Priest wellness is of the essence

Father William Kneemiller works out on a treadmill while visiting in Davenport last month. Fr. Kneemiller, who serves three parishes in Clinton County, also serves in the U.S. Army Reserves. Fr. Kneemiller and other priests in the diocese share what they do to keep well and how they adapt their lives to the diocesean Priests’ Wellness Document.

By Barb Arland-Fye and Anne Marie Amacher

Five years ago the Diocese of Davenport introduced a “Priests’ Wellness Document” containing guidelines intended to help support the wellbeing of its priests.

Today, with 74 non-retired diocesan priests — 36 of whom will reach retirement age over the next 11 years — wellness is of the essence.

The Catholic Messenger recently spoke with six diocesan priests about their efforts to maintain wellbeing pastorally, spiritually, physically and intellectually as recommended in the Priests’ Wellness Document.

Father Rudolph Juarez, 55, pastor of St. Patrick Parish, Iowa City:


Fr. Juarez says he walks on a regular basis for exercise and lately has been doing calisthenics. He also climbs stairs out of necessity at the parish hall that has been serving as the temporary church since a tornado devastated the old church building three years ago on Holy Thursday. He and parishioners are looking forward to moving into their new church building later this year.

His diet is healthy, he says. “I don’t eat as much meat anymore. Sometimes I’ll splurge.” But usually he eats nuts such as walnuts and pecans as a protein substitute for meat.

He tries to follow the diocesan wellness document’s guidelines on time off — a day away from the work environment each week and one continuous or interrupted month of vacation annually.  

“I’ll take vacation in five-day getaways.” Anything within a 3-1/2-hour flight away is fine, he says. Time off, he adds, “is absolutely essential. You keep sharp and you feel like you’re rested and you get energized to do the work of the church.”

For his spiritual wellbeing, he prays daily, usually right after Mass in the morning and then again in the evening. On average, he presides at four Masses each weekend, one more Mass per weekend than the guidelines recommend.

“It’s out of necessity right now, but hopefully that will change with the new church because we’ll be able to adjust schedules and accommodate more people.”

The wellness policy also recommends 52 hours a year — one hour per week — of intellectual formation. Some of his comes through the writing process. “I’ve started writing a monthly column for the Iowa Press Citizen. That really forces me to do some serious thinking, and writing takes a lot of thinking … and I devote a lot of time to my homilies. That’s another way of keeping mentally sharp.”

He also participates in diocesan clergy convocations, institutes and other activities.

His plans are to retire at age 70, “if I can. We’ll see if I’m still alive then!”

And what does he think about the wellness plan? He thinks it ought to have greater emphasis on the holistic nature of health. That said, “I’m grateful that Bishop (Martin) Amos continues to encourage us to stay in good health and take care of ourselves. He’s mentioned that on several different occasions.

“I’d like to think of myself as a lean, mean praying machine.”

Father Bill Kneemiller, 58, pastor of Sacred Heart parishes in Lost Nation and Oxford Junction and St. James Parish in Toronto:

“I have been blessed with good health,” says Fr. Kneemiller, who in addition to serving as pastor of three parishes also serves in the U.S. Army Reserves. He served for a year as a military chaplain in Iraq, where being in good shape was a necessity. He runs three days a week on a treadmill or outdoors, weather permitting, and does calisthenics two days a week for muscle strengthening. “I’ll watch the Visual Bible on TV while I’m doing pushups or lying on my back and doing bicycling exercises. It’s very easy to do.”

Maintaining good health is essential, he says, and he tries to convince everyone else to do the same. Rest and prayer are important, as well as exercise and healthy eating.

He says the key to a good diet is having a garden, which he does. “I like to cook with the jumbo Foreman Grill. One of my favorite meals is lamb shank, asparagus and broccoli. You can have a grilled meal in eight minutes.”

Taking vacations is a bit more challenging. Recently, he spent a few days in Lake of the Ozarks with his siblings. With his military commitment, it’s hard to justify additional time off. “So I usually make it shorter and during the week.”

