“The last thing the Church needs is more fat priests!” — a (now deceased) priest whom I had the privilege of knowing in college (when I weighed about 90 lbs less…)
It’s easy enough for priests today to resign ourselves to being victims of our circumstances: many of us are too busy, with heavy assignments, always on the run, and so we often make poor choices with respect to what we eat and whether, if at all, we exercise. Genetic pre-dispositions and other particular health issues aside, many of us simply lack virtue and the resolve to eat properly and so keep the weight off.
I’ve never been much of a dieter, because I tend to lack the willpower. I’ve read a lot about diets and dreamt of completing one with success. I tried Weight Watchers at one point (although I know several who are doing it with great success now — it seems the new system they have is far more effective); I’ve done intermittent fasting; I’ve done keto. But then there are the dinner invitations, the candy dish, the office parties, and… well, the poor choices reflecting a lack of moral virtue! Yes, so much of it comes down to just that.
I suspect that most of us priests who are overweight sense the burden this state of affairs has on our ministry: not only in terms of the disedifying effect that our appearance and gait may have on others, but our reduced stamina, other attendant health issues, and perhaps, even, our reduced self-esteem/confidence. There is also the basic issue of justice: we have embraced the celibate life so that we may give ourselves entirely to the Church, but if we shorten our life through poor lifestyle choices, we limit our gift. As the good Father said, The last thing the Church needs is more fat priests!
In reflecting on this issue and also praying about it, I keep coming back to the question of virtue: How can I acquire the virtue needed — of self-control, of moderation, of prudence — to eat less, eat better, and so be healthier (and hopefully, skinnier)? This needs to be part of my relationship with God. It needs to be part of who I am as a Catholic and a priest. A mere technical solution is not enough.
But systems do help. We need a structured approach. Maybe it really is best to do almost-no-carb (keto or keto-ish), or count points, or whatever. But so often that is hard to manage amidst the particular exigencies of priestly living. A more suitable system is needful.
Well, the one that keeps coming to mind for me is one that I read about many years ago. It is called the No-S Diet. The man who developed it is not Catholic, but he thinks in a Catholic way. The premise behind it is: no snacks, no sweets, no seconds, except on days that start with “s“. (Other days, besides Saturdays and Sundays, can also be “S” Days, designated as such by the individual — such as birthdays, holidays, etc.) He has reasons, which I think are good ones and rooted in a simple and sane reflection on how humans have lived down through the centuries, behind all of these provisos. But what I really like about it is how nicely it fits in with our Catholic, liturgical framework.
For the traditional Catholic way of living is that we fast and we feast. Fasting is now at an historic legal minimum — just two days per year, Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. But traditionally, there were all sorts of fasts throughout the year — for example, on the vigils of most major feasts. Then there were the feasts, with their particular celebrations and often special treats. Think about the zeppole for St. Joseph or the wonderful cassata for St. Agatha’s feast day. These seasonal treats were connected with the great feasts and were also things to look forward to.
Our society today teaches us that we may have whatever we want, when we want it. Just do it! Indulge! Eat “sinful” things, even! If some food is out of season, it is imported from another part of the world. If there is a treat you enjoy when you visit Europe, no problem – you can have it here Stateside also, through online order. And then there are the far more banal treats that tempt us, crying out from their strategic location by the checkout line.
We need virtue to make the right choices, but we also need a framework to grow in virtue. The liturgical framework — observing natural cycles of the year, eating less most days but having special days to enjoy — is one that just makes sense for a Catholic. Especially for a Catholic who is striving to recover a proper Catholic culture for himself and for his family.
Well, priests live (or are supposed to live) liturgical lives. We pray the Liturgy of the Hours, with its different rankings of feasts. We celebrate Mass for those varied saints and other observances. Our “big days” are Sundays and Holy Days. And each day, we have the task, like everyone else, of trying to acquire virtue.
It seems to this overweight priest that something like the No-S Diet may be the most coherent approach we can take in our pursuit of virtuous eating and living. Maybe some of us have few invitations out and don’t mind cooking — so we can pursue a keto diet easily or count points or whatever. But for many who are out a lot, don’t like cooking or don’t have the time or energy to do it, and so forth, something like this is a simple framework and it coheres with our liturgical life. Thus we can readily bring it back to our prayer, and draw strength from the Lord so that we may persevere.
Indeed, we might think of it as a “modified No-S Diet” — Saturdays don’t count as S days. No, it’s best for us just to stick with Sundays, Holy Days of Obligation, our birthdays, our baptism anniversaries, our personal name/saint day, and maybe the Octave of Christmas and the Octave of Easter. That’s plenty of days for festivity. But in-between, there are plenty of days to avoid snacks, sweets, seconds; to make virtuous decisions and so form better habits. And to pray through it.
A diet framework like this will likely not have as immediate and dramatic results as something like intermittent fasting or keto. But it is probably more “sustainable” also. For someone who loses weight quickly through keto or IF then has to figure out how to maintain afterwards. Someone who forms habits that include general moderation and self-restraint, punctuated by special treats coinciding with the liturgical year, may indeed have seasonal fluctuations, but overall will be able more easily to keep the weight down.
I am reminded of something I once read in one of Cardinal Ratzinger’s books. He wrote of how he had a slightly larger cassock to wear in the winter, around the holidays, when there were more sweets for the special feast days (he loves sweets). He had his fluctuations — and they followed the rhythms of the liturgical year. But those of us who have kept up with Ratzinger/Benedict down through the years know that he has never been fat.
This all touches upon a topic that I alluded to above and hope to return to again: liturgical living. I recall also the book by Josef Pieper, In Tune with the World: A Theory of Festivity. Authentic Catholic culture is such a gift. It is what transformed the divided and, in some cases, barbarous cultures of the distinct races of Europe and united them into what we know today as the European continent. It is what brought an end to so many historical atrocities in Latin America. It has done much for our own United States. But we have lost it in great part. We need to recover it. The present topic is just one small element of this larger (weightier?) issue!