Fr. McNellis Speaks on the Importance of Men of Good Character

by Alessandra Luedeking


On Thursday evening, April 3, students filled the lecture-style classroom in McGuinn in anticipation of Fr. Paul McNellis’s talk, “How Men Become Good Leaders (And Why Women Should Care).” The event was organized by the Sons of St. Patrick and the St. Thomas More Society, both Catholic, student-run groups on campus. The talk centered on the importance of men of good character as the basis for respectable leaders.

Fr. McNellis opened with daunting statistics concerning the desire and marketability of a good, charismatic leader.


“Leadership is the thing; everyone is interested,” he said.


US companies spend a formidable amount of money annually on leadership development: approximately $14 billion. Boston College itself offers more than 20 leadership programs and more than a dozen leadership awards. The stereotypical characteristics associated with leadership include wisdom, self-confidence, success, and inspiration. While admirable, these qualities in and of themselves do not beget a leader.


“A leader is someone we’re willing to follow because we respect him,” Fr. McNellis said. “We don’t insist that someone follow us because we’re the leader. Someone with authority can command us and we must obey, or face the consequences, but they cannot command us to want to follow them.”


To achieve this elusive quality, Fr. McNellis went on to say, men must develop good characters. He shared instances in his life where he had witnessed men display the strong character that typifies good leaders. The importance of the stories was to convey that neither of the men had trained for the situations that demanded their immediate attention. Their impulsive actions stemmed rather from their strong, good characters, and resulted in acts of courage that evoked respect and admiration from nearby spectators.


“Men become good leaders by first becoming good men,” Fr. McNellis said. How does one become a good man? Fr. McNellis offered a few pointers:


“Be honest, a man of your word; do what you say you’ll do; never lie or cheat for any reason; develop a sense of honor; treat all women with respect, whether they ask for it or not; always finish what you start; accept responsibility; and don’t walk around the question of God. Be man enough to address it.”


Fr. McNellis went on to acknowledge that contemporary society discourages virtue and commitment in men. “[Society] disparages manly virtues and often denies that there even is such a thing.” The divorce, hookup, and drinking cultures all induce what he labeled as the “Peter Pan Syndrome,” producing men who “don’t grow up and are afraid of marriage.”


Next, Fr. McNellis enumerated the three perils encumbering men of good characters. The first and most insidious of these is “thinking of college as a bubble that puts real life on hold.” The college experience is as much a part of the real world as the lives students carve for themselves upon graduation. The second danger is the pervasive alcohol culture. “Alcohol addiction puts emotional development on hold, which must be resumed in sobriety and recovery,” Fr. McNellis warned. He rejected the belief that “it’s not alcoholism until after graduation.”


The last of these obstacles is pornography. He revealed that the brain’s chemical reaction to viewing it is similar to that triggered by heavy doses of cocaine and heroin. Pornography is so widespread that researchers conducting porn experiments could not come up with a control group. Instead, they were forced to use men recovering from porn addiction.


Fr. McNellis concluded his talk by reading a letter written by Commander John Shea, a BC graduate in 1918, to his son, John Richard Shea (’58) during World War II. The heartwarming letter, written when John Richard was only five years old, exemplified the qualities of a good father, imparting love and advice to his son, in the likelihood that the war would leave him without a father. Two months after mailing the letter, Commander John died in a bombing rescue mission.


“To be a good father will take all the virtues and will be the most challenging task you’ll ever have in life. If you fail at it, it’ll be the most bitter disappointment you’ll have in life,” Fr. McNellis claimed. “If at the end of your life you know you have been a good father, it will be the most satisfying thing you will have done, the only thing of lasting satisfaction, and you will be ready for death at that point.”


In his parting words, Fr. McNellis stressed that the quest to cultivate a strong character is one that “requires a serious approach to life and one that can’t wait until you graduate.”


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