Weight-lifting priest builds muscle and relationships

| Jessica Weinberger | August 2, 2018 | 0 Comments
Father John Floeder, dean of seminarians at the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity, smiles during a break in his weight- lifting routine

Father John Floeder, dean of seminarians at the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity, smiles during a break in his weight- lifting routine July 11 at the University of St. Thomas’ weight room in St. Paul.

In the pristine University of St. Thomas weight room in St. Paul, Father John Floeder, 36, walks purposefully among the students fitting in circuits over summer break to a set of tall, metal power racks to start a routine he repeats up to four times per week.

He’s replaced his clerics and collar with an unassuming gray T-shirt and knee-high white tube socks. A small logo depicting the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity on his black gym shorts is one of the only clues of his role as the dean of seminarians across Summit Avenue on the southwestern corner of campus.

Methodically, he steps into the rack to start his warm-up, raising and lowering the barbell below his scapular as he bends his knees for a series of low bar squats.

“You have to know anatomy,” Father Floeder quips as he explains his form and wipes a few beads of sweat off his shaved head.

He gradually works up to three sets of five squats at 350 pounds — an impressive feat that’s still 150 pounds fewer than the personal record he set last fall at his first weight-lifting competition. Moving on from squats, he adjusts his rack for bench presses, deadlifts and chin-ups during his hour-long training session. It’s the mental game that keeps Father Floeder coming back to the weight room, a commitment he never misses.

“Every time I go, it’s a mental battle,” he said. “It gets you used to doing hard things. And when you’re doing hard things in this controlled environment, it’s way easier to do hard things elsewhere in your life.”

The weight room has also led to new connections among curious students who watch the undercover clergyman nicknamed the “The Jacked Priest” lifting hundreds of pounds at a time. Through conversation and relationship building, this unlikely location has become a catalyst for evangelization with Father Floeder’s weight-lifting prowess as the gateway.

Father John Floeder, performs a squat

Father John Floeder, performs a squat July 11 at the University of St. Thomas’ weight room in St. Paul. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Bonding with barbells

Father Floeder, who has taught at the St. Paul Seminary for six of the 11 years since his ordination, started weight training nearly three years ago at the recommendation of his priest friend Father Nels Gjengdahl, 37, then-chaplain of St. Thomas Academy, the Catholic all-male middle and high school in Mendota Heights. Father Floeder began by watching online videos and eventually paired up with Matt Reynolds from Starting Strength Online Coaching to fine-tune his form and develop a training program.

Now Father Floeder sets up a tripod in the weight room to record video footage of his lifts on his iPhone, which he uploads to an app with a few clicks for his coach in Springfield, Missouri, to review and provide feedback. The online coaching has elevated his skill level, providing the accountability that keeps the priest going despite a crammed schedule.

“After a month or two, I was just hooked. I was lifting pain free because of his coaching, other than the normal aches and pains of being a normal 36-year-old man,” he said. “And I just love it.”

Now a familiar presence in the weight room, several students regularly yell out, “Father John!” when they walk through the door. While he usually trains by himself, Father Floeder often asks for a spotter or strikes up conversation with the athletes who routinely work out around him, forging friendships that spur an array of questions about his work on campus, training program or gear like his custom weight belt. The black belt has his name inscribed on the inside and “padre” emblazoned in gold letters on the back. Smaller letters in the front spell out “esto vir,” Latin for “be a man,” a line from one of his favorite books, “The Way” by St. Josemaria Escriva.

Most students are blown away by the super strong priest who can analyze weight lifting form and offer spiritual advice. With many of the students discerning the call to marriage, career direction and the role of faith through it all, Father Floeder has become a trusted resource for students, Catholic or not. He often prays for them and has met several students privately for spiritual direction.

Father Floeder is quick to note that he doesn’t set out to evangelize — rather, he tries to be himself and use his interests to spur conversation and relationships. He referred to St. John Bosco, who is known for developing strong relationships with young people by first immersing himself in their interests.

“For me, I’m just into what I’m into, and when I talk to people, it will turn into other things,” he said. “When I’m in the weight room, guys who are into lifting and know who I am and find out I’m a priest say, ‘Who’s this guy?’”

His impact in the weight room is directly related to his ability to make comparisons between weight lifting and the spiritual life by using familiar language, said Father Gjengdahl, now pastor of Nativity of Mary in Bloomington.

