Theology professor, priest, blends Scripture with ski slopes
By ANDREW SOUKUP
Over half his life ago, Daniel Groody sat during his family's vacation to Vermont glued to a television. On the screen, he watched as an Austrian downhill skier named Franz Klammer soared down the mountain at the 1976 Olympics. Groody loved the 75 mph velocity at which Klammer rocketed down the hill as he toed the fine line separating self-control from reckless abandon.
Klammer won the gold medal in the downhill. Groody desperately wanted to duplicate Klammer's success.
That night, Groody went to bed and prayed to God for the chance to ski in the Olympics. "And if it's not too much trouble, I really want to win a gold medal," Groody remembered praying.
Today, twenty-seven years after he uttered that prayer, Groody will tug on his skin-tight racing suit, strap on his parabolic skis and pull his goggles over his eyes at the top of the mountain at a former Olympic resort in Salt Lake City. Today, Groody will be skiing in the national championships in the giant slalom.
Ironically, the prayer Groody uttered over a quarter of a century ago became a metaphor for the rest of his life.
No, he never made the Olympics. He became a priest.
Now 38 and a theology professor at Notre Dame, Groody is a full-time priest and educator whose ministry, research and teaching are his top priorities. Skiing is little more than a hobby, albeit an unusual one for a person who devotes his life to God. The fact that Groody qualified for the national championships with almost no training speaks volumes about his talent.
Yet Groody admits that as much as he loves to ski, his first priority is to his duties as a priest. In fact, he readily admits that the competitive nature of skiing appears to directly contradict the principles of love and compassion central to the priestly ministry.
For a time, Groody didn't think he could ski and be a priest at the same time. Then again, he had a hard time believing that he should be a priest, too.
An avid skier even after he broke his leg the first time on the slopes in third grade, Groody first joined the Notre Dame ski team as an undergraduate in the mid-80s and thought he might become a businessman.
But after several unfruitful summers working as a publicist, Groody started feeling a calling for something else — the seminary.
"I resisted it at first," he admitted. "I ran away in the other direction, and it kept coming up. Finally, I wasn't at peace."
Groody had good reason to resist at first. He had a girlfriend, a comfortable life and a promising career. To enter the priesthood, Groody thought, meant everything — even his love of skiing — had to be left behind.
"I had," he said, "to divest myself of images of what a priest was — never get married, not interested in women, didn't ski."
Still unsure of his decision, Groody entered the seminary believing he had to cast aside that which he enjoyed before entering the priesthood. That meant his fanciful childhood dreams of qualifying for the Olympics, of flying down a snow-covered mountain faster than a car on a freeway had to be exchanged for a life of no women and lots of prayer.
But after a year in the seminary, he took a cross-country bike trip from Portland, Ore. to Portland, Maine with a friend. He left with lots of questions, but returned with even more answers.
Journey of a lifetime
"All kinds of terrain, mountains, valleys, people running us off the road — that sort of became a metaphor for life," he said. "As I was sweating through the questions I had about priesthood, that gave me a good way of looking at it, a way to think about the vast terrain of life. When I saw priesthood as an adventure, it really became a challenge."
Content with his decision, Groody began deciding how he would fulfill his responsibilities as a priest. But he still didn't think skiing could be a part of his life.
However, one of the requirements before a priest may take his final vows is that he take a 30-day retreat by himself. The silence is intended to help the future priest both develop a deeper connection with God as well as understand their own personality better.
Fittingly, Groody took his 30-day retreat in Colorado, the heart of ski country. There, he said God revealed a way to connect his love of skiing with the love a priest must possess.
"I remember God revealing to me that the same things I developed in skiing were the same things I could bring to myself as a priest," he said. "When I first entered the seminary, it was like I had to leave it behind, I really felt that's what God said.
"But in Colorado, it felt like God was saying I want you to approach the priesthood the same way that you approached skiing. But the gold medal is no longer going to be a gold medal. It's going to be in your own heart, and that was the shift for me."
More than 20 years after his retreat, Groody still defines his ministry as one of the heart, where he uses compassion and love to explore the lives of the less fortunate. Skiing is but a hobby, something the priest says he is lucky to do five times a year.
