Faith Runs Deep

Marathoner Ross Syracuse, the pastor at St. Casimir's Roman Catholic Church, feels running keeps him fit to serve God, his parishioners and himself.

August 18, 1999|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

The lean, bearded man you see running around Canton in short pants these warm summer days is likely to be a Franciscan friar named Ross Syracuse, the pastor at St. Casimir's Roman Catholic Church.

Father Ross celebrates Mass every morning wearing the symbolic and sanctified vestments of the Catholic priest. He attends to his myriad pastoral duties in the plain brown robe bound with a knotted white cord and the well-worn sandals of the Franciscan friar.

But about 3: 30 p.m. daily from Sunday to Thursday, Ross doffs his clerical garb for a T-shirt, short pants and Brooks Beast running shoes and sets out on his 6-mile route through Canton, Patterson Park, Fells Point, all the way to the Inner Harbor and back. He rests on Fridays, then does 10 to 24 miles on Saturday.

Right now he's training for his 70th marathon, yes, 70th, which is coming up in October.

"I've done 14 New York City Marathons and eight Boston Marathons," he says during a long conversation in the rectory of St. Casimir's, at Kenwood Avenue and O'Donnell Street. He's pastor here and at St. Stanislaus Kostka on Ann Street in Fells Point. The parishes share clergy.

"I've done all of the Buffalo Marathons," he says. That's 11. "I did the San Francisco Marathon one year."

All this is slightly startling at St. Casimir's, an old-line Polish Catholic church smack in the middle of one of Baltimore's hottest areas of gentrification.

"A lot of people have grown up with the mentality that the priest didn't do that," he says. "They give you a look sometimes when they see me in my running shorts or something. It's almost as if they're saying, `I didn't realize a priest had legs.'

"Sometimes I'll be running down and the parishioners see me, and they get such a kick out of that. So it's been a real positive experience that way."

He seems to be very popular with his parishioners. Attendance is up at Sunday Mass. And he has to be one of the few parish priests to have gotten a standing ovation at the end of his service.

And even if he weren't training for his 70th marathon, he'd be running anyway. He's loves running.

"For me the real goal is not the marathon," he says. "The real goal is the running itself. It's an end in itself. The real value of it is that every afternoon I head out the door at 3: 30 and I go for my run.

"I call that my second `holy hour' of the day. It gets me away, in both meanings of the word `retreat': The retreat when you run away from the battle. The retreat [as] the spiritual exercise.

"It's my time away. And all kinds of wonderful different things happen during my run, emotionally, spiritually, intellectually, working things out, preparing homilies, preparing costs, looking at things, the physical part, the stress relief.

"It's just so energizing."

His first "holy hour" is the early morning time he devotes to prayer before he begins the work of the day. "Both are essential to my well-being," he wrote in a letter published in Runner's World magazine in response to an article on spirituality and running.

Time for oneself

"Basically, what the running is is giving oneself time," he says at the rectory. "If we don't have that time for ourselves, we'll end up empty. We'd feed off ourselves."

He finds his model in Jesus.

"What do we find he often did? He went off by himself to pray. He took time for himself."

Ross often prays while running.

"I do," he says. "Prayer is basically communicating with God, being aware of God, being aware of God's presence. Sometimes in Patterson Park I'm just so aware I'm in God's creation. Sometimes it's talking to God. Sometimes it's listening to God."

So his running is a form of daily regeneration.

"It allows me to be more personally engaged with the people in the parish and the faith community," he says. "I'm just a basic human being, very ordinary, a poor sinner like everyone else."

He prays at the end of the day, too. His 6-mile afternoon run takes about 48 minutes. He works out at the Canton Health Club for 20 to 25 minutes.

"I come back refreshed," he says. "The other two Franciscans and I come together for our community prayer at 5 o'clock, and we have our supper at 5: 30."

But he doesn't eat meat, poultry or fish. He's been a vegetarian since 1979. He's 5-foot-10 and weighs about 160 -- "10 pounds more than I want to." He thinks his running times might improve if he were a little lighter.

His best marathon so far was three hours and five minutes. His worst: four hours, 34 minutes, and that wasn't even the first one.

"That was a bad day," he remembers. "Oh, I do I do. It hurt. It was the New York Marathon. It was a very hot day. I remember already at mile 16 I was in agony. And I said I wish this was over."

Although his beard is flecked with gray, Ross is a very youthful, not to mention very, very fit, 48. He's been running almost as long as he's been a priest. He joined the Franciscan community in 1968 at 17 and a decade later became a priest, after, among other things, studying theology at the University of Fribourg, in Switzerland.

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