Faith & Fitness: How Exercise and Workouts Can Build Virtue
Being active, for benefit of body and soul.
St. John Paul II loved to ski (among other sports). So did Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati (along with hiking). Another hiking-and-skiing saint was St. Gianna Molla. Venerable Michael McGivney played baseball. So did Blessed Solanus Casey. And Blessed Chiara Badano played tennis.
They are in good company. As the fitness trend continues to grow — a new study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows the number of Americans who now meet or exceed federal exercise guidelines has risen to nearly a quarter of the population — Catholics are helping folks to also exercise their faith as they work out.
At the center of this effort to “inspire the synergy between faith and fitness” is the resource hub Swole.Catholic (SwoleCatholic.com), which provides information on exercise and nutrition via blogcasts, helps connect people with faith-based trainers, gyms, workouts and nutritionists, and offers Scripture-themed sportswear.
The website lists a bevy of like-minded “outpost” folks who offer friendly, free encouragement as well as a list of professionals who make their livelihoods through their services (for example, personal training).
Swole.Catholic was started by Denverite Paul McDonald. “Swole Catholic is a ministry rooted in encouraging faith-filled fitness, trying to get people to recognize that the body they have is a gift from God and we need to take care of that,” McDonald, 26, told the Register.
The name “Swole” in the website’s name refers to the bodybuilding term for “extremely muscular.” The organization’s motto is: “In all I do, let it bring me closer to You.”
“The heart of Swole.Catholic came from my twofold conversion story, both reverting back to my faith as well as having a fitness conversion,” McDonald said, referring to his college days.
Giving up his freshman-year party lifestyle led to his working out more seriously in the gym and discovering a passion for it. Shortly afterward, an invitation to be involved with the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS) campus ministry led to him leading a Bible study.
“It felt like every single week in Bible study I was making a reference or analogy back to the gym, and it clicked — these two things go together,” McDonald said. “We are body and soul and should be building both. That’s where Swole.Catholic started.”
The organization launched two years ago, selling T-shirts emblazoned with “Swole.Catholic” at a FOCUS conference to promote “faithful fitness” in body and soul. Since the launch, it has expanded to include informational content and to build a supportive community that allows people to find faith-based fitness resources in their area.
“Some Christian circles are stuck in this Gnostic kind of perspective — neglect the material; your body is bad; just take care of your soul,” McDonald said. “The world is opposite — don’t worry about your soul, just your body. But we need to take care of both.”
McDonald points to 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 — “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit? … Therefore, glorify God in your body.” — among the many Scriptures speaking about the body.
Swole.Catholic aims to assist the faithful in doing just that by making a wealth of resources available, including a former Olympian who offers fitness training to mothers and a group that urges priests to get fit.
“At the end of the day, it comes down to your own discernment as to what works best for you in your relationship with Christ,” McDonald said, adding that Swole.Catholic’s goal is to help people to “become the saints we’re called to be.”
Fit Catholic Mom
Former Olympic skier and world champion winter triathlete Rebecca Dussault, 38, is a wife, mother of six, fitness coach and faithful Catholic. Three years ago she established Fit Catholic Mom to “revitalize Catholic households starting with the mom.”
“I train moms to daily hit the pillars of faith, fitness and food. It’s an integrated approach to those so they can be holy, healthy and happy,” Dussault told the Register.
Two years ago, Dussault and her family moved from her native Colorado to Idaho. A year ago the family bought a farm there, and Dussault began offering Fit Catholic Mom online (FitCatholicMom.com) to expand its reach and have greater impact. After a free hour-long call to assess the woman’s needs and whether she’s a candidate for the eight-week program, which includes daily faith exercises, a training regimen and a food plan, Dussault begins their formation for a new lifestyle.
A woman carries it out in her own home using videos, a weekly coaching call, daily online accountability and a “WISE (Women Improving Sport/Spiritual Endurance) Gals” Facebook group.
“It’s not the vain train, and it’s not selfish. It’s getting women to understand that sports are a school of moral excellence. They are uncovering their virtue and character through sport,” Dussault said. “The faith is present in all that we do, and those momentary sufferings, whether offered for intercession or just for the woman’s own sanctification going through [it] — you don’t want to work out, don’t want to eat kale — you do that next right thing, the next hard thing, and build the muscles of your body and mind.”
