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Why the gym is a great place for priests to evangelize

father capo

fathercapo | Instagram | Fair Use

Benito Rodríguez - published on 05/08/21

These priests share a love for fitness and exercise, and they've found a way to use that talent in God's service.

Gyms and Crossfit rooms have been becoming more and more popular in recent years, and their clientele is very diverse. Some priests have found in them an environment for self-care and evangelization.

Their perspective is that fitness and faith can go hand in hand. They see the gyms as places where they can strengthen their muscles and their spirit. 

Accompanying the flock

Pope Francis dedicates part of his magisterium to “accompanying people” wherever they are. Some priests have seen that among weights and treadmills there’s room to bring people closer to God.

Perhaps some people might be tempted to think that gyms are only places of interest for a clientele that lives on superficiality and the cult of the body. But the clientele is very varied.

Many attend because of their love for sports and fitness, and others because of the recommendation of their doctor to overcome or recuperate from some ailment. Some even go to meet people in a healthy environment, and others as a way to release tension and stress. 

Priests who frequent gyms maintain that this type of training can help on a pastoral level: Just as you gradually do more intense exercises in order to progress, you can do the same with the Christian life to grow spiritually.

They also see gyms as places from which they can learn. They see how “communities” are established, and how if someone is absent they are missed. They believe that the same thing should happen in parishes; when for whatever reason someone misses Mass, that absence should be noticed and felt, and the priest and congregation should give them the necessary support and accompaniment.

Father Capo

At 51 years of age, this priest has an imposing physique. Fr. Rafael Capo is a bodybuilder.

He began lifting weights in high school as a way to supplement his athletic training in his native Puerto Rico, according to a Catholic News Service article. There he found a path to God. He continued the practice throughout his transition from the seminary to the priesthood.

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A post shared by Fr. Rafael Capo (@fathercapo)

“I started to come up with a theology of fitness and spirituality; how everything is connected — body, mind, spirit, and how it becomes a way to being fit for ministry, being fit for life, being fit for God’s kingdom,” he told the Catholic Review, cited in the CNS article.

Father Capo especially sees it an opportunity to reach out to young people. In the United States he gives conferences of evangelization to young people. He tells how through exercising in gyms he has managed to engage people in conversations that eventually become profound and spiritual, to the point where, as he told CNS, he’s even heard spontaneous confessions at the gym.

He has invited fellow gym members to the Church, and there they’ve found God. He emphasizes how the combined use of evangelization at the gym and of social networks used properly are very effective in his priestly mission.

Fr. Ricardo Esteves

This young priest connects easily with young people. He’s one of their generation, although at times that has cost him the misunderstanding of some parishioners. They called him the “hunky priest.”

Without intending to, he created a stir on social networks, where photos of him appear on the beach or training, in addition to many others performing his priestly ministry. He’s a parish priest in Valença do Minho in Portugal, where his Masses are crowded. He arrived at his previous parish in Caminha when he was just 25 years old. Parishioners didn’t understand why he went to the beach and the gym.

But 10 years later they were collecting signatures to stop him being transferred to his current parish. He won the parishioners over with his simplicity and his charitable initiatives.

And he defends his vocation: “I am not a priest because I just want to help; otherwise I would’ve become a fireman. A vocation is something interior, it cannot be explained. It’s almost like love; you feel it.” 

Stephen Gadberry

This priest from the Diocese of Arkansas is an official Crossfit trainer. He grew up on a farm and so early on “learned to appreciate the value and dignity of work and physical labor,” he told Word on Fire. He enjoyed sports as well, and when he later joined the military, he says, it “helped to sharpen and clarify my internal drive for excellence.” That’s when he first got involved with Crossfit, although he didn’t become a trainer until much later.

He’s famous in the United States because he participated in the television program American Ninja Warrior, a show of skill and overcoming obstacles.

He believes that his priestly vocation can be linked to his favorite sport:

As a priest, I enjoy helping others to become physically and spiritually fit and find great joy in showing how comparable and interconnected the two are. There are countless spiritual parallels, but I won’t go into those here.

He’s aware that combining the gym and evangelization is perceived as an unusual combination, but he summarizes his perspective concisely for Word on Fire:

The Lord gives all of us unique gifts and we are able to proclaim his Name most perfectly when we embrace and use those gifts. Christ has blessed me with a love for sport and exercise and has given me the talents necessary to do them well. Through prayerful discernment and talking with my spiritual director, I have learned that God wants me to use those gifts to his glory.

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