Upon entering St Michael and All Angels in Leigh Park you could be forgiven for being a little startled to find a hooded figure in the aisles of the church,
‘A couple of parishioners came to church one day to pray and left after seeing a hoodie wearing figure. but it was just me having some prayer time!’ laughs Father Paul Leonard.
The 41 year old priest can often be found sporting jogging bottoms and hoodies and heading off on ten mile runs around his parish.
‘Fitness has always been important to me. I was very fit as a teenager. I used to run for the school and do martial arts but I had a bad car accident when I was 21 and all that stopped. I didn’t do much fitness for about 20 years.
‘When I was 39 I realised “Hang on I’m going to be 40 soon” and I wanted to be in good shape for that. I had a bit of a wake up call!’
‘Because I used to be a good runner I went back to that. I also started doing a lot of my parish visits on the bike and then went swimming a bit too. Then I thought I could combine those disciplines together!
‘A parishioner here at the church suggested that I should do a triathlon with him. I applied and he dropped out but I went for it.
‘I was very nervous at first. Three minutes before the swim I realised I’d put my wet-suit on back to front. The rescue boat also came quite close, they didn’t think I was going to make it.
‘I was second to last in the swim, middle of the cycle and second fastest in the run but it’s not so much about competition, it’s about my own personal goals and pushing myself.’
Since then Father Paul has completed three triathlons and signed up for Tough Mudder a 12 mile cross country run across a series of challenging obstacles. The energetic priest sees these physical challenges as a great way to serve others.
‘I like to do events to raise money for charity and to raise awareness of issues. The charity I most support is CAFOD, which stands for Catholic Aid for Overseas Development. They do a lot of work in foreign countries and have a direct impact on the ground. Sometimes they focus on crises and other times they work on long term development.
‘Raising money for charities means there’s a tangible outcome at the end. It motivates me to push on so that others will benefit. I go through a little discomfort so that people who live lives of unrelenting discomfort can get some respite.
As part of his return to fitness Father Paul also completed the Three Peaks Challenge and a 24 hour endurance walk covering 65 miles of the South Downs Way which used to be part of an old pilgrimage route.
The idea of pilgrimage clearly made an impact as last year Father Paul walked the Way of Saint James, a 500 mile trek from France through the Pyrenees Mountains to Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain.
Father Paul’s passion for fitness is also acted out in his daily parish life through new initiative, Faith and Fitness, a series of high intensity workouts that he runs in the church hall.
‘It started out small, just me and my lodger, as a means to keep fit and it grew slowly as others expressed an interest to come and join. Some people come from the parish and there are also people who don’t even go to church – it’s open to all.
‘Church can be surrounded by stereotypes. There are lots of assumptions about priests and churches being old, stuffy and boring but we can be normal too! One of my aims is to dispel some of that and create a link between faith and everyday living.
‘Before we begin and at the end of the workout we pray thanking God for our creation and bodies and asking Him to be with us. Then we do drills to raise the heart rate, like push ups and sit ups. We burn some calories and get a sweat on. It’s not about simply looking good but about properly getting fit.
‘I look at it as a creative means to reach out to people, bringing those on the margins of faith into the Christian community.
‘I think faith and fitness are symbiotic. We are not just physical beings, we are spiritual as well. I think people should exercise both their physical and spiritual muscles. Our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit and we are called to glorify God with our bodies and in nurturing our bodies.
‘Saint Paul draws a comparison between fitness and faith in his letter to Timothy when he says “Physical training is good, but training for godliness is much better, promising benefits in this life and in the life to come.” I would work out a least five times a week fitness wise so if I’m doing that I should be doing the same or more for my spiritual strength.
‘Unused muscles atrophy and if I’m not praying my spiritual muscles will do the same. I want to increase not just my physical fitness but my spiritual fitness too.’