Take Up Thy Sneakers and Run: Bishop Paprocki’s 8 Steps to Spiritual and Physical Fitness

BOOK INTERVIEW: New book, ‘Running for a Higher Purpose,’ gives wisdom in ‘running the race’ for Catholics.

Bishop Thomas Paprocki offers insights that running has imparted to him over the years that benefit the spiritual life in his new book.
Bishop Thomas Paprocki offers insights that running has imparted to him over the years that benefit the spiritual life in his new book. (photo: Courtesy of the Diocese of Springfield, Illinois; Ave Maria Press cropped book cover)

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — If the idea of running for fitness, let alone a marathon, makes you pray like a prodigal St. Augustine, “Lord, make me fit, but not yet,” then you should take up and read Bishop Thomas Paprocki’s latest book, Running for a Higher Purpose. 

The Catholic bishop of Springfield, Illinois, a marathon runner, shares both personal testimony and practical insight in offering eight steps for a person to achieve physical and spiritual fitness. In this interview with the Register, Bishop Paprocki discusses his new book and what running teaches the faithful about the virtuous life and growing as a disciple of Jesus Christ.  


Bishop Paprocki, you’ve written a new book that may be especially for people who pray Augustine-like, ‘Lord, make me fit, but not yet.’ What are the origins of Running for a Higher Purpose?

Well, it’s a follow-up book, in a sense, to my previous book from 2013, Holy Goals for Body and Soul: Eight Steps to Connect Sports with God and Faith by Ave Maria Press. It was written from the point of view of my love for hockey and my playing goalie — I was nicknamed “the holy goalie” — and Ave Maria Press came back to me last year and suggested that I write another book from my running perspective, with my background in being a runner. 

It’s somewhat of a “how-to” book in that regard. It’s for people who are thinking about becoming runners, if they are not running; and if they are, to think about a marathon. There’s “how-to” tips in there. But what both books have in common, the Holy Goals book and Running for a Higher Purpose, is that they both emphasize the connection between the spiritual and physical. The relationship between body and soul is an important part of our faith.

The ancient Greeks had the view that the body was sort of like a shell: When you were done with your body, you just sort of cast it off, and were just a spirit for all eternity. But our Catholic faith talks about the Second Coming, and we say in the Creed we believe in the resurrection of the body, which is referring to our bodies, so we look forward to the day when our bodies will be raised up as Our Lord was raised up with the glorified body. And that’s our faith, that we’ll someday have a glorified body like that, as well. So it says to me that we should have a respect for our bodies, and we should treat them well. 


How did you come up with the eight steps to help Catholics lace up and run?

I do a lot of my writing before the Blessed Sacrament, actually, in my chapel, and as I was thinking on the steps that I wanted to use for spiritual and physical fitness, I just came upon a number of words that were coming to mind: review, reform, resolve, repeat, renew, relax, reward and rejoice, and all of those kinds of things go in a progression. And again, these can and should be applied both to your physical and your spiritual life. 


After reading this book, I thought how, in many ways, it is not just about running, but provides readers a guide to living out the life of Catholic discipleship of Jesus Christ.

I would agree with that. My hope would be that people would pick up the book and not think, “Well, I’m not a runner, I’m not interested in running, and so this book is not for me.” Running is sort of a prism, or lens through which to look at this. Physical fitness could be any kind of physical activity on your own: walking, hiking, swimming, weightlifting; whatever it is that you do, I think those steps are helpful to take things incrementally, step by step. And [it’s the] same with your spiritual life. I think that some people are perhaps intimidated by this automatic goal to be a saint — anyone who’s in heaven is a saint — the goal is to live with God forever in heaven. And we might be intimidated by that and think, “Well, I’m not a very saintly person, I could never do that.” 

And just like someone who has never run before may think “I can never run a marathon, 26.2 miles,” well, you take it a step at a time. Marathon training is an incremental process where you increase your mileage a little bit every weekend, and you do the same in the spiritual life.

Start out where your first step is; make a Morning Offering when you get out of bed; say grace before your meals; make sure you’re getting to Mass at least once a week; and then some people, as they’re progressing in their spiritual journeys, go maybe a couple times a week and then some go every day. So it doesn’t necessarily have to achieve everything 100% all at once. You just take it a step at a time.


One of the interesting aspects of this book is how much personal testimony there is in this, not just about running, but also your own spiritual journey. Do you think as Catholics we would do well to incorporate more of that personal-testimony approach to sharing with others our own faith in Jesus Christ?

Absolutely. Sharing our personal story is very important. One of the things that we were taught in homiletics class is that a homily shouldn’t be all theory, pulling from a theological treatise, but that it should also be a personal testimony. And that is very powerful. 

I could have written a book that just gives you all the technical steps of how to train for a marathon. But I don’t think that would have inspired too many people [as much as] when I share my stories, including my struggles. First of all, I was somewhat surprised myself with how many marathon-related stories I had. I’ve been running for over 50 years now and running marathons for five years. And so there’s a lot of experiences in there. 

