LIBERTYVILLE – Several years ago, the Rev. Steve Grunow gave a homily about vocations and encouraged young Catholic men to enter the priesthood.
It was a difficult time for the Catholic church, which was under fire for several sexual abuse scandals involving clergymen, Grunow said. He expected that any arguments he heard from families about supporting their sons entering the ministry would be relevant to those scandals.
Instead, the objection he heard from one prominent Catholic family in his congregation – a husband and wife with multiple children – was that they didn’t consider the priesthood to be a physically healthy vocation, and they did not wish their sons to pursue such a career.
“[They told me], ‘I want my children to be happy … and to be happy, they also have to be healthy,’” Grunow said.
It was a comment that stuck with Grunow, and ultimately made him decide to be an open advocate for a healthier image of clergymen – even though he himself had never been terribly out of shape.
“It was so unique, I thought it must be a message directly from God,” Grunow said. “If that’s something people see in the priesthood, it’s something I can work on. I can do something about that.”
Enter Ben Wellenbach, owner of Be Well Fitness in Libertyville. Grunow contacted Wellenbach to inquire about personal training sessions to begin his mission of presenting a healthier clergy to the lay people.
Six years later, Grunow – a resident priest at St. Mary’s Parish in Lake Forest – is a stronger, healthier person, he said, and a video Wellenbach posted on YouTube proves that.
“Follow Me: A Catholic Priest’s Quest for Excellence” shows the 5-foot-8, 175-pound priest dead-lifting 365 pounds, doing pushups while balancing on kettle balls and completing other arduous tasks.
“I’d like priests to be able to say, ‘If that guy can do it, I can do it,’” Grunow said.
But while the video was meant to inspire other clergy to exercise, Grunow said, his workouts also have taught him that his spiritual life and his physical life are directly connected.
“I’m not better than they are,” he said. “I don’t have more of something they don’t have. [They just need] to begin to see it as part of their spiritual lives.”
How it started
Grunow has written several articles about the unhealthy perception many have of the clergy, noting that often, those accusations are not unfounded.
Priests lead busy, stressful lives, and some church leaders believe staying fit is an unneeded – and therefore unheeded – burden.
But throughout the last several years, Grunow has found undeniable correlations between training the body and training the spirit.
When Grunow first started exercising at Be Well Fitness, he was told his lifting technique was all wrong. It took time for Wellenbach, a Hainesville resident who opened his private training facility in 2007, to slowly correct the imbalances and bad habits Grunow had accumulated over the years.
That’s how it is in life, too, Grunow said. When it comes to physical and spiritual health, the small decisions one makes on an everyday basis build up toward excellence – or toward failure.
“When I first started [strength training], I was horrible at everything, but I stuck with it,” Grunow said. “It’s the same with spirituality. If you fall off your game, there’s consequences. If you fall of your game spiritually, there’s consequences.”
Similarly, strength training requires focus and endurance, and so does one’s prayer life, he said. Results don’t come in fast bursts, but rather in a culmination of smaller commitments.
While Wellenbach worked with him on his lifting style, Grunow also learned a quick lesson in humility.
In the weight room, he’s the student.
“I’m not the expert here,” Grunow said. “I have to do the listening, the learning.”
The lessons he’s learned in the gym have transformed him in ways a mirror can show, but the intangibles are just as important, he said.
“I think I’m a better person and better man,” Grunow said, noting that he is able to think and respond better and is more empathetic, thanks to his physical training. “It has had a positive benefit to how I am as a priest.”
On a spiritual level
When Wellenbach and Grunow first met, Grunow mentioned he was a priest, but that was the end of the attention he gave to his own vocation. He was there to learn and exercise – not necessarily evangelize.
As the sessions continued, Grunow realized that one’s physical health has an impact on one’s spiritual health, which – in turn – has an impact on one’s mind. But he wasn’t the only one who started reaping benefits from the training work.
Wellenbach said he grew up having no real sense of religion. He believed in God, but felt that he was always searching for a better way to connect with God, learn his lessons and live his gospels.
“Fast forward to July of 2009 when my first daughter was born,” Wellenbach said in an e-mail. “When I saw what a miracle she was, I knew it was my time to pursue God for myself … .”
Wellenbach didn’t have to search far for answers regarding spiritual excellence. Three times a week, he had a priest coming to him, searching for answers to physical excellence. The two found they were able to comfortably swap information about their vocations.
“As time went on, Ben began to ask me questions,” Grunow said. “The questions became deeper, and I was willing to answer, because he was sharing his expertise. So, I decided to respond in kind – not coerce.”
“In no way at any time did he ever persuade me to join the Catholic faith,” Wellenbach said. “In fact, it was more of helping me find my way.”
As Grunow grew stronger physically, Wellenbach grew stronger spiritually. And this past Easter, Wellenbach entered the Catholic church and asked Grunow to be his godfather, a request Grunow said he was honored to fulfill.
While Grunow continues to try to inspire fellow clergy to watch their weight and exercise – a benefit not only to their bodies, but also to their spirits and minds – he has no doubt he and Wellenbach met for a reason.
“I don’t think there are accidents in life,” Grunow said. “God has his own intentions.”
Want to know more?
• To view the video “Follow Me: A Catholic Priest’s Quest for Excellence,” featuring The Rev. Steve Grunow, click here. Or visit www.youtube.com and type “Bewellfitness” and “Follow Me” into the search prompt.
• To read a blog written by Grunow about the health and lifestyles of the clergy, click here. Or visit www.wordonfire.org and type “Vocations: Lifting the Weight of the Priesthood” into the search prompt.