Life in Peloton

A Reflection on Cycling and Priestly Fraternity

It is patently unthinkable that someone would attempt to win the Tour de France alone. This is the reason why cycling has always been a team sport. At the professional level, even teams are never solo; they come together to form a peloton, i.e., the concentrated majority of riders in all professional races. A peloton, as seen from an aerial view, is a thing of beauty, and this beauty bespeaks of the inherent relationality of cycling and all of human existence.

In cycling, it is always more intelligent to fight gravity and wind while banded together. It pays off in three ways: drafting, pacing, and safety. The first is the most significant; on a flat road, 80% of the total resistive force on a bike is from wind. Riding together reduces this significantly, oftentimes to around 35%.1 Second, with the exception of the rare, very steady cyclist, riding together helps us to pace out a ride more smoothly. This will be the determining factor for the success over the long haul, after several hours and many miles. And the third reason is most obvious: riding together is safer. If something happens, you simply want someone there.

As cogent as this may sound, many of us who cycle come to a perplexing and counterintuitive realization: apart from a few exceptions, I ride harder, faster, and longer when I’m by myself. Though I know that it is smarter to ride with others, something in me prefers to ride alone. And this is precisely the problem with how I have been living my priestly life.

The Greater the Speed, the Greater the Drag

Like cycling, many of us priests can go harder, faster, and longer in our ministry when we are solo. Uninhibited by other priests, those of us naturally driven and intense can produce a tremendous amount of pastoral work. If matched with a requisite level of virtue and discipline, this high pace can be sustained for an impressively long period of time. It is for this reason that many American bishops are calling for such high-caliber, solo, endurance-style priests.

But as we have seen too clearly, this priestly ethos leads to a high percentage of burnout and vocational collapse. It is equivalent to riding solo and expending all one’s energy fighting resistive forces, both within and without the Church. And as we know from studies in aerodynamics: the greater the speed, the greater the drag. This means that the priests with the highest pastoral output, those who conquer the greatest sacramental feats, are the ones who face the greatest resistance. Priestly life and ministry is not survival of the fittest for, in this realm, the fittest are the most vulnerable.

In reflecting back on my first year as a priest, I came to see how self-reliance was the enemy of my life (and of all Christian life). Almost immediately after ordination, I perceived two things: the infinite demands of the pastorate and the indolence of my pastor (he was of course not indolent, but wiser than me). I knew he would deter my efficacy, so I struck out on my own. It was the subtle whisper that is so tempting: “Think of how much more you can do, how much harder you can go, without the burdens of others to slow you down.” Just like biking, something is lost when we do ministry with other priests; we usually go fewer miles and at a slower rate. In a world (and a Church!) that evaluates quality based on efficiency, the choice of a real priestly fraternity is a choice to become “less impressive” in the eyes of the world. No wonder why so few choose it.

Perhaps the time is approaching when we priests will get desperate enough to stop relying on ourselves. The lack of drafting, the inconstancy of pace, and the perils of riding solo are compounding to create a truly impossible undertaking. We all know we need each other, the question is why we don’t want to choose it. An isolated priestly life is not a fate; it is a choice. And it is one we make not because of life’s circumstances, but because we want to preserve the spirit of self-reliance. Priestly associations like the Companions of Christ are attempting to cast out this spirit, and halt the rout in our scandal-ridden days. After years of riding together (at times very awkardly!), the Companions have taught me three new things.

1. A new obedience. Riding together means everyone has to relinquish control and learn to share again. Leadership is certainly needed, but only when everyone has placed their ministry and life in the ambit of fraternal obedience. This is a radical decision, because most of priestly obedience is felt only on the pastoral level (which I still get to determine) and episcopal level (which, if I successfully avoid the bishop, will only happen every six years). Riding with others means I don’t get to dictate the terms, decide the pace, and, ultimately, do what I want to do. This is why St. John Berchman famously said, “vita communis est mea maxima penitentia” (the common life is my greatest penance). When I am solo in ministry, I enjoy maximum freedom and minimal accountability. It’s the joy of every unfulfilled bachelor, and, sadly, of too many of priests.

2. A new attentiveness. Riding together makes me attentive in new ways. Though there are general safety advantages, riding in packs brings the new possibility of collision (especially when a true draft keeps you 10cm from the wheel in front of you!). These considerations provide an important maxim for both life and cycling and priestly ministry: I am more attentive to myself when I have to be attentive to others in close proximity. This is the interior logic of every healthy family life, and it needs to be restored to priestly life. No amount of ministry can supplant the lack of community life; only the proximity of a life truly known and shared, with all its possibility for collision, can fashion the heart in a human way.

