April 1, 2022

Pastor’s love of distance running draws him closer to God and his parishioners

Father Robert Sims leads a prayer before a race that kicks off the parish festival at Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish in Indianapolis where he is the pastor. (Submitted photo)

Father Robert Sims leads a prayer before a race that kicks off the parish festival at Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish in Indianapolis where he is the pastor. (Submitted photo)

(Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of stories about priests in the archdiocese who use their love of physical activity to connect with their community in the hope of drawing people closer to God. See the first story here and the third story here.)

By John Shaughnessy

The unusual challenge involving Father Robert Sims would happen soon, but in this moment the pastor of Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish in Indianapolis was leading a prayer for all the people lined up to run a race.

As he looked toward the runners and walkers who had gathered for the race—the kickoff event to the parish festival—Father Sims saw school children, adult parishioners, neighbors, and moms and dads perched behind strollers, most of them with their heads bowed in silence.

For Father Bob, as he is best known in the parish, it was a moment to savor a community coming together in faith, a moment when it was “also good for us to come together and work on being healthy people.”

With the prayer finished, the fun and the unusual challenge began.

The race organizer had Father Sims move to 50 yards ahead of the starting line. At the same time, he instructed all the runners that the first one to pass their pastor during the race would earn a prize.

That challenge might have seemed easy to someone who didn’t know the 70-something-year-old priest. Someone who didn’t know that Father Sims has run numerous marathons, including the famed New York City Marathon; someone who didn’t know he completed a marathon at age 65 just to prove to himself “that I wasn’t old”; someone who still runs at least six miles many days at an average pace of about 8 1/2 to 9 minutes a mile; someone who still has a competitive spirit.

As the race started with a daunting hill straight ahead, Father Sims knew that more than a few people would eventually pass him, but he wasn’t going to make it easy for any of them. He also knew that there would be people along the race route who would be cheering for all the runners, and that many of the runners would be supporting each other.

“One of the nice things is that there’s this sense of running as a community of people, even though they run at different paces,” says Father Sims, who is 75. “And all along, there are people supporting you, giving you cups of water. It’s people being supportive of one another in a lot of ways. Runners are actually really good at supporting one another.”

Running toward God

So those are two of the three main reasons that have fueled Father Sims’ continuing desire to run through the years—the challenge of competition and the sense of community.

The third reason is the joy it gives him, a joy that includes time for contemplation and another way to draw deeper into his relationship with God

“This may be odd to say, but I like the quiet,” he says. “It’s time to be prayerful and reflective. To sometimes be alone with God, sometimes alone with myself. And sometimes when I run, I do homilies. I used to do a lot of marathons, which meant I had more time to work on my homilies. Now I don’t do marathons anymore, so my homilies are shorter,” he says with his usual hearty laugh.

“Also, I kind of like just getting sweaty. It’s an earthy thing to do. There’s also that sound mind and sound body thing—that kind of integration of body, mind and spirit.”

That spirit has been moving him to run since he was a seminarian doing advanced studies at the Pontifical North American College in Rome. His dedication to running increased as a young priest when he was an instructor at the Latin School in Indianapolis, where he ran through Garfield Park. And his love of running flourished during his years as the pastor of St. Paul Catholic Center in Bloomington, where he ran often through Indiana University’s campus.

His time in Bloomington sparked one of his greatest dreams as a runner—to run in the famed Boston Marathon.

The story of that pursuit even made it into one of his tight, thought-provoking homilies.

‘All of us have some brokenness’

A gifted and engaging homilist, Father Sims knows the impact of a good story—and often a humorous one. And while a touch of humor frequently begins his homilies, he learned long ago in his

50 years as a priest that the foundation of a good homily isn’t humor but an emotion that’s even more universal, and close to the heart.

“One of the things they say is that if you want to be a good homilist, you need to remember that in every pew there’s at least one broken heart,” he says. “So, I try to think of whatever brokenness I have. All of us have some brokenness.”

His dream of running in the Boston Marathon turned into a time of heartbreak for him.

Unlike most marathons, runners must qualify for the Boston Marathon by achieving a certain time in another marathon.

“I worked really hard to qualify for the Boston Marathon when I did the New York Marathon. I ate the right things, ran the right number of miles to train,” he recalls. “Then I did one thing which was really stupid. I got a brand-new pair of shoes and wore them for the first time in the marathon.”

By the time he finished the New York Marathon, which ends in Central Park, his feet were bloodied and blistered from the chafing of the new shoes. His spirit was even more battered.

“I didn’t qualify for the Boston Marathon,” he says. “And frankly, I felt sorry for myself.”

As he returned to Bloomington, that devastation stayed with him and gnawed at him—until he came across a newspaper story about another person who had participated in the New York Marathon.

“I read an article about a guy who had his legs blown off,” Father Sims recalls. “He was running on stumps. I remembered seeing him. I had passed him. It took him like two days to finish the marathon, which he did. It was a good lesson for me about feeling sorry for myself for not qualifying for Boston—the relativity of what it means to be successful.”

‘Spending time with God’

That story is a reminder of keeping things in perspective, just as the medals overflowing around a doorknob of his parish office are a reminder of the success he’s had in finishing marathons and half-marathons.

These days, success and perspective run together whenever Father Sims laces up his running shoes and heads out on a route that leads him from the parish office, into Broad Ripple and up the Monon Trail—and back again—for a good six miles or so.

Along the way, he encounters a lot of people from the parish and from his days at IU. He seldom stops to talk—except for “a little kid or someone I haven’t seen for a long, long time”—because he would be stopping all the time if he did. Instead, he smiles, waves and continues on, seeing his running as one more way that he tries to share his priesthood with the school, the parish and the larger community.

“I think we need to model lots of things,” he says about being a priest. “We need to model being prayerful. We need to model working at learning. And we also need to model taking care of our bodies. I think we need to model that our bodies are temples of God and they’re something to be respected and valued.”

There are other defining reasons that Father Sims runs, including the benefits he gets from it.

“They’ve done lots of studies that people who get exercise are less inclined toward depression, and they are healthier not just physically but mentally,” he says. “And I like the solitude of running.

“I have a very nice life, but I don’t have a lot of solitude. I try to make time for it but once the day gets going, I don’t have a lot of solitude. So that’s why I think I like running later in the afternoon after all the busyness of the day has accumulated. It’s the time to reflect on what’s going on and, in some ways, just release from the events of the day. It’s a great opportunity for that solitude.”

There’s also a spiritual impact for him, connecting running and his relationship with God. He refers to a thought associated with Henri Nouwen, a Catholic priest, theologian and writer who viewed prayer as “wasting time” with and for God.

“I do think in some ways somebody could say that running is wasting time,” Father Sims says. “And yet it isn’t a waste of time. It’s ultimately quieting. It’s a time to be prayerful.

“One of the reasons I like running, I wouldn’t call it the monotony, but the constancy of it. Even when I was getting ready for marathons and I was running three hours, it was never monotonous. In some ways, it’s wasting time with God, but it’s really not wasting time. It’s spending time with God.” †

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