Turn Your Body into a Temple
Online apostolate Priestfit offers encouragement for healthy living
In January 2017, Father Ryan Rooney, a priest in the Diocese of Springfield, Massachusetts, and Father Casey Jones of the Diocese of Venice, Florida, co-founded Priestfit, “a social-media-based network of Catholic priests who support each other while witnessing to others who struggle in the areas of health and fitness,” according to its website (priestfit.com). “The mission of Priestfit is to continue this forum of support, to share our stories and knowledge, and to advocate for a healthier presbyterate in the Catholic Church.”
Father Rooney said that in sharing their stories, “We allow our brothers to begin their own journeys, hopefully saving vocations in the process. We are not a program, but a simple support. As such, we invite priests of all levels of fitness and experience to join our movement.”
The following are four stories from priests across the world who have found a support community with other Catholic clergy in Priestfit.
Here are some of their stories, shared in their own words.
Father Ryan Rooney | Diocese of Springfield, Massachusetts
To be called the co-founder of a movement for priests focusing on health and wellness is humbling for me, because I still struggle with these areas on a daily basis. I identify as a food addict, and I have struggled with this from an early age. At my highest weight, a year and a half into priesthood, I was 464 pounds. In a two-year process of rehab, diet and exercise, I lost 245 pounds, and I have been maintaining this within a reasonable range over the last three years.
About two years ago, I realized I needed something that would increase the statistical probability of sustaining this extreme loss by reaching out to friends to start a ministry. Father Casey Jones was a social-media friend at the time. We hadn’t even met when we started our first Priestfit Presentation challenge to our brother priests in January 2017.
What followed from that was the development of a Facebook support group, website, appearances in various media and increased public exposure. The most valuable thing has been to see fruits from brother priests from all over the world. To see transformations in a short period of time has proven to me that this is a much-needed ministry in the Church. We are creating a movement that hopefully is advocating to bishops and the wider Church that our priests need to be healthy as well as holy. In this current atmosphere of scandal, we see our ministry as part of prevention, deterrence and solution to the some of the causes that have led our brother priests and bishops astray.
Father Casey Jones | Diocese of Venice, Florida
Being unhealthy and overweight leads to depression, and in moments of depression and despondence we turn to our favorite coping mechanisms. For me, it always has been food — and usually the wrong foods. I decided I was fat even before I was fat, and I allowed this label to stick throughout high school, allowing friends to call me “porkchop” and deciding that I would never be athletic. By the time I graduated high school, I weighed over 300 pounds.
From a very young age I felt called to the priesthood. Assisting at Mass, learning about my faith and growing in my relationship with the Lord always excited me. Despite my obesity, I was the one to whom friends often would turn in times of trouble, and I was happy to help. My love for Jesus Christ, the beauty of his Church, the intimacy of the sacraments and a desire to serve others led me to heed the call of the Lord.
It took me some time to grow up and break free of my defeatist attitude. After some time in lay ministry, I entered seminary. I finally had learned how to apply myself academically and had the proper motivation to perform well. The People of God deserve priests who know well what the Church teaches — and how to articulate these truths. However, I still could not get a handle on my health.
Every year in seminary weight loss would be one of my goals in the area of human formation. I would have some success, and I would backslide months later. I participated in several weight-loss programs. What I found was this: No matter how convincing someone else’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 hit a wall and give up.
In my first year of priesthood, I tried again to get a handle on my obesity. I hired a trainer and began to eat right. But I soon found that while the People of God and even ecclesial superiors praised healthy initiatives, there is little support in the area of accommodating this lifestyle, particularly in allowing a priest the time he needs to pray and exercise. Sometimes we are our own worst enemies in this regard. As in seminary, I had periods of loss and setback. One summer, after returning from some weeks of study, I realized that I had gained 30 pounds in just five weeks. I was ready to be done.
I carved out time for the gym, and I began to eat clean. I honored my gym time as I would any other appointment, even if it meant getting up early or going to bed late. I remember when I first hit the lowest weight of my adult life. I felt so free. I loved lifting weights and getting stronger. I now weigh more than 100 pounds less than I was when I began this journey, and while it’s an ongoing battle I must say I feel great.
In the midst of my own journey, I heard the story of Father Rooney, and I had a feeling that this is a guy who understood my own obstacles. We saw that we understood the struggle in a way that no one else could. The life of a priest is unique and, without proper attention, sets up the perfect storm for men to fall into addictive behavior. For some this is drink; for me it’s food; for others it’s acting out sexually. We all have our go-to vices.
Obesity in the priesthood is real, and it’s a real problem. I have seen men die from obesity-related health issues. Father Rooney and I both said we need to begin an outreach to priests because lives are at stake. Priests turn to addictive behavior often because they feel isolated and alone. This is what Priestfit provides: a place where we encourage one another to eat clean, be fit and pray well. We are a fraternal outreach that exists so that men do not feel alone, especially in this current climate. We are ashamed, embarrassed and angry over the abuse scandals. We stand in solidarity, grounded in our relationship with Jesus the High Priest who desires us to be happy and healthy, as well as holy.
Father Roberto Oliveros Jr. | Diocese of Bayombong, Philippines
The death of both my parents before my ordination took so much joy from me. The loss caused me so much sadness.
To ease the pain, I relied on food. I even slept with food and woke up one day as a sad, obese priest. Sadly, I just gave up, thinking that I would just die as an unfit, obese priest. I lost motivation; I never cared; I lost hope.
Finally I realized that I needed to pick myself back up and redirect my life for the people I am serving. So I searched the internet for groups that might help me. Priestfit first made me realize that I am not alone. I felt overwhelmed with the support I received from brother priests. So I started little by little. I gained discipline in food, good time management and confidence to preach the Good News.
Little results became big motivations. Now I am happier and more alive in serving the people in my parish. I am still far from my goal, but I know I’m getting there. Priestfit changed my life.
Father Leon Vigil | Archdiocese of Santa Fe, New Mexico
Priestfit isn’t simply a group with a common goal; it’s a way of life. This group of priests has helped me to understand that I can’t give what I don’t have. As a 31-year-old and a priest of two years, I was feeling defeated. What I didn’t have was a sense of balance. I had low energy, I was overweight, and I felt inadequate. Priestfit came into my life at the right time.
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From many of these men, I’ve learned balance both in my spiritual and physical life. I realized that if I was going to be involved in ministry for the long haul, I not only needed to pray well, I needed to eat well, exercise well and rest well. All of these, if done correctly, keep me rooted and provide for me a well-balanced life so that I continually can lay down my life for the people entrusted to my pastoral care.
Priestfit changed my life. What is most amazing about this transformation process is that the benefits are not mine alone, but they benefit the People of God, who now have a healthy, active, joyful servant at their disposal.