3. A new acknowledgement. Riding together draws out all our competitiveness and insecurities. We have to acknowledge the messiness of our hearts in a way that is not detached or objective (as we can do with pastoral ministry). Most importantly, the difficulty of riding together forces us to acknowledge the fundamental reason why we still choose our solo self-reliance: because we have become addicted to pastoral endorphins. Just like biking, the incessant drive to go harder and faster is connected with physiological processes, and the activating of opiate receptors. Something analogous is happening in the parish: priests are becoming the victims of their own activism, because we start to crave the pastoral endorphins that the work provides. The endorphin rush is a great feeling but, like all feelings, it needs to be moderated.

Équipes: A Distinctive Form of Priestly Fraternity

What is needed in our day is priests living and working in peloton. But you can’t have a peloton without teams. Thus the primary work of building fraternity is the creation of priestly teams. Though a fading dimension of diocesan life, the restoration of these teams is the only way to create a smarter, and ultimately more effective, way of doing priestly ministry.

Let’s call these teams by their French name — Équipes — as a nod to Madeleine Delbrêl.2 These Équipes, distinct and indispensable expressions of priestly fraternity, are defined by their three-fold criteria: they must be positive, consistent, and transparent.3

Most priests are fraternal men, and their people can attest to this. But the crisis of priestly fraternity is being sustained by a tacit mistake: to use other forms of fraternity to compensate for what is missing. Examples of these are everywhere: “all I need in Jesus” . . . “all I need is my pastor” . . . “all I need are my people.” These can be legitimate and beautiful fraternal relationships, but they are not Équipes. Call it what you would like, without an Équipe, human beings will not flourish. And without an atmosphere of positivity, consistency, and transparency, a true priestly peloton will never come to be.

The Équipe must first be positive, free of the caustic and incessant complaining that often dominate or overcome our fraternal conversations. It must be consistent, meeting with enough regularity to actually share life.4 And, lastly and most importantly, the Équipe must be transparent. Only in a true disclosure of one’s life can a true fraternal love emerge.

“It is almost (or entirely) impossible to avoid the illusion that man knows from himself what love is, and how it is to be practiced.”5 If these words of Hans Urs von Balthasar are indeed true, then we need every available ambit of friendship and fraternity in order to truly learn love. And there is a way in which only priestly relationships can bring this harsh truth to light in a way that leads to the merciful love of Jesus.

The only real temptation in every human life is to believe that the fulfillment of all my desires depends entirely on me.6 The Christian who relies on himself is a walking contradiction. For the paradox of the Church is essentially this: that God calls us to rely solely on him, and to learn it through relying solely on others. For this reason, let’s pull together into Équipes, that the peloton of God’s priests may with one voice proclaim: “I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”7

And I guess there is another reason to ride in peloton. It’s way more fun.

  1. Studies have even shown that the lead rider’s drag is reduced by 2–3%.
  2. French author and social activist who founded communities of consecrated women, known as Équipes.
  3. The work of neuroscientist Dr. Stephany Biello is the basis for this threefold criteria. She has demonstrated neurologically precisely what priestly fraternities like the Companions are attempting.
  4. For this reason, Équipes can never be based simply on the priests of your present rectory. Though an indispensable forum for fraternity, it remains a transient moment and not consistent enough for the long haul.
  5. Hans Urs von Balthasar, “Vocation,” in Communio XXXVII (2010): 125.
  6. This is taken from the brilliant mind of Lorenzo Albacete: “There is only one temptation. All particular temptations are expressions of this one original or ‘primordial’ temptation. This is the temptation to believe that the fulfillment of the desires of the human heart depends entirely on us. Dependence on another leaves us at the mercy of what we cannot control. Therefore, we are tempted to reject all forms of dependence. The most radical form of dependence is love. Therefore, the original temptation is to deny that our existence is a pure and perfect gift of an infinite Love that deserves to be loved in return. The fullest revelation that God is love is the Incarnation of Christ. Therefore, the primordial temptation is to reject the Incarnation and its consequences.”
  7. 2 Tim. 4:7.
Fr. John Nepil About Fr. John Nepil

Father John Nepil is a priest of Denver, Colorado and a member of the priestly association of the Companions of Christ. Having finished a doctorate in dogmatic theology at the Pontifical University of Santa Croce in Rome, he is now a member of the academic and formation faculty of St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver.

Comments

  1. Avatar Rev. Carl Kerkemeyer says:

    Superb article. I invited former parishioners now in Denver area to return to Oklahoma for an Easter Octave bikepacking challenge adventure on the 2019 Arkansas High Country Route, NW Loop.

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