Can a Priest Have a Hobby?
The connection between pastimes, health and holiness
“I suppose I’ve always been in love with trains,” began Walt Disney’s article in the October 1965 edition of Railroad magazine. In the article, Walt described his lifelong interest in railroads which, despite the demands of running his namesake company, continued to be one of his passions.
While I may not have founded a global entertainment company like Walt, his opening line could easily be mine as well. When people ask when I took an interest in trains and streetcars, my response is typically a shrug of the shoulders with, “I guess I was born liking them.” Indeed, I can’t recall a time when I haven’t enjoyed this hobby.
Equally true for me is a lifelong love for God and the Church. Though my family is far from perfect (and whose is?), one consistent element amongst all of us was a simple and deep prayer life, which led to active involvement in the parish. Some of my fondest childhood memories include going on pilgrimages with my great grandparents, the excitement of altar serving for the first time upon entering the fifth grade and joining the parish youth group in middle school. Once I turned 18, I became a Knight of Columbus and subsequently served on the parish pastoral council. I knew from an early age that I wanted to serve God and the Church in some capacity. And it was these experiences that helped me in discerning God’s call to the diocesan priesthood.
One of the concerns I had as a seminarian was the compatibility of my passion for trains to this perceived calling to priesthood. Could I still enjoy this hobby and be a holy priest? Should I still enjoy this hobby as a priest? After all, the Church has a tremendous need for happy, healthy and holy priests who are full of zeal for the Word. If there is another passion in my life, can I be faithful to the priestly vocation?
These questions were on my mind as I entered the Institute for Priestly Formation’s summer program at Creighton University in Omaha in 2012. The prayerful guidance of the institute’s priests, deacons and staff during the program addressed these concerns in two poignant moments. First, my assigned spiritual director had a wise insight for me during one of our sessions: “If you deny yourself an honest pastime, you will fall for a less innocent one.” Wow! That insight rings truer and truer as I mature in the priesthood. How many of our brothers burn out, fall into bad habits and otherwise become a barrier instead of a bridge to Christ for others by not allowing themselves to enjoy healthy outlets? Second, a reflection on John 15:5 was extraordinarily helpful. While most of us gravitate to the image of the vine and the branches, this presenter focused on Jesus’ statement in the second sentence of the verse, “without me you can do nothing” and interpreted “nothing” as “no-thing.”
It dawned upon me that save for sin, everything we do, everything we are, can be used for our salvation and for the salvation of others.
With this new understanding of John 15:5, I intuited that recreation, when done in communion with Christ becomes “re-creation” — and that included an interest in railroads. Ironically, or perhaps providentially, I soon discovered that Omaha is headquarters to the Union Pacific, a venerable railroad with deep historical roots in America tracing back to Abraham Lincoln and the transcontinental railroad. There were certainly ample opportunities to “re-create” with the Lord and enjoy an innocent pastime that summer.
Since my priestly ordination in 2016, I am more than ever convinced that having an honest pastime — a hobby that is lifegiving and allows for re-creating — is vitally necessary for our overall well-being, continuing formation and ministry. God has worked, and continues to work, in both my vocation and avocation, mutually enriching each other.
The Hobby Enriching the Priesthood
At the very least, having a hobby gives one a reason to take time off — whether that be the weekly allotted day off or vacation time. We know that some do not take time off because of a struggle with workaholism. Yet for others, it’s simply the case that they have no reason to leave the assignment. As a wise priest once told me, “Only you can take your time off. Use it.” A hobby means you’re never bored and have a reason for time away.
At a pastoral level, a hobby enables us to engage with our parishioners and dispels the perception that Father is this ethereal, unapproachable figure. It’s been my observation that whenever a conversation with a parishioner starts with the hobby, it will usually segue to a deeper subject matter of a personal concern or perhaps a question about the Faith. This is true especially interacting with senior parishioners.
As a recently ordained priest, I am years removed from their generation and lack shared experiences, including even those of the Church. Yet, if there’s an interest in an old streetcar route or train they rode in their youth, there’s an immediate connection established between us. Why? Because it signals an interest in them as a person and their story, and ultimately their faith journey. It helps in creating the environment for a ministry of presence to flourish.
At the opposite end of the spectrum were the school students at my first assignment after ordination. I set up my collection of garden-scale toy trains (the kind that can go outside) next to the school entrance for Advent and Christmas. The kids (and not a few parents and teachers) loved it! Some of the kids who would barely acknowledge my presence in the classroom now were talking with me. St. John Bosco had his magic tricks. I had the trains.
A hobby enriches continuing formation as well. I owe a debt of gratitude to the Pennsylvania Trolley Museum, where I’ve been a volunteer since high school. Years before homiletics courses, the museum taught me the art of good storytelling, knowing the audience and public speaking in their tour-guide training.
In streetcar-operator training (yes, I am a certified streetcar operator), we are taught the importance of situational awareness. As priests, we know that concept as the phrase “signs of the times” from Gaudium et Spes (No. 4) and Presbyterorum Ordinis (No. 9).
Most recently, I’ve had the privilege of serving as a museum trustee and working on several committees. This involvement, especially as the museum embarked on a successful multimillion-dollar capital campaign for expansion, has tremendously enriched those administrative skills vital for a parish priest. These include strategic planning, human-resource and personnel matters, project management and fundraising. Some of these skills I simply didn’t know I had!
This involvement at the museum also highlights the importance of a collaborative environment in the office as well as proper stewardship of funds and talents people generously give in support of our mission. The development of these latent skills and valuable insights are thanks to my fundamental interest in trains and streetcars, which brought me to the museum. God has truly worked through the hobby in continually forming me to be the priest he needs me to be.
The Priesthood Enriching the Hobby
If there’s one word to describe how the priesthood enriches the hobby, it’s “communion.” As priests, we are called to be men of communion, including those we encounter beyond our assignments.
A great aspect of the railroad hobby is its social dimension. Railroad buffs tend to gather, often forming museums or clubs in the process. Through this hobby, I’ve met some wonderful people from all walks of life and various backgrounds. When these folks know you’re a priest, you become their unofficial chaplain in a way. Those who wouldn’t necessarily call the parish and ask to speak with a priest — from inactive Catholics to the atheist — will open up and talk about their joys and struggles, or talk about the Faith, on the station platform.
Sometimes these conversations will keep us grounded as priests to where people are in life and how the Church is viewed, for good or for ill. For example, a fellow railroad buff who is a well-educated, retired, non-Catholic asked me recently if priests were allowed to believe in science. I’m not sure who was more surprised: Me at his honest question, or him after I explained that not only are we allowed, but that there are priest scientists.
A few years ago, I had the opportunity to spend a week in Poland for an immersive experience involving vintage steam locomotives. While my primary purpose was exploring the railroad, it was a real joy getting to know how the Faith is lived in Poland with all its strengths and weaknesses. At the same time, many of the locals were intrigued by having an American priest in town and asked several questions about the Church in America.
A Winning Combination
A word of encouragement: Don’t be afraid to pursue healthy pastimes! Whether it be like mine or in some other field like the arts, sports, culinary arts or collecting interesting items, give it all to God. A hobby can be a great vehicle in our desire to be healthier, happier and holier priests, all while having fun. Allow God to bless you and enrich you in your ministry while enjoying the hobby. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain by it. And while enjoying your hobby, don’t be surprised if others encounter God through your presence.
FATHER JACK DEMNYAN is parochial vicar of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish in the Diocese of Pittsburgh.