Continuing with yesterday’s interview, today Jared Zimmerer chats with Fr. Casey Jones, the co-founder of Priestfit, an organization created to help encourage healthy lifestyles among priests today. Resounding St. Paul that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit!
First, as a huge Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles fan, I can’t help but love the name: Fr. Casey Jones. It sounds like the hockey stick hero had a conversion! So Father, tell us about yourself.
I am a native Floridian, which if you have ever visited this state, is a rarity. I come from a long line of commercial fisherman, a profession that likely began in the baldric islands from which my ancestors came to the state of Florida in the 18th century. Having attended parochial school at a young age, from a Catholic, but not particular devout home, for whatever reason, being a priest was always “on the radar” for me when I thought about what I would like to do with my life. However, I often wondered if I had the aptitude to accomplish the required studies. Unfortunately, despite the strong work ethic of my family, I had developed a defeatist attitude at a young age. I was quickly identified as a “clumsy” kid without much athletic aptitude and for some reason, never learned that with God’s grace, through dedication and hard work, seemingly impossible goals could be met.
Diagnosis at a young age with learning disabilities led to more labels and excuses for not keeping up my school work, and not showing any interest in sports. I quickly became the fat kid who was picked last for sports teams, and came to dislike anything athletic or sports related. While I enjoyed watching games, I knew playing at fitness wasn’t for me. This was a lie I embraced. I graduated high school weighing over 300 pounds.
I also did not apply myself in terms of study. The self-defeating attitudes I had embraced led me not to apply myself to study in the same way I neglected my assignments. The only thing I had real passion in life about was my faith, which really came alive to me in my high school years, thanks to the inspiration I received form St. John Paul II at World Youth Day 1993. However, I did not see the connection between faith, study and taking care of myself. I was eventually asked to leave a Catholic High School because of my poor academic performance. I was told by an administrator that there was “No way in Hell” I would ever be a priest.
My poor choices in terms of my high school career, coupled with my passion for always being right, left me without the option of seminary right after high school. Eventually I would be led to spend a year with the National Evangelization Teams (NET Ministries) where I would travel the US with a team of other young people to present the gospel to teenage Catholics.
After NET, I entered seminary, originally outside of my home state, but after graduating from college in Montana, I returned home to Florida for Major seminary. As one can imagine, it was not an easy venture. Though I had learned to apply myself academically and was quite successful, I still had not learned to embrace health. I had limited successes coupled with setbacks regarding weight loss. The Seminary did well to challenge me to take better care of myself, I tried several diet and exercise programs, some mandated by the seminary, others by personal choice. But no matter how convincing someone’s reasons are for encouraging you to move into health, unless you are convinced that this is God’s plan the true motivation just isn’t there, and you will run out of steam.
I think there are so many out there who can relate to the struggle of self-defeatedness. Something I think fitness can really help with. So, how did fitness become part of your life?
My first year of priesthood I made attempts to move into health, I hired a trainer and began to workout regularly. However, I soon found out that though people were vocally supportive of a priest moving into health, there is little support in the area of accommodating a healthy lifestyle, particularly in allowing a priest the time he needs to pray and exercise. Sometimes we priests are our own worst enemies in this regard. As in seminary, I had periods of loss and setback in regard to my health.
Where did you get your motivation to get fit?
There were a few factors, One is that I knew what a terrible witness I was. 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 knew the people of God deserved healthy and happy priest, and of course, holy. I also grew tired of seeing my brother priests fall victim to unhealthy lifestyles, which often leads to spiritual as well as physical lethargy.
I reached out and tried to find help. I had heard of Jared Zimmerer’s spiritual approach to fitness through Word on Fire and emailed him asking for some guidance. He kindly obliged. Yet I still lacked discipline and accountability.
I realized that I had gained over 30 pounds over a summer and decided that enough was enough. I saw a weight-loss specialist and began to learn the science of weight loss. After an initial diet, I began to work out seriously. I got bit by the weight-lifting bug and really began to enjoy pushing myself to new, tangible fitness goals.
How has fitness impacted your vocation as a priest?
Well for starters, I am happier. By moving toward health (I am over 100 pounds down, but still have a way to go) I have more freedom than I did before. I am can go places and do things I couldn’t before. I have a renewed sense of confidence. I feel that my obesity is the last remnant of the self-defeating lies I had learned to embrace.
My path to the priesthood itself was not easy. There were many twists and turns in my seminary formation due to my own insecurities and lack of discipline due to the negative self image and lables I had embraced. The day I found myself prostrate before the Altar of God was indeed the happiest of my life. My first few years of ministry have been met with many successes and setbacks, but now met with detirmination. I am living proof that all things can be done through the grace of Jesus Christ.
This past summer I was given a new priestly assignment, which has been a huge factor in my more recent motivation. It was a great surprise when my bishop named me chaplain of my old High School and a local university. God has a beautiful way of making things come full circle. Our school motto is “Non excidet” which means “He does not fail”. The students with whom I interact are my motivation. Sure, it’s great fun to work out with the sports teams, but more importantly my own physical and spiritual life can serve as a witness to remind all of our students that God calls us to excellence and gives us all the grace we need to actualize His plan for us. My journey to health helps me to encourage the young people whom I love, to reject lies, and to embrace goals for themselves.
Working out at local gym also has provided moments of fellowship with students and other members of the community. I find that people are inspired by the example of a priest, not only on spiritual terms, but also physically. I never would have imagined the impact this would have on my ministry.
How did Priestfit come about?
About a year ago a friend of mine told me about Fr. Ryan Rooney, a young priest who had lost over 200 pounds. At this point, I was 70 pounds down and knew that I needed encouragement and motivation to keep moving forward and to avoid falling “off the wagon” as I had done in the past. I reached out to Fr. Ryan and we immediately became friends and began to discuss how we could reach out to our brothers. Around the same time, I saw yet another brother priest pass away as a result of poor health choices and waned to reach out.
As we moved through Christmas, both Fr. Ryan and I had some major holiday setbacks and new it was time to do something. So, we decided to do a challenge from January 2 to the Feast of the Presentation. The name Priestfit came forward and Fr. Ryan drew up a logo. We started a Facebook “secret” group and a public “page” for supporters. We encouraged brothers to share their stories and to provided daily reflections based on what we had learned on our journey.
We exist now as a fraternal outreach and support to encourage priests to embrace our tagline: Eat Clean. Be Fit. and Pray Well. These three imperatives demonstrate that a healthy lifestyle request nutrition, exercise and, of course, God’s grace. We exist to support our brothers who desire to move into health, regardless of where they are in their journey. Whether it’s needing to start, or encouragement in maintenance. We exist to pray for and support one another. We currently have over 120 members.
If you could say one thing to our priests, what would it be?
The people of God need us for the sacraments and the advancement of the gospel of Jesus Christ. They need and deserve happy, healthy, and holy priests. If you struggle in these areas, we are here to encourage and support you. Don’t be afraid to come forward and ask for support so that you can eat clean, be fit and pray well.