February 28, 2014 — Jesuit colleges and universities have a reputation for athletic excellence as evidenced by their strong showing each year in the fiercely competitive grudge match known as March Madness. Whether any of the nation’s 28 Jesuit colleges make it to the Final Four this year is less important than the fact that there are Jesuits across the nation, like Brother Patrick Douglas, who are using athletics to help people connect with God.
Brother Patrick Douglas: Jesuit Powerlifter
Jesuit Brother Patrick Douglas goes from town to town, college to college, talking about the power of faith — and often about powerlifting.
Brother Patrick, or “Bro Pat,” as he is known, is a Vocation Promoter for the Wisconsin Province of the Society of Jesus. He also holds records for powerlifting. It is a strength sport that involves squatting, bench pressing, and deadlifting (lifting dead weights off the ground).
For this Jesuit, lifting weights is a way to connect with young people and help lift their spiritual burdens.
“I’m very much a Jesuit when I’m competing as a lifter and doing the strength training,” said Brother Patrick, who lives on campus at the Jesuits' Creighton University in Omaha, Neb., and coaches powerlifting at Creighton Prep. “Students will ask me spiritual questions in the weight room — about God and their personal struggles.”
“Bro Pat” is a 38-year-old native of Nebraska who sports a goatee and a shaved head. He will walk into a room and tell a kid, “Hey, I like your haircut, but I think you need it a little shorter like mine.”
This past December, the affable Jesuit set a Nebraska record for lifting in his age category (35-39 years old). He deadlifted 529 pounds — about three times his weight. He set records for squatting and bench-pressing as well.
The records he broke were his own, from an event in June. For that occasion, in Omaha, he designed a black sweatshirt that he has worn at each event, featuring an image of a loaded barbell with the words in large white letters, “Jesuit Powerlifting.” The back of the sweatshirt read: “For the Greater Glory of God,” a motto of the Society of Jesus.
“Three guys walked up to me to talk about God, the Jesuits, and prayer. I didn’t initiate any of the conversations,” Brother Pat said, marveling — “It happens almost every time.”
A month later, in July, he won the gold medal for powerlifting (in all age and weight categories) at the Cornhusker State Games in Lincoln, Neb.
“There are a lot of Jesuits who are weightlifters. I’m not the only one ministering to people in the weight room,” Brother Patrick pointed out. “The students are more likely to talk to us there than go track us down at our office. It’s an important place for us to be.”
In his official job as a Jesuit, he travels around to state universities in the Midwest (seven states form the Wisconsin Province of Jesuits). At the invitation of Catholic campus ministries, he offers spiritual direction to students and attends liturgies with them. He also talks with them about his vocation as a Jesuit.
Brother Patrick first heard his own call to religious life as a high-school senior at Creighton Prep. He went off to the University of St. Thomas, in St. Paul, Minnesota, and did what college students do — study, have fun, and think about careers and families. He graduated with a degree in social work and sociology in 1999.
Then, he said, “I had a lost period.” He was 24 years old and had just broken up with a longtime girlfriend. For five years, while working with young and violent offenders in St. Paul, his life revolved around motorcycles, girlfriends, and weightlifting.
Brother Patrick recalled that he was putting at least 80 hours a month into his physique, as a bodybuilder — and four hours a month into his spiritual life, at church on Sundays. “And I had a soul that looked like I was putting in just four hours a month,” he added.
His turning point came on Ash Wednesday of 2003. He heard a priest say from the pulpit that the parishioners ought to do something new for Lent, perhaps attend daily Mass. “I took it as a challenge, kind of like a weightlifting challenge,” Brother Patrick said with a laugh. “But I fell in love with the liturgy. I started praying more.”
He began, once again, to hear a call to religious life and became a Jesuit in 2004. Brother Patrick chose specifically to be a religious brother, not an ordained priest who has sacramental responsibilities in addition to other ministries. He says that as a brother, he is free to focus all his energy on prayer, work, and community life.
For three years during his Jesuit training, Brother Patrick worked with troubled youth and families on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota, at the Jesuit mission there. He also — after giving it up for a couple of years — resumed powerlifting.
He points out that many people throw themselves into bodybuilding for the wrong reasons, because they don’t feel “they’re good enough the way they are.” That’s one of the conversations he might have with students and others he encounters at powerlifting events.
Brother Patrick has a master’s degree in counseling and another one in spirituality, but he doesn’t rush into the spiritual talk.
“It starts off with weightlifting,” he said, mentioning one young woman at Creighton who recently came to him asking how she could develop “Michelle Obama arms” (he looked into it and got back to her with details about the First Lady’s workout regimen). “That sets up a foundation for them to come to me when they’re struggling with something, when they want to discuss something deeper.”
Brother Patrick’s presence alone, in the weight rooms and at the competitions, carries a simple though important message. As he put it, “You could love Christ and still lift heavy stuff.”
Do you want to learn more about vocations to the Society of Jesus? Visit www.jesuits.org/become for more information.