'Iron Friar' evangelizes on the run

  • September 5, 2008

{mosimage}TORONTO - Fr. Daniel Callahan is best known as the “Iron Friar” — running, swimming and cycling in the Ford Ironman USA triathlon, while evangelizing and raising money for a good cause.

For him, triathlons provide a great analogy for life itself: in a race “you’re going in for a medal,” he said, but in life “you’re going in for eternal life.”

And now he will continue with his passion for the race in Canada. On June 8, Callahan began serving as associate pastor at St. Joan of Arc parish in Toronto, which is run by the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement. In August he signed up for the Sept. 28 Toronto Waterfront Marathon and announced at Mass that he would be collecting pledges to help out St. Joan of Arc’s building restoration project. Within the first week he had collected about $1,000.

“This is a good way to get some extra money in so maybe we can fix the brickwork or do some of the cosmetic fixes that maybe weren’t budgeted and we’ll see what happens,” he said.

But the marathon will practically be a walk in the park for this athletic priest.

Callahan, who is 57, ran his first triathlon (a half “Ironman” distance of about 112 km) more than a decade ago, encouraged by one of his sisters in California. At the time, he was pastor at St. Odilia Catholic Church in Los Angeles. An Ironman distance is approximately 226 km (coined after the “most gruelling” triathlon, the Ironman Triathlon in Hawaii, first held in 1978).

Callahan said he began swimming competitively at eight years old while growing up in Buffalo, and into his early 20s, he had a habit of swimming at least three kilometres on his half-hour lunch break. Coincidentally, the sporty means he uses to evangelize is also what brought him back to the church after spending years as an agnostic. He said he heard God’s call during his laps one day to follow his faith as religiously as he swam. To this day swimming is still a spiritual and mental “clearing house” for him — a place to “just be,” he said.

When he moved to upstate New York, more than a decade ago, Callahan heard that Montreal, a mere two-hour drive away, held a full Ironman distance triathlon, called the Esprit Triathlon. He decided to give it a try. After two years of successfully completing the Esprit run in 1999, he heard that the first Ironman USA would be held at Lake Placid, N.Y., just 13 kilometres from where he served at St. Joseph’s Rehabilitation Centre, run by his Franciscan order, at Saranac Lake.

That’s when he got the idea to use the triathlon as a fund-raiser for the centre.

“It’s hard to do fund-raising for a drug and alcohol rehab centre,” he said. “You need to find ways outside the box for such an important and worthy cause.”

Callahan said he approached Fr. Art Johnson, the former CEO of St. Joseph’s, who asked “what are we going to do, call you the Iron Friar?” The name stuck.

This past July, Callahan completed his 10th Ironman triathlon, where he has become a well-known competitor and raised about $100,000 over the years. In fact, before the triathlon begins, every year the Iron Friar celebrates a special Mass for the athletes at St. Agnes Church in Lake Placid the Saturday before the race.

“The Iron Mass is now an institution,” he said. “Everybody goes and now they look forward to it.”

Callahan said the race is a great means for evangelization because he comes into contact with a lot people who would otherwise not be exposed to ministry.

The triathlon provides vivid analogies for helping people to understand the struggles in life and the co-operation needed with others on the long term to “finish the race of life” at a personal best.

“When I went to St. Joseph’s I told them ‘I’ll be in a race for 13 or 14 hours but your race is never over.’ ”

Several of the patients volunteered at aid stations throughout the triathlon, joining family and friends of the athletes in feeding and providing drinks to the racers as they passed through — something that helped them to better appreciate “the hand of God who feeds us,” Callahan said.

He said he counsels people during the run, answering questions from other athletes about the faith.

“It’s a great place for reconciliation, for people who have been away from the church, for people who just want to know (things about the faith). It’s an open time and they’re willing to talk to you about stuff like that.”

Callahan said ministry always comes first and that he is not in the race to take first place. It’s the same with training — his duties as a pastor and counsellor come before his physical training. He said he makes a point of swimming every other day and biking or running at least once a week, but he fits exercise in around his other responsibilities, including prayer and contemplation before the Eucharist. The Eucharist, he said, became the “anchor and focus of my life” after his conversion so many years ago.

“Coming into contemplation was where I had to learn to sit still. It’s still a challenge but I still remain faithful to it,” he said.

Parishioners at St. Joan of Arc in the west end of Toronto have known their sports-analogy- using pastor for only a few months, but they are excited about what he has to offer.

“I find him exuberant, delightful; he listens very well and he has a terrific sense of humour — even on the altar,” said long-time parishioner Mary Collins. “He’s certainly working very hard to get to know people personally.”

Rosanne Kelly, the parish secretary, said she has enjoyed listening to his recent sermons where he related the struggles of athletes in the Beijing Olympics to the daily struggles of every individual.

Fr. Damian MacPherson, a fellow Franciscan who heads the archdiocese of Toronto’s ecumenism office, said Callahan has lots of energy and is filling an important role for the parish, which has been waiting for an appointment “for some time.”

“Energy in ministry is important and I think he will contribute significantly to the needs of St. Joan of Arc.”

Parishioners would like to resurrect a youth ministry program which folded in the past few years, which Callahan said he will be discussing with the Office of Catholic Youth this fall. Callahan spent the past year doing youth ministry on two campuses in Alfred, N.Y.

As for the Ironman USA triathlon, Callahan said that he might do it again next year, to continue raising money for both St. Joseph’s and St. Joan of Arc.

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