He believes Jesus Christ had a little something to do with it, too.
In fact, Hearne believes anticipation of the Christmas miracle steered him from the buffet of holiday treats waiting at the church rectory in Oak Park and through the doors of a nearby weight loss center a week before Christmas last year.
There, he made a pledge to lose the weight, committing to the transformation that Christians try to embrace during the season of Advent. In doing so, Saint Giles’ associate pastor said, he renewed his faith in himself and in God.
“Part of this holistic change is believing in myself again.” said Hearne, 31. “Before we can be friends with God, we have to be friends with ourselves. What do we do with friends? We hurt them. We doubt them. We turn our back on them. I allowed that to overtake me. I began doubting myself. … Advent is a time of hope. If you can’t believe in yourself, how can you believe in God and have hope in God?”
In addition to buying packaged food to cut his calorie count, Hearne started rising before dawn to walk laps around the candlelit church. As he walked around the pews and crossed the sanctuary again and again, the pounds began to melt away. The morning silence also created an opportunity to listen to God, pray for parishioners, ponder Scripture and compose homilies.
Hearne hopes his presence at this year’s Christmas Mass offers a visual testimony for the congregation that transformation is indeed possible.
“They have certainly been the witnesses to this change, and I think it bears fruit in offering to them that this has happened to me,” he said. “If you allow God to help you, you can effect change in your life.”
While it took less than a year for Hearne to lose the weight, it took more than 10 years to gain it. Hearne, raised by health-conscious parents, grew up adhering to a healthy diet.
That changed in seminary, where Hearne and other seminarians piled meat and potatoes on their trays and often returned for seconds.
“When kids go to college, they call it the ‘freshman 15,’” said the Rev. Dennis Lyle, rector of Mundelein Seminary, the Chicago archdiocese’s training ground for priests. “Here, we say ‘freshman 30.’
“You have to learn to deny yourself in many different ways,” he said.
Lyle said the menu has changed since Hearne’s ordination five years ago. The seminary has removed trays from the dining hall, reduced serving sizes and added a salad bar.
But the food keeps coming after seminary. Shuttling between parishes for funerals, weddings, baptisms and masses, he ate mostly fast food. Well-meaning parishioners brought desserts to the rectory and invited him to decadent dinners.
“A lot of parishioners, when they want to do something nice for Father, they equate nice with butter and fried food,” said Dr. Michael Koller, an associate professor of medicine at Loyola Stritch School of Medicine and chairman of the archdiocese’s priest health committee. “If they want to make something for their priests, try to be conscious of healthy choices — low-salt, low-cholesterol options. When they invite the priest over to the house for dinner, it’s OK to serve broiled fish. You don’t have to serve prime rib.”
Parishioners have been careful not to tempt Hearne too much. Volunteers who cook dinner for the priests twice a week now bring healthy alternatives.
Maria Ferrera and her husband, Frank Zelko, parishioners at Saint Giles for 17 years, said at first they worried when they saw Hearne “shrinking and shrinking.” They were relieved and proud when they learned diet and exercise were responsible.
“This made him human in a way we didn’t often experience as a congregation,” Zelko said. “He’s just like us.”
Hearne recently had a chance to model his new skills at Saint Giles’ annual spaghetti dinner. Last year, he let the chef fill his plate with pasta and returned for seconds. This year, Hearne stopped the chef after one scoop and filled the rest of the plate with salad. He skipped dessert.
There was a lot of leftover pasta this year.
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