Eating disorders aren’t fads, phases or lifestyle choices. They are, in fact, devastating conditions with serious consequences for an individual’s emotional and physical health, work productivity and personal relationships. Moreover, anorexia nervosa’s cycle of self-starvation, the recurrent binge-and-purge pattern of bulimia, and binge eating are potentially life-threatening.Compulsive over-eating alone has taken its toll in the United States. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development estimates that the lifespan of an obese person is “up to eight to 10 years shorter than that of a normal-weight person.” And health-care expenditures related to treating obesity-related medical problems exceed health-care costs for smoking or problem drinking. Among all developed nations, the United States has the highest rate of obesity, which has been linked to an increase in type II diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular disease. Since 1962, the rate has jumped from 13 to nearly 36 percent of the population, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Among adults 20 and over today, that adds up to some 78 million obese Americans. One of them is Father Patrick Kirsch of the San Bernardino Diocese. Four years ago, the 5’7” priest weighed over 300 pounds. Even after dropping 50 pounds, he continues to struggle with his weight. “For me it was like I would take care of people, going from one thing to another, and I wouldn’t stop for lunch or dinner,” he said. “By the time I got home, I was starving. So then I would eat and eat — whatever was there.“Even now I’m in a parish, St. Margaret Mary in Chino, with 3,000 families. And I’m by myself. I have no help because we’re so short of priests. So I still just go from one thing to the next. The good thing is I love what I do, so I don’t see it as a burden. But I’m really the one who suffers, and I know that it’s not healthy if I can’t say to myself, ‘You need to help yourself before you can help other people.’”But the 58-year-old cleric, who was ordained 32 years ago, said that simple self-help reality was really difficult for him to acknowledge, and believes it’s the same for many other overworked priests today. Priests, after all, are accustomed to listening to other people’s problems and telling them what to do. “We’re not used to be told, ‘This is what you need to do’,” he said.Positive ‘feedback’ from L.A.Dennis Henning — who founded the Ephesus Renewal Center in 1997 in Sacramento to specifically help priests and religious brothers suffering from eating disorders — has worked with Father Kirsch for four years. To gain the trust of the priest, the 51-year-old Sacramento native shared his own struggle as a compulsive binge overeater with a 15,000-to-20,000-calories-a-day food habit since his early teens. Then together they looked at the priest’s eating habits, exercise and daily stresses he faces as a priest, coming up with a plan that broke down when and what he ate. “The weight issue is very difficult [for priests] because of their busy lifestyles. They can’t go to the gym three hours a day. Their lives are based so much on helping other people. But for these men, their identity is not their weight. The underlying issues are 100 percent of the problem.”---Dennis HenningBut the most important thing was — and still is — dealing with the cleric’s underlying life issues. “He came to me at a moment when I had issues I hadn’t addressed,” recalled Father Kirsch. “You know, it’s the old saying, ‘It’s not what you’re eating, it’s what’s eating you.’”Msgr. Lorenzo Miranda, the Los Angeles Archdiocese’s vicar for clergy, introduced Henning to local priests last fall. Earlier this year he reported receiving “very positive” feedback from several who had sought help for their eating disorders. The vicar encouraged other priests suffering from compulsive overeating, under-eating, obesity and other food and behavioral related issues to also reach out to the executive director of the Ephesus Renewal Center, which is now located in Southern California.“Living out our vocation as a priest is a wonderful blessing that will hopefully be filled with the presence of the Holy Spirit and many years of health and happiness,” he wrote in a letter to all his brother priests. “However, the archdiocese also understands that some of us, at some point in our ministry, may very well have to deal with issues related to stress, depression, anger, self-doubt and isolation. Serious issues, such as these, can affect us emotionally and/or physically.“Now, Mr. Henning has been able to work with diocesan and religious men struggling to address these types of issues, helping them to learn positive and healthy ways of relieving the emotional pain that accompanies the issues listed above.” Prime candidatesIn an interview with The Tidings, Henning first stressed how the common notion that only women experience eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia is completely false. He said these disorders, and especially binge eating, are “very prevalent” among men today who also deal with body image issues. The difference, he said, is how our society views the two sexes. Men who put on or take off 30 pounds are hardly noticed, while women who do likewise are often ridiculed or praised.And the shortage of priests today makes overworked clergymen prime candidates for eating disorders. To address their special needs is why Henning started the Ephesus Renewal Center, which he called “my vocation.”“I wanted to prove that what worked for me could also work for priests,” he said. “But the weight issue is very difficult because of their busy lifestyles. They can’t go, you know, to the gym three hours a day. Their lives are based so much on helping other people. But the most important thing is not their weight. For these men, their identity is not their weight.“The underlying issues are 100 percent of the problem,” he stressed. “Trying to get at the underlying pain that they’ve dealt with — past traumas or tragedies that have happened to make them think that food is the most important thing in their lives — is the most important thing to deal with.”For the most severe cases, Henning said he refers them to counselors, psychologists or psychiatrists. And if they have medical issues, he’ll find them an understanding doctor, and even go with them to their appointment. But mostly he deals with priest clients himself — sharing his own life history of suffering with, and overcoming, a life-altering over-eating disorder. This usually means one-on-one meetings in the beginning, followed by sometimes daily phone calls or emails for weeks, months or even years. Besides Los Angeles and San Bernardino, he’s worked in Midwest dioceses as well as with the Franciscan and Paraclete religious orders. Currently, he has 14 priest clients from four dioceses and two orders. Costs are privately negotiated. “But I’m not getting rich,” he reported with a half-grin. “It’s a vocation that I love to do. And I have never lost contact with any of the priests and brothers, because the program is the aftercare, too. So I consider every man I’ve worked with a success story, because they’re able to address issues and look at themselves and, hopefully, accept themselves. “I’m not the reason,” he added after a moment. “I’m there to help, to guide, to give input. But the accomplishment is because of them.” Knowing the journeyFather Kirsch would take issue with that last remark. “Actually, Dennis has been very helpful with keeping me on my food schedule and also looking at some underlying problems I hadn’t dealt with,” said the Chino pastor. “And he doesn’t do it in a judgmental way, because he himself was there at one time.“He knows the journey and he knows how difficult this can be. So what he’s teaching us priests to do is to replace the food with things that are life-giving and helpful.“He’s built up a trust, so he knows me inside and out. And he still asks me all the time, ‘Have you done something good for yourself today?’ He just really is persistent. He’s teaching me to stop and say, ‘OK, I’ve got to take care of myself.’ So he’s almost like a life coach, giving us priests the support that we really need.” Dennis Henning, executive director of the Ephesus Renewal Center, can be reached at (916) 752-8983 or [email protected] {gallery width=100 height=100}gallery/2013/0415/eating/{/gallery}