augustine Men’s Group leaders met with Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades and diocesan priests to share their mission and tell firsthand accounts of how the group is positively impacting the participants’ lives. At the meeting, priests spoke of the need and urgency of this type of support, as impurity has become one of the most-confessed sins.
According to Covenant Eyes, a survey by the Barna Group on behalf of Proven Men, an organization that helps men struggling with sexual addiction, 64% of men in America are viewing pornography on a monthly basis. In fact, according to Barna, nearly one-third of men between ages 18-30 are or think they are addicted to pornography. These are only a few of the statistics that illustrate the pornography epidemic, which is fueled by the use of phones that make it more accessible and transportable.
Many men do not understand the negative impact that pornography has on their lives. They believe the socially constructed lie that it is harmless and does not have consequences. The truth is quite contrary. Pornography promotes addictive, lustful, deceitful and self-centered thoughts and behaviors that can negatively impact not just the viewer, but his spouse, family, relationships, work and his general outlook on the world.
As a result of the summer meeting with clergy, promotion of the St. Augustine Men’s Group has begun in confessionals across the diocese. An informational card that can be given to men mentions the anonymous meetings.
Additionally, Father Daniel Scheidt of St. Vincent de Paul Parish, Fort Wayne, has facilitated a second meeting location for the Fort Wayne group and championed the mission via the parish website, bulletin and other communication tools.
The weekly meetings are seeing a rise in attendance, although maybe not as much as one might expect.
“Based on national statistics, we thought we would have even more men attending our meetings, especially when you look at the number of men reporting it as a problem,” said Glen. “But it’s not embarrassment that holds men back from attending their first meeting, it’s shame. Shame is a much darker, deeper and troubling reality at work in men’s lives. Shame is Satan’s calling card, because Jesus calls us by name: Satan calls us by our sin.”
The number of men dealing with addiction and shame continues to climb. Shame, Glen said, fuels addiction by speaking to the person’s feeling of unworthiness, of not being accepted or not being loved. Feeling that their actions have made them unworthy of God’s love and mercy, rather than running to Him for healing they run in the opposite direction, staying in darkness and persisting in pain.
In many cases wives request that their husbands attend the meetings, and the husbands do so out of fear of losing their marriage. But fear is only a starting place to recovery. Men receive true freedom from shame when they begin to attend the meetings of their own free will. Ultimately, a man has to want recovery for himself. It requires prayer to the Holy Spirit for courage and willingness to change.
“When men admit they have a struggle and are courageous and honest enough to want to do something about it, that is when they begin to shed the layers of shame and God can work on them,” Glen encouraged.
Father Muhlenkamp affirmed those who seek help and support from the St. Augustine Men’s Group as some of the strongest men he’s ever met.
“They have opened themselves up to the Lord and have opened themselves up to being supported by other men within the Church. It is at this point that change begins to happen. The Lord does not expect us to become holy all by ourselves. We need each other’s help and accountability to make strides in holiness. The St. Augustine group gives men the tools they need to experience freedom in Christ.”
Providing the tools
At St. Augustine Men’s Group meetings, participants are encouraged to lead ordered lives to battle against temptation. The goal is to encourage men to get involved in the Church, serve during Mass and utilize the sacraments to remain focused on their vocation and God’s calling.
The meetings consist of prayer, reading diocesan-supported spiritual materials and discussion for support, accountability and the practical application of what is learned. The men also are encouraged to consistently receive the sacraments and are given the opportunity to receive reconciliation.
“We are so grateful to have the presence of Father Ben who hears confessions after every meeting,” Glen said. “He’s kind yet firm, and always encouraging accountability, prayer and trust in God.”
The book “Clean of Heart” provides a daily prayer routine recommended by the group to help the men “get clean.” Specific prayers are included for different times of the day as well as specific suggested prayers and actions to battle temptation or vices.
The group also recognizes that pornography addiction requires a willingness to change, honesty and a connection to others to break its stranglehold. Through building this community, they are able to learn from each other and to discuss and understand what triggers their addiction. To further facilitate this, the group created a group message app that allows men to check in and share positive messages or reach out when struggling.
The St. Augustine Men’s Groups meet at 9:30 a.m. on the first and third Saturdays of each month at St. Peter Church and the second and fourth Saturdays of each month at St. Vincent de Paul Church in Fort Wayne. South Bend meetings are at 8 a.m. on the first and third Saturdays of each month at St. Joseph Regional Medical Center.
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