I thought this would be good to share with people: some of my own issues, hesitations or struggles trying to achieve this — [I hope] that might be helpful and inspiring for some other people, as well.


You compare running to the virtuous life: The habit of running makes running easy, and the virtues work the same way. Many people think living a virtuous life must be hard, not easy.

First of all, the very word “virtue” is a “good habit,” in contrast with a “vice,” which is a “bad habit.” And so, to develop a virtue means to get good habits. Well, any habit is something you do almost automatically without thinking about it. Unfortunately, if you have bad habits, those are vices we fall into easily, and that’s not a good thing. What you want to do is develop good habits so that it doesn’t have to be this monumental struggle every time you want to do something virtuous. Rather, it’s something that comes naturally. 

So, for example, running: I just recall that first mile I ever ran, how difficult that was. But now, for me to go out and run a mile, it’s like a piece of cake. In fact, now, if I don’t run, then I just feel like something was missing. So it has become second nature to me. I get up in the morning; it’s usually the first one of the first things I do. I go out at the door, and I’m running. It’s not like I have to make this great, concerted effort. … It just comes naturally to me now. It’s the same thing with leading a virtuous life: to live according to the virtues, like the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity, and the cardinal virtues of fortitude, prudence, temperance and justice. That’s just the way I live. I don’t have to spend a whole lot of [time] thinking about it. 

Another aspect that I emphasize in the book is the community dimension of this, both physical and spiritual. You might think that running is a very individual kind of thing, or may have this persona of the individual runner, running all by yourself. Now a lot of running is by yourself, but I found in my experience what really helped me with my marathon training was joining a running group. The Chicago Area Runners Association not only helped to increase my time, but also increased my mileage. 

When you stop to think of it, that’s really what church is all about, in terms of community. And that’s a very important issue in our culture, because our American culture is so individualistic. When it comes to spirituality, there are many people who think, “I don’t need church. I don’t need priests and sacraments and all that. It’s just me and God. I can do this myself.” Well, I’d say No. It’s hard to sustain that by yourself. After a while, it’s going to wane. But when you’re part of a community, like marathon training, you’re supporting each other. 

Maybe some days, like when you don’t feel like running, you think, “Okay, I have a group of people waiting for me, and I better get there on time, and we’re going to push each other.” And it’s the same thing when you’re part of a church community. That word “community” is important, because if you’re part of a community, and you don’t show up, you should be missed. 

So that kind of accountability and support for each other is very important.


So when you’re starting to take the spiritual life seriously, how do you pace yourself, like running, to avoid crashing and burning?

This is where I think having a spiritual director is very helpful. Priests and nuns are very used to this, because it’s part of our seminary training, or, for religious, in the novitiate. You have a spiritual director that you sit down with weekly, monthly, every other week, something like that, as just kind of a checkpoint of how things are going. 

And that could work both ways. Sometimes your spiritual director needs to push you. Maybe you’re thinking you’re making progress, but you’re really not moving as far along as you should be. So your spiritual director can push you. On the other hand, the spiritual director also can be a moderating influence, for sometimes people are so enthusiastic that they jump in with unrealistic expectations.


Towards the end of the book, you really make this invitation for people to accept Jesus Christ as one’s personal Lord and Savior and live out his call to discipleship. What would you like people, most of all, to know about what it means to run the race physically and spiritually, while keeping your eyes fixed on Jesus?

I would say there have to be moments in your life where you make a conscious decision to keep going. When you’re running a marathon, for example, in some approaches, the advice is just taking a mile at a time. When you’re starting to think, “Oh, my goodness, I’ve got 26.2 miles ahead of me, I can never do that,” you go, “Look, let’s get through this mile.” And then you get through the next mile and another mile. 

And you know, the same thing is with life, I think. I’m a cradle Catholic. I was baptized just a few weeks after I was born. I wanted to become a priest at a very early age, and I actually entered a high-school seminary. But when I entered the high-school seminary as a teenager, it wasn’t like, “Okay, that’s done. I’ve made up my mind, and my life has a plan now for the rest of my life.” No, there were checkpoints along the way to reevaluate, like going from high school to college, college to major seminary: “Do I want to keep going?” 

I’d say, for most people, there does come this time, especially if you were baptized as an infant, to say, “Okay, I’ve been baptized into the Church. Do I want to commit myself to living this gift that has been given to me as my faith? I have to accept that gift. And then I have to put it into practice.” 

There does have to be that moment: It could come at a retreat … or just a parish mission, where the Lord, through whoever’s speaking, touches your heart, and you say, “Lord, I’m going to make a strong commitment to this faith.”

We’re given all these spiritual gifts [with our faith], but then we have to use them. And that’s a conscious decision: How am I going to live my life as a Christian?


This interview is edited for length.


Readers can order Running for a Higher Purpose from EWTN Religious Catalogue. A personal signed copy of the book by Bishop Paprocki can be obtained at HolyGoalie.net.