He follows the late Archbishop Fulton Sheen’s recommendation to observe a holy hour every day. Fr. Kneemiller usually does so before the 8 a.m. daily Mass.

When the weather is nice, he’ll walk outdoors and pray. Exercise, fresh air, sunshine and prayer — that combination “is one of the healthiest things you can imagine.”

He also follows the wellness document’s recommendation for presiding at Mass – three each weekend.

As for intellectual formation, “I try to go to at least one good conference a year and keep up with books on tape.” The latter is a good activity when he needs to travel to Iowa City to visit someone in the hospital.

Since he entered the priesthood later in life, at age 49, he doesn’t expect to retire until he’s 75. “For me, that would be only 25 years.”

He is convinced that “exercise and rest can really make a difference. You can feel better and healthier — it’s well worth the time for that.”

Father Ed O’Melia, 66, pastor of St. Mary Parish in Davenport:

“I couldn’t do without daily prayer, (Divine) Office (a public prayer made in the name of the church), and meditation,” says Father Ed O’Melia.

That is his way of meeting the suggestions for spiritual formation in the diocese’s wellness plan.

He eats the best he can, he says, and takes at least a 20-minute walk daily. “I’m getting slower, of course, as I get older.”

He takes at least 23 days off each year, but rarely takes time off over the weekend.

“I probably should do better there. But I take a few days after Christmas, Easter and Thanksgiving — usually with my sisters in Wisconsin,” he noted.

Fr. O’Melia presides at three Masses per weekend at St. Mary’s and presides at a fourth, Spanish Mass once a month in Clinton. This schedule does not include quinceaneras, weddings or funerals.

In addition to diocesan convocations and other priest gatherings, Fr. O’Melia works towards his 52 hours of education through reading pastoral or theological books “bit by bit. I read about 15-20 minutes per day.”

Father Joseph Phung, 51, administrator, St. Alphonus Parish, Mount Pleasant:

Fr. Phung has a general checkup each year and describes himself as very healthy. Three times a week he does 45 minutes of weight lifting and stretching exercises. He varies the weights and types of exercises each time.

His diet consists mostly of Vietnamese food. “I cook sometimes and I try to keep an eye on what I eat. Sometimes I eat a lot and then the next day cut down. I try to balance it,” he says. He eats a lot of vegetables and seafood. “We try to avoid all kinds of fat.”

He said he tries to adhere to the wellness guidelines concerning time away from the workplace. Every few years he travels to Vietnam and the other years he stays in the states, visiting relatives in Texas, Washington, D.C., and California. Often, he travels with friends.

“One year we took a trip to Yellowstone — a 10-day vacation,” he says. “This year we plan to go to Mexico.”

Prayer is an important part of his life. “We have Mass here daily at noon. My time at prayer is in the evening and in the morning, with the (Divine) Office.”

Each weekend he presides at three Masses in his parish (one on Saturday night and two on Sunday); in addition, he celebrates a monthly Sunday evening Mass at St. Alphonsus with high school seniors and a monthly Sunday Mass in Vietnamese in Iowa City.

Making time for his needs is a priority. “My philosophy is I have to take care of myself. So I try to fit my schedule well” for prayer, spiritual life, exercise, eating and pastoral work.

For intellectual and educational formation, he strives to read spiritual books and magazines, or turn on the Discovery Channel in the evening. In the morning he reads newspapers.

He’s not sure at what age he expects to retire — “I would think about 70, but after that I’ll be involved in ministry as much as possible. Hopefully, God willing, I can be healthy at 70 or 75.”

Fr. Phung thinks the wellness plan is very good. The guidelines “help us to realize what we should do to keep ourselves healthy. It helps you to grow healthy and sound for the sake of the people.”

Once wellness activities become part of a routine, they’re easy to do, he says.

