When I was a little girl, maybe five, I had two great passions: John Paul II, and WWF wrestling. I would sneak into the darkness of my closet and kiss the Pope’s picture that I had hidden there and tell him that I loved him and wanted to marry him.
But if you exited the closet you would come face to face with a wall full of British flags that I collected and taped up to honour the British Bulldogs, a wrestling team. I even cut the flags out of Alpo dog food labels and put them up. And while I’m being honest, I’ll admit to the fact that I went and watched WWF live (not when I was five!) I have no idea who bought me a ticket or took me there. It definitely wasn’t my mom. All I know is that I was in a whirling Hulk Hogan induced stupor.
Keep in mind that I lived in a house with three older brothers, and I blame it all completely on them. I can still picture the famous guys at the time, Brutus the Barber Beefcake, Ricky the Dragon Steamboat, Macho Man. Ah, all the yelling, the drama, the violence, the steroids. I once snuck out of bed at midnight to watch some super slam-fest that my brothers were watching. My mom caught me.
Of course, I look back at the ridiculousness of it all, the foolish clowning, and mockery of what it means to be a man. Then I look at the face I kissed as a five-year-old, hiding in the closet, and there in an old man, a celibate priest, I see the definition of what it means to be a man of strength.
This whole “toxic masculinity” movement has caused quite the uproar, with people text-shouting all points of view. I will say, while I understand the idea of what “toxic masculinity” stands for, and hate it for what it is, that because I care (too much?) about words, I get stuck on the title. There can be no such thing as toxic masculinity. It’s like saying, “He’s so much of a man that it’s toxic.” Would we say, “She’s so much of a woman, it’s poisonous”? If we would say either, it’s simply because we don’t understand the meaning of man and woman, and then I would have to recommend reading John Paul II's writings on that topic. But to be a real man is to be masculine, and you cannot be too much of a man.
So, if a male is violent, sexist, and ignorant, don’t say he’s so masculine it’s toxic. Instead, accuse him of being not masculine enough, not man enough, not strong enough.
When I remember the picture of the face I kissed, I remember the face of a man who, in a strange and paternal way, complimented my five-year-old femininity. Pope John Paul knew sorrow unlike anything I could imagine. He had lived through loss, persecution, war. He worked out his vocation in the constant knowledge that it could mean his imprisonment or worse. But he was a man of strength and conviction, and joy. And that made him seem fearless to me.
When I would look into his eyes, on TV or in a magazine, I knew that he was aware of an unseen reality. And that unseen reality was what made him seem unshakeable. He was a world leader in a time where it was expected that you would bend to the whims of a fickle people and tell them what they wanted. Pope John Paul stood for truth, and defended it, fearlessly, for the sake of his own soul, but probably more so, for the sake of yours and mine. Because, as a man, he was a father.
He worked with his hands in the dirt, and he wrote poetry. He cried for the sufferings of others and called us to be accountable for our part in that suffering. He got angry at injustice and spoke boldly about the most important, and unpopular, issues of our time. He cried. And he laughed. And he kissed babies. His masculinity literally caused the devil so much fear, that he arranged for someone shoot him in the chest. And he forgave it.
I would say that if anyone was too much of a man, John Paul II was. And those things, those masculine virtues, are the only cure to all that is toxic to the world: strength, unyielding guardianship of the truth, gentleness, forgiveness, accountability, honesty, coming to the defence of the defenceless. Those virtues are the signs of a real man, because they are signs that Christ is living within him.