Today, Father Steve addresses the importance of being physically prepared for spiritual mission, especially within the vocation to the priesthood. Read his thoughts on the matter (and see how he practices what he preaches) below.
Several years ago I made an impassioned appeal that in the face of the terrible scandals facing the priesthood, the laity should not lose faith in the priesthood- that they would continue to encourage the young men in their families to consider whether Christ called them to serve him as his priests. The renewal of the priesthood necessitated that a new generation of priests would rise up from the faithful who would make the necessary sacrifices to set right what had gone so wrong. I must admit that I expected some measure of flack from extending this invitation to the assembly. Many faithful Catholics remain justifiably angry about the dark cloud of scandal that has enveloped the Church and hold the culture of the priesthood responsible for shadows through which we must now walk. It seemed to me that many had lost faith in the priesthood, and so I figured my appeal would be a tough sell.
What surprised me was that the sole objection to my proposal came from two parishioners, a married couple that would best be described as devout with a large brood of children. They found my appeal hard to take and the stumbling block they faced was not simply based on the clerical sexual abuse scandal. “Father” they said, “I would have a very difficult time encouraging priesthood to my sons because it has been our impression that it has become an unhealthy way of life.” “You mean in light of the actions of some priests in regards to the abuse of young people?” I asked. “Quite frankly, it is my impression that priests are physically unhealthy, and whether or not this is symptomatic or the cause of other issues I don’t know. But it seems that men are destroyed physically by the priesthood, and I just wouldn’t want that for my children.” I wrote that conversation down and keep it in my breviary.
Now, granted, priests come in all shapes, sizes, temperaments, and dispositions. Some are sickly and others more robust. The demographics of the priesthood in the United States skew older, and therefore the priests that most people are familiar with are older and have all the physical challenges associated with an aging population. But I must say that what those parishioners said to me rang true to my experience. The priests I knew either struggled to maintain their health and physical fitness or they had surrendered themselves to the types of habits that would inevitably lead to physical decline. In an age when there were fewer priests and the challenges of mission are ever more pressing, the necessary means through which a priest might remain in optimal health seemed to be elusive. I did not find that seminary formation addressed the issue of health, nutrition or physical fitness in a serious way, and when it did, the approach was interventionist, rather that integral. After ordination, bulletins were received from the Vicar for Clergy’s office that encouraged priests to care for themselves, but the resources offered to do so were vague. Usually what was given was advice and warnings about the consequences of an unhealthy lifestyle in increased insurance premiums.
Priests are on their own to take care of themselves and that self-care has become a more pronounced need for the Church. Many priests are highly competent in the skills necessary for their ministry, but this does not mean that they will by necessity make healthy decisions in regards to diet, exercise and lifestyle. Parishioners might appreciate and even admire a priest’s dedication to his mission, a dedication that ends up expressing itself in the man’s physical decline- but while the benefit of such dedication might be measured in the fulfillment of immediate needs, the cost will be experienced by not only the man, but in terms of the Church’s mission. It does not serve the purposes of the Church that the fire of the priesthood burn out quickly, but that its radiance last for many, many years.
I have taken it upon myself to help correct the perception that priesthood as a way of life leads by necessity to physical decline. Perhaps I can be critiqued for overcompensating in this regard. I have been trying my best to not only talk this talk, but also walk the walk as you can see in a video prepared by a good friend of mine that is embedded at the end of this post. I have written before about the possibility that physical conditioning might serve as a new form of asceticism, and as I grow older in the priesthood I have found that it is best for not only myself, but for all priests to eschew behaviors that will inevitably lead to an unhealthy way of life and to cultivate behaviors that enhance one’s health and fitness. Some have told me that my advocacy of (at the very least) an increased awareness in the importance of health and physical fitness is just one more burden that priests don’t need to bear. This might be a legitimate critique, but what many people do not realize is that positive changes to promote better health in terms of nutrition and exercise actually create the conditions for more energy, enthusiasm and resiliency for the challenges of life. We can’t all be triathletes, and don’t need to be, but we can aspire to live deliberately in terms of our health.
The life of a priest does not belong to himself, but to the Lord. We give our lives over to him so that he might use what we are to advance his life and presence in the world. Christ delivers his priests over to the Church as servants of the Sacraments that nourish and sustain the people he has gathered into a relationship with the one, true God. The demands necessitated by the priesthood of Christ can be made much more weighty by the decisions of a priest, particularly in terms of the manner in which a priest presents his way of life to the people. As a result of the clerical sex abuse scandal, people are watching the Church’s priests with a much more critical eye. There is less tolerance for the idiosyncratic behaviors that formally might have been shrugged off. Priests must embody the holiness in their own lives, indeed in their own bodies, that they have been ontologically configured by the Sacrament of Ordination to represent. It seems to me that priests might take this new moment of scrutiny as an opportunity to ask themselves whether or not the manner in which they are living will impress a generation of young men and their parents to accept that the priesthood remains a healthy and viable way of life that deserves the kinds of sacrifices which will assure its reform and renewal.
Father Steve Grunow is the Assistant Director of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.