Realizing that some could be intimidated by having an Olympic athlete as a trainer, Dussault said she strips away that fear by sharing her own physical battles.
“My body has been ravaged by seven pregnancies,” Dussault said, noting that she just had a baby in April. “In some of the videos, I’m not at peak fitness. I’m not always a lean, mean, movin’ machine.
“This past weekend, our whole family ran a 5K, all of us. I won! And I still have 30 pounds on from this baby. That empowers them to know you don’t have to wait to be healthy and happy. There has to be joy in the journey.”
Fit Catholic Mom has nothing to do with the cult of the body, Dussault said.
“It’s using the body to perfect our soul, to bring it back into submission to our soul,” she said. “It’s a different lens, a different why than the world gives its athletes. We’re athletes of the spirit first.”
Quoting the early desert mother St. Amma of Syncletica, she added: “‘The body is your armor; the soul is your warrior. Train them both, and you’ll be ready for anything.’ I firmly believe that.”
In 2013 Father Ryan Rooney weighed 464 pounds. He had difficulty dressing and had trouble going down the stairs to celebrate Mass. A priest of the Diocese of Springfield, Massachusetts, he was just 29 years old and had only been ordained three years, but his ministry was in trouble due to his weight.
“My bishop and others noticed, and I was sent away to recover at Guest House in Rochester, Minnesota. I lost 100 pounds in five months there,” he told the Register.
“I came back and entered my own recovery program — going to a 12-step program and to the gym and maintaining my diet and exercise. Through that I lost another 145 pounds. I’ve maintained it for a good long time, although it hasn’t been easy, and there have been setbacks.”
Helping him battle his food addiction was discovering a love for high-intensity stationary biking, and he became a certified stationary-bike instructor. His dramatic story caught Catholic media attention and led to Father Casey Jones, a Florida priest who was also fighting obesity, reaching out to him.
“Father Casey Jones and I … have struggled significantly with weight, and it really was killing our vocations at the time,” Father Rooney said. “We noticed priests are larger, are heavier set. We recognize that priests do die from obesity and priests do die from really serious internal struggles that have led them to overeating or not taking care of their bodies while on the job.” Indeed, a 2009 study by Msgr. Stephen Rossetti, a clinical associate professor at The Catholic University of America, found that 46% of the nearly 2,500 priests surveyed identified themselves as overweight. It also showed just over 26% of the priests surveyed listed themselves as obese, and more than 3% reported having a body mass index indicating they were morbidly obese. Determined to help make a change, on Jan. 1, 2017, Father Rooney and Father Jones launched Priestfit (Priestfit.com), a social-media outreach that urges clergy to “Eat Clean. Be Fit. Pray Well.” A public Facebook page exists for supporters, while a private one is available for priest members only to share their stories and encouragement. Priestfit is also on Instagram and offers two challenges a year on YouTube to rally clergy to reach or maintain their health and fitness goals.
“You can’t give what you don’t have,” Father Rooney said. “To make a true self-gift to the Church … we need to be healthy in body and soul. Whatever we can do to encourage that for our brother priests in the wider Church, that’s what we’ll do.”
Priestfit takes its scriptural motto from Romans 12:1: “I urge you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship.”
“Our outreach is part of the solution, not all of the solution,” Father Rooney said, urging dioceses to do as much as they can to support health and wellness for their clergy, such as paying for gym memberships and offering programs that teach healthy eating. Priestfit has drawn members at all fitness levels, including Arkansas priest and CrossFit trainer Father Stephen Gadberry who competed on NBC’s American Ninja Warrior last year, and Miami priest and bodybuilder Father Rafael Capo. “There are priests who have made fitness a priority in their lives, and it has been encouraging to the faithful to see that,” Father Rooney said.
“In my leading spin classes, people love that I’m a priest and I can kick their butt on a bike. It’s led to people I’ve met asking me to baptize their children. The gym is a prime place for evangelization.”
writes from Denver.