At the crack of dawn every morning, Bishop Thomas Paprocki can be found at a local park on his daily run. Right now, he says his usual distance is two-or-three miles, or a little longer on the weekends, what he calls “maintenance running.”

At 67 years old, the Springfield bishop has been an avid runner – completing 24 marathons – since high school. And what started as a way to stave off his family’s history of heart disease, running has for years now been his key to both spiritual and physical wellness.

In his new book, Running for a Higher Purpose, Paprocki uses his life as a runner, and insights from the lives of others – such as Abraham Lincoln, Tommy John and Steve Prefontaine – to guide readers through eight steps to spiritual and physical fitness, which he calls interwoven.

Bishop Thomas J. Paprocki of Springfield, Ill., is pictured in a July 11, 2018, photo. (CNS photo/courtesy Diocese Springfield)

“To reform your life physically, it is wise to reform yourself spiritually with the actions of love for God, others, and yourself!” Paprocki wrote. “The connection between following God’s commandments and being a successful runner is that our hearts are troubled when we do not follow God’s will, and if our hearts are troubled, our bodies will be adversely affected and will not perform as they should.”

Those eight steps to spiritual and physical fitness are: Review, reform, resolve, repeat, renew, relax, reward and rejoice.

“The first step is review. You kind of assess where you’re at,” Paprocki told Crux. “As a teenager, I was not in bad shape but I thought with the gene pool I had I’m probably going to be susceptible to heart disease at one point, so my review was I have to do something about that.”

“Once you identify where you need to improve, then you have to come up with a way to do that. My point is with the review and the decision to reform, what are you going to do? Is it going to be running, or biking, swimming, walking, weight lifting, whatever, just to reform and do something,” he continued. “Then each step builds on that.”

On the spiritual side, the same methodology applies. The review process is done through an examination of conscience, which the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops describes as “reflecting prayerfully one’s thoughts, words, and deeds in order to identify any sins.”

Paprocki is clear that once there’s a commitment to physical and spiritual wellness there are other benefits as well. There’s the aforementioned physical benefits. Then there’s the mental benefits that he finds just as important.

“A lot of people ask me how I have time for running because I’ve got a pretty full schedule and ironically, I think I would say because I run I can do all the things that I do. I find that when I start my day running I just feel better,” he said. “That actually helps me think. I’ve practically written homilies in my mind while I’m running or the same with writing chapters of a book.”

Prioritizing wellness in all facets of life has also been a consistent topic through the coronavirus pandemic. Paprocki started writing the book in January 2020 when the chances of a global pandemic were an afterthought. But by the time he finished the book in May, the nation was in the throes of a lockdown and couldn’t be left off of the pages.

In a conversation with Crux, he invoked the phrase “Be Not Afraid” that appears in the Old and New Testaments to say that while there is a “healthy fear” that comes with the pandemic, it’s important to avoid “debilitating fear.” Running, he said, is a way to get out while still maintaining safety precautions.

Another reason Paprocki said running and exercise is important now as much as ever is to prevent COVID-19 comorbidity factors like obesity.

Each chapter in the book is identified with one of the eight steps to spiritual and physical wellness. On the last page of each, Paprocki provides a quotation for inspiration, a promise to complete the step, and a prayer from a prominent Catholic figure to maintain that connection between the physical and spiritual.

St. Pope John Paul II is quoted early on, at the end of the reform chapter: “Sports contribute to the love of life, and teach sacrifice, respect and responsibility, leading to the full development of every human person.”