Father Tim Sheedy, 59, pastor, Our Lady of Lourdes Parish, Bettendorf:

The past two years have been the most stressful for Father Tim Sheedy as a pastor.

The major source of stress was the diocese’s bankruptcy process and working on a payment from the Lourdes parish to put toward the bankruptcy settlement.

Another stressor has been the weakening economy and having to rework the parish budget.

Still, Fr. Sheedy emphasized that he loves serving Lourdes. So he’s working to alleviate stress by making some lifestyle changes. He said he eats healthier now and exercises three to four times a week — walking outside when he can or on the treadmill and doing aerobic exercise in a class his godson teaches. Fr. Sheedy also gets a yearly physical.

“I’d like to be healthy. I’m turning 60 this month.”

The recent death of an old college classmate, John Kiley, keeps Fr. Sheedy motivated to continue his healthier ways.

He takes time to pray each day; his preferred time to pray by himself is after Masses. “I also do the Divine Office.”

Fr. Sheedy plans to retire at age 70, but would still help out at parishes as long is he is physically able.

Meanwhile, being located in the Quad-Cities has made it easier than in the past for Fr. Sheedy to find another priest to cover his parish when he is away. When he served as pastor in Fort Madison, “it was a little more difficult.”

Fr. Sheedy said he takes four weeks of vacation as recommended. “They say I’m the vacationing priest,” he joked.

He plans his vacations well in advance so he can arrange for another priest to preside at Saturday evening Mass and three Sunday Masses.

Regarding the diocese’s wellness plan, he wants to see more accountability from the diocese and priests. “We need encouragement. It would be nice to have some follow-up.”

Fr. Sheedy would like the diocese to explore working with St. Ambrose University and fitness organizations to offer a discount for priests to work out.

With the number of students studying physical therapy and other health fields at St. Ambrose, it would be nice if area priests could work with those students on fitness. “For the priests in the outlying areas, maybe the diocese could work with Y facilities to get a discount.”

A health fund is another suggestion from Fr. Sheedy. “We have an education plan — why not wellness?”

Father John Spiegel, 58, pastor of St. Patrick Parish in Ottumwa and St. Mary Magdalen in Bloomfield:

Fr. Spiegel said he doesn’t take any medication and probably doesn’t need to see his general physician for a couple of years. Walking 45 minutes to an hour a day or every other day is his main form of exercise.

He says he eats pretty well “for a single guy left on his own to survive.”

Vegetables, fruits, cold cuts, salads and soups are the main staples of his diet. He doesn’t eat out much.

Taking time off is a bit tricky. “I’ve been consistently taking a 10-day vacation with my brothers in January for the last five years.” But usually, it is more burdensome for priests in the far western part of the diocese, like him, to find other priests to cover for them.

“That’s not to diminish the good people who do help us. That’s just one of the flukes of the job,” he said.

Fr. Spiegel makes time to pray daily, morning and evening. He presides at daily Mass and says the rosary before Mass with a group of lay people. Morning prayer follows.

On weekends, he presides at one Saturday evening and three Sunday Masses, one more than recommended.

Making time for his needs is a balancing act. “I think it’s challenging. I wouldn’t minimize that, especially when a funeral comes into the week.”

Fr. Spiegel says he values the things the diocese does for its priests, such as convocations and other opportunities to gather as clergy.

He’s not thinking much about retirement. “If I see 70, I will have outlived my father by 10 years. I’m not looking beyond that. That’s not to say I wouldn’t value being of some assistance to a parish if I might be living there.”

Of the diocesan wellness document, he says, “it’s good to give some sense of challenge and direction regarding health care. For people living independently and alone, it’s easy to neglect that. I think we all need those little nudges. In our life (as priests), they come more formally, through the diocese.” In a formal way, the document “represents the bishop’s care for his priests.”

Fr. Spiegel also expressed appreciation for health care funds that Priests’ Aid – through parish payments — make possible for the priests to ensure that they have the means to get the screenings and checkups they need.

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