Instead, Groody devotes the bulk of his time to his teaching – he currently teaches three classes at Notre Dame — and research that is based on his experiences working with migrant workers in the Southwest. His experiences in California led Groody to publish a book examining how the migrant community accepted Christianity and how they could help the Church as a whole.
"I put this loosely, but my life has been a ministry to people who are losers in the eyes of the world," he said. "But in my eyes, they are winners in the most fundamental ways. They are the ones who have really a tremendous faith and diversion to God."
So in the midst of his devotion to his faith, how does Groody manage find time to train at a level that allowed him to qualify for the national championships?
"I don't," he simply said.
In many ways, Groody truly did give up skiing when he entered the priesthood. The only occasions on which Groody thinks he skis come when he attends various events on the University's behalf. Often, he'll go to a conference, give his talk, and then take a few extra days to ski a local mountain. That's it.
Since he entered the priesthood, Groody said he has never taken a vacation solely for the purpose of skiing, and he knows he is not nearly as good as he could be.
But from time to time, Groody does catch himself briefly –– very briefly — wondering how good he could be had he stuck with skiing.
For example, in early January, Groody gave a talk at Santa Fe, N.M. and then headed to Taos Mountain, where he planned to enter a race that wasn't scheduled to end for another two months.
The rules of the race were simple. Ski down the hill as fast as you can, and, if your time is among the top three in your age group at the end of the time period, you go to the national championships.
Groody remembers going to the top of the hill and standing in a parka and his brand new skis. He watched as the guy ahead of him, who was decked out in the latest racing apparel, ski the fastest time to date on the mountain.
Then the priest went down the hill and skied the second-fastest time.
From then on, checking the times on the Taos Mountain site became as much a daily routine for Groody as praying, "my little reward for ending the day," he said.
When his time held up and the priest learned he qualified for the national championships, an excited Groody made reservations for Salt Lake City. There, he will ski against racers who ski hundreds of time a year on a course where the time will be set by U.S. Olympians. Depending on how close his time is within a certain percentage of the Olympians, he will get a gold, silver or bronze medal.
Then it's back to Notre Dame to teach.
"It's fun to think about," what might have happened had he devoted himself entirely to skiing, he said.
But Groody is foremost a priest, not a professional skier. "My whole definition of success has been turned around," he said. "A gold medal, I have them over my head but it doesn't mean a lot in the long run. What does mean a lot is the quality of the heart, which can touch people's lives and make them for the better. That's the way I look at my definition of success."
But that doesn't mean Groody separates skiing from the priesthood. In fact, he integrates the two to form who is as a person. For a man who describes skiing as a metaphor for his life, Groody appreciates a certain ironic twist. When he's hurtling down a mountain at 65 mph, spiritual concepts like trust flash through his mind. When something unexpected happens in life, Groody imagines himself on a ski slope to recapture his confidence.
Even Groody's office reflects the dual psyche within the priest. A picture of the priest shaking hands with the Pope hangs next to a Latino religious painting while winter landscapes flash as a screensaver across his computers.
Just like Groody can't imagine skiing without being a priest, neither can he imagine being a priest without skiing — although he knows the combination is odd. "It is so against the grain of what my life is about," he said. "But it is competing against yourself, trying to bring out the best person you can be and bring out the glory of God by using everything you can."
Today, Groody will stand at the top of a ski slope for the national championships, appropriately dressed in a Notre Dame-blue racing suit with yellow boots. At the resort where the 2002 Olympic skiing competition was held, Groody's modest dreams are far from the gold medal visions Klammer inspired 27 years ago.
But Klammer helped inspire something else in Groody, too.
"Something about the way Franz Klammer skied that downhill was something about the way I wanted to live my life. I sometimes feel I live the way I ski," Groody said. "Life is a terrific adventure. To really get everything out of life, you have to give everything you have to it, even if it's kinda risky.
"To bring that competitive sense into other areas of my life would be positively destructive," he continued. "But it's nice to know that it is still a part of my life, that there is a part that can kick into that gear when it needs to."
At that, the priest cracked a wide grin. For he knows that deep inside him, next to the man who devoted his life to God, still exists the young man who whispered a prayer asking for a shot at the Olympics.
Groody might have grown up, but that young man never did.
All News Stories for Friday, March 28, 2003