Priestfit, Part 1: An Interview with Fr. Ryan Rooney
Christianity is not a dualistic religion. The Catechism states that, "The human body shares in the dignity of "the image of God": it is a human body precisely because it is animated by a spiritual soul, and it is the whole human person that is intended to become, in the body of Christ, a temple of the Spirit." (CCC #364). Our bodies are dignified and needed for the mission and vocation we are called to. In this special two-part series, we'll be chatting with two priests who've founded an organization that helps engender healthy behavior among their brother priests. Today, Jared Zimmerer sits down with Fr. Ryan Rooney, who has lost over 245lbs, which, as he states, has been incredibly helpful in his effort to best serve God as a Catholic priest.
Fr. Ryan Rooney, tell us about yourself.
I’m 31 years old, a priest from the Diocese of Springfield, Massachusetts, a graduate of Franciscan University of Steubenville, OH and St John’s Seminary in Brighton, MA. I love to sing (I’m a trained tenor), I’m deeply committed to the pro-life cause, and I am bilingual in English and Spanish. Now in my sixth year of priesthood, I serve as the Administrator of an inner city multicultural parish, Our Lady of the Sacred Heart in Springfield, MA.
Although I had struggled with obesity all my life, I had managed to lose weight and found a love of working out in seminary. I thought I had everything under control until the stress of ministry began to take its toll when I was ordained a deacon in 2010. I started to put weight on rapidly in the first year and a half of priesthood, as I went to food for comfort. I was, and still am, a food addict through and through. In 2013 my weight tipped the scales at 464lbs.
How did fitness become part of your life?
In September of 2013, my bishop asked me to enter the Damascus Program for priests and male religious who struggle with compulsive overeating at Guest House, which at the time was in Rochester, Minnesota. Though they did not have an established program to deal with all of the complexities of food and weight issues, we worked hard to create a program that worked for me. I took up fitness as a way of life pretty quickly. I swam at the rehab facility and worked out in an athletic club 6 days a week, 3 times a week with a trainer. My food plan was controlled by a nutritionist. I learned to track with the aid of an app called myfitnesspal and started to learn appropriate food portions. I lost weight at a rate of 5-6lbs per week. In total from October 2013 to April of 2014 I lost 100lbs. When I returned to ministry that April I continued on my own to lose another 145lbs through a combination of diet, cardio, and strength training. I began to pick up spin as my preferred cardio exercise, and grew to love it so much that this past year I became a certified spin instructor.
Where did you get your motivation to get fit?
For me the motivation was a combination of the intervention of my bishop and peers, but also my deep desire to live. Gaining so much weight was leading me down a path to multiple health problems and ultimately death. My ministry was affected so much that just making it down for morning Mass was getting exhausting. Finding ultimate motivation involved turning my will and life over to the care of God. Where I had failed before was seeing my own will power as the guiding force. I could be inspired by many in the fitness world, including the extreme weight loss shows, but I needed to find a deeper reality and power that could sustain a healthy lifestyle for years to come. The idea that this journey is one day at a time helps with the motivation, because all I have is today, and I have learned that kind of consistent mentality, 245 pounds didn’t simply fall off my body in one day.
How has fitness impacted your vocation as a priest?
Because of my personal story and because the priesthood makes me a public person, my love of fitness has been drawn into my priestly vocation in a profound way. Fitness has not only affected my spirituality and leadership in the parish, but it has also become a form of ministry. When people see me as Ryan in the gym, once they find out that I am a priest there is a change that sometimes occurs in them. They think it’s neat that a Catholic priest can kick their butts on a spin bike. I’ve also been blessed to be part of groups of Christians that will pray in the secular environment of the gym. Some people have come back to Mass, or reconsider how they’re acting in the workout environment. Though the gym can often be a very ego driven and narcissistic place, a priest can inspire a sense of community and positivity. The people I work out with in spin and boot camps are wonderful examples of this positive fitness lifestyle.
What is Priestfit?
Priestfit was born when I and a brother priest, Fr Casey Jones, had been chatting about starting a ministry of fraternal outreach specifically for priests who struggled with the same things we struggled with. We recognized that although we had significant weight loss, we still struggled at the holidays and wanted a jump start at the beginning of the year. We created a challenge called the Presentation Challenge, put it up in a Facebook group, and the name Priestfit seemed very “fitting!” Very quickly we recognized that our mission was to share the witness and knowledge of a healthy way of life with our brother priests, some of whom are dying on the job. We encourage a simple program which adheres to a three pronged message: eat clean, be fit, pray well. To get this message out to the wider church we created more public access in social media and established a website. Our goals also include advocacy in the Church, especially among the hierarchy, and strengthening access to the support and information that we provide.
If you could say one thing to our priests, what would it be?
If I could say one thing to my brother priests it’s that we don’t have to go at this alone anymore, nor fear the rejection of our Church for wanting to better our fitness lifestyle. It is not selfish to want to take care of yourself! Both food addiction and fitness seem to be points of shame in the priesthood. We are still trying to put our finger on why this is, but we can no longer be content with lifestyles which lead to morbid obesity, nor can we put down priests who need to sacrifice time from their busy schedules to prepare their meals and exercise. A forum of accountability and support helps to reinforce good habits and keep us motivated together as we navigate the challenges facing the Church today.