“They know that if you take even a few weeks off of weight lifting, you can quickly lose muscle,” Father Gjengdahl said. “The same can be true with the spiritual life. You skip one or two weekends of going to Mass, and then it becomes harder to get back into the routine of going to Mass again. But once you get that routine down, just like weight lifting, you almost feel weaker if you miss something.”

It can be tempting to see evangelization as the responsibility of priests and religious, along with seeing locations like the weight room, as places where you shouldn’t discuss faith. But meaningful conversation can stem from established relationships that can help Catholics bridge gaps in our politically divided culture or approach topics like natural family planning, according to Father Floeder.

“People won’t care what I think about Jesus or how I think they should live their life until they know that I care about them,” he said. “What I try to do is be true to what ought to be the basis of my life as a man, as a Christian and as a priest, which is to be rooted in Jesus Christ. The better I can live my own relationship with Jesus Christ, the more people will want to talk to me about it.”

Theology on tap

Father Floeder is just as comfortable talking about craft beer as he is weight lifting. Well-versed in the vernacular of hops, IBUs and malt, just like reps, sets and loading, he and Father Gjengdahl frequent the Twin Cities’ vibrant brewery scene. They’re also on a mission to visit every National Hockey League arena. So far, they’ve visited nearly 25.

These two young priests who drink craft beer and pull up stools at hotel bars around the U.S. defy common stereotypes of the priesthood. That creates an opportunity for conversation with a variety of people, many of whom have never talked to a priest outside of church.

Both priests have fielded questions about Pope Francis, their vow of celibacy and the church’s moral teachings. Father Floeder remembers a particular conversation with a pro-choice man over a pint. While the man didn’t personally support abortion, he felt like he couldn’t take away that option from someone else. That conversation helped Father Floeder understand an opposing view in a new way.

The most common question they field: Are you really a priest?

“I learn a lot about people if you just listen and ask good questions,” Father Floeder said. “When I go, they do most of the talking. I think a priest needs to be a student of humanity to be able to preach well and to be a good confessor.”

At Norse-themed Hammerheart Brewing Company in Lino Lakes, their favorite brewery, the priests enjoy unique brews such as smoked beers with elderwood or beechwood, or an intensely flavored peet-smoked scotch ale. With no TV, it’s the ideal location for casual conversation with the bartenders and regulars that can evolve into the deeper, faith-based connections — just like in the weight room.

“Evangelization rarely is a single meeting or a single interaction that turns a person around,” Father Gjengdahl said. “It’s how the Holy Spirit uses a whole, beautiful spectrum of different interactions where one person meets Father John in the weight room, a week later they talk to somebody else about it and then they talk to their parents about it and then Grandma mentions it. That all adds up to the person’s conscience being awakened to the need to reach out to Christ.”

The end game

Back at the University of St. Thomas weight room, Father Floeder is seeing the benefits of his much-loved hobby. His hereditary high blood pressure is in check, and day-to-day, he’s feeling stronger and more equipped to handle any challenge, like carrying his backpack, carry-on and two suitcases down five sets of stairs on a recent trip to Venezuela.

He points to weight training for strengthening his prayer life and role as formator at the seminary, and it’s also helped him manage fear, anxiety and anger in a healthy way. It’s all a part of a journey of interior and exterior growth that Father Floeder said makes you hungry for growth in other areas.

“It’s helped me be a better leader and formator to the men. They’re able to see my own vulnerability and that actually makes me a stronger leader and formator. Being vulnerable makes you stronger.”

He recommends weight training to anyone, especially men who are in formation for the priesthood. His training team recently visited the seminary to run a free strength clinic for 18 men, helping future leaders of the Church learn key lifts and nutrition over the course of two days.

Weight lifting is at the core of Father Floeder’s growth and evangelization, but it’s not the ultimate goal, according to his good friend.

“The end game is trying to grow in every facet of his life through the weight lifting — the idea of perseverance, doing the tough things, recovering from failure — and then using that to both make himself better and make those better around him,” Father Gjengdahl said. “The Holy Spirit can work with just about anybody’s interest to bring about people knowing the love that he has for each and every one of us.”

Editor’s note: This story is published in partnership with Family Foundations, Couple to Couple League’s magazine.

Tags: , ,

Category: Featured, Local News