Social media-based mutual support group pushes priests to stay in shape, to better serve their people.
We see overweight police officers and get worried. “Can someone like that help me if I’m in trouble? Could he chase someone who just stole my purse?”
But when we see an overweight priest in our Catholic parishes, do we have the same concern? As a police officer is there to protect our lives, a priest is there to help guide us to eternal life. We expect them to be spiritually fit, but we don’t necessarily expect them to be physically fit.
Rather, many Catholics expect our priests to be friendly and jovial, and a priest’s overweight status could well be a sign that he’s the very approachable type — frequently found at social functions tipping a glass or wined and dined by parishioners.
But at what cost?
For Fr. Ryan Rooney, the cost can be devastating.
“People are literally dying on the job. Obesity is a huge problem, but there’s not a lot of priest care out there in dioceses,” said Fr. Rooney, who co-founded a ministry to brother priests called PriestFit.
Fr. Rooney, a priest of the Diocese of Springfield, Massachusetts, struggled with weight himself, especially in the first years of his priesthood. At one point, he hit a high of 464 pounds. Over the course of a few years, including time spent in a rehab center for priests and male religious, he lost a total of 245 pounds.
When he became administrator of a parish, the weight started to come back on, he related. He learned of a priest in Florida, Fr. Casey Jones, who had a similar problem, and after brainstorming, the two decided to start something that could help other priests in their situation.
“We said we should really challenge each other, but let’s just put this challenge out to other brother priests on social media, and that’s really where PriestFit was born,” Fr. Rooney said in an interview. “In 2017 we started with a challenge called the Presentation Challenge. We figured that with New Year’s Resolutions, people like to start at the beginning of the year, so let’s start at the beginning of the year, but let’s use the Feast of the Presentation as a goal, to give us about 30 or 31 days of a challenge, just to eat clean, be fit and pray well. That was our tagline.”
PriestFit today has about 360 members around the world, connecting with one another through a private Facebook group. The privacy of the group allows the men to “share their highs and lows and their everyday life struggles with their fitness and diet routines,” Fr. Rooney explained. “We really centered around three areas: your food, exercise routine and your spiritual life, then setting goals for those things and being able to be accountable to brother priests in that private group.”
Hit the gym
One participant in the ministry is Fr. Michael Silloway, pastor of Christ Our King and Savior Catholic Church in Greensboro, Georgia. “Fr. Ryan and Fr. Casey had instructional and motivational livestreams each day, giving practical tips on how to create new healthy habits, how to handle stress from the unique perspective of ministerial priests, how to push through setbacks,” Fr. Silloway told Aleteia. “We would check in with one another through the Facebook group page, sharing success and struggles. As the ministry grew, the founders began to host Zoom meetings, giving members a chance to meet one another and to share their experiences in real time. What started with a handful of priests soon turned into a large international fraternity.”
Fr. Silloway lost 60 pounds doing the Presentation Challenge.
“We started adding other challenges as we saw fit,” Fr. Rooney said. “We did a summer challenge, a Pentecost challenge; we kept going through Lent one year.”
Fr. Rooney admitted that it’s easy for a priest to lead a sedentary lifestyle — living in a rectory or a parish center where one’s office is right next to church.
“The other challenges are basically being alone,” he added. “Loneliness has its own psychological factors.”
Plus, it’s easier to pick up some fast food rather than take the time to cook for yourself.
“And then spending yourself for others in ministry creates certain tensions,” the priest continued. “And oftentimes the selflessness of the priesthood gives way to a lack of self care. The altruistic focus of being there for others, of giving to others, means that you don’t recharge or take time to yourself. Of course we know you can’t give what you don’t have, but oftentimes we’re required, because of who we are, to give, give, give — at the expense of yourself. So there’s an easy overlooking of personal care. And over the years we’ve seen what that’s done to the priesthood.”
“We need to be there for one another as a band of brothers,” said Fr. Rooney. “We open up to each other as brother priests.”
Being there for others
But priests also need to be there for their people, Frs. Rooney and Jones emphasized, and ultimately, PriestFit helps the laity by helping their shepherds.
“I knew what a terrible witness I was,” Fr. Jones said in an interview with Word on Fire. “People who knew my vocation story often praised me for my determination despite several obstacles faced in my path to ordination, yet I still allowed food to have a stronghold over me. … I also grew tired of seeing my brother priests fall victim to unhealthy lifestyles, which often leads to spiritual as well as physical lethargy.”
“The people of God,” he said, “need us for the sacraments and the advancement of the gospel of Jesus Christ. They need and deserve happy, healthy, and holy priests.”