Freddy Gray meets the priest who finds God in. the great American outdoors
Fr Joseph F Classen has just been informed that squirrels have invaded his inter, viewer's flat. "You wanna get yourself a shotgun and blast 'em out," he says after a moment's reflection.
Fr Joe, a parish priest in St Louis, Missouri, Midwest America. is on a mission to save souls, yet if he moved to London he could put Rentokil out of business.
The 33-year-old cleric is a passionate fisherman and gameshooter. He is particularly excited this month as September is when shooting in Missouri begins in earnest. "Out here you can shoot duck, geese, the whole nine yards," he says, almost breathlessly.
When not serving his flock. Fr Joe dedicates as much time as he can to field sports. "Mondays are my days off." he reveals. "So pretty much every Monday I am out fishing or shooting and anytime I have a vacation or a chunk of free time I am out there again.
"Hunting and fishing helps me recharge my batteries and be a better priest. For me, its a way for me to get out there and be in God's presence and just spend some quality time with God."
Fr Joe's preferred weapon is the bow and arrow. "Bow hunting is one of my fortes," he boasts.
"The vast majority of deer that I kill is with a bow. I make my own arrows: He refuses to divulge the number of arms he owns. "Let's just say I've got enough to get the job done," he answers, laughing anxiously. Sadly, images of a huge arsenal in his vestry are quickly dispelled. "1 keep 'cm all locked up in my residence," he insists.
For all his tough-talking and gun-toting, Fr Joe is not short of charm and wit. He has a large, kind face and laughs quietly but often. He speaks with an attractive, soft Midwest drawl. yet his vowels become sharper when discussing the subjects that excite him: namely, the glory of God, shooting game and fishing.
Fr Joe sees no conflict between killing animals and his love of God. Indeed, for him the two are intricately linked. "I always tell people that Jesus's first disciples were fishermen. So I figure if you're gonna be a priest then you gotta love to fish, it's sort of a prerequisite."
Unfortunately the Apostles did not have access to firearms, so it is hard to know if the same argument extends to shooting. But Fr Joe explains that being an "outdoorsman" as he likes to call it is about "fulfilling one's duty as a good steward of creation".
"Genesis tells us this. In America especially, outdoorsmen place great emphasis on taking account of the gifts that we have been given, on taking care of what we have and making sure it is there for future generations. Hunting and fishing is really hands-on conservation, if you will."
Fr Joe stammers slightly when asked if he enjoys the killing. "Yeah, er, I mean you can take pleasure in seeing a job well done. It is a good feeling to put food on your table by means of your own hand."
He is well aware that many Christians, including a large number of Catholics, oppose the shooting of animals for sport and that they might be appalled at the idea of a priest taking part in such slaughter. And he is well prepared, therefore, to defend himself against accusations of brutality.
"There is a great deal of misunderstanding," he says authoritatively. "People think we are just a bunch of barbaric killers, who just like hanging the things we kill up on a wall. This is the absolute opposite of the true outdoors philosophy."
Field sports, he argues, are a more humane approach to gathering food than buying one's meat in a supermarket. "In the food industries, the beef and chicken suffer horrible living conditions. But when you hunt or fish you know exactly how that animal lived, where it came from, what it had been eating. so you have a lot more respect for the that animal because you know that it died for us. That's why outdoorsmen are very hesitant to waste their food. There is much more a sense of reverence".
Relishing the flow of his argument, Fr Joe goes on to say that mounting the head of a kill on one's wall is "another sign of respect... it's a way of immortalising the animal as well as using up every part".
Opponents, he continues, have a skewed understanding of "the nature of nature" or the reality of life and death.
"People watch the Walt Disney movies and think that animals are out there conversing and carrying on like human beings," he says, with a whisper of contempt.
"But that is just not the case. When you spend time in the outdoors you come to realise that nature is a pretty brutal place. Look at a way a hunter kills a deer
I mean, it is quick. Then look at how nature takes out a deer. You can see a pack of coyotes tear apart an animal for sometimes hours until it dies. Now that is savage. Nature is indifferent to life and death."
Yet even if one puts aside the cloying sentimentality there remain interesting theological questions over the rights and wrongs of shooting or fishing. Whether animals have souls, for example.
Fr Joe has clearly mulled this one over before; his answer slips easily off his tongue. "St Thomas Aquinas would say that any living thing in a sense has a soul," he replies. "A soul can be described as a life force, so yes animals obviously have a life force. But human beings are created in the image and likeness of God. We are God's ultimate creation and He gave us animals to provide tier us. It is our duty to only take what we
need," Fr Joe says that from a very young age he understood that the outdoors was a sacred place. "My dad would take me out fishing from the moment I could walk," he recalls. "It didn't take me long to realise 1 was looking at God's handiwork."
Nature continued to inspire his belief in God into adulthood. As a teenager he became disillusioned with the faith and the Church.
kinda went off the deep end, spent most days playing guitar and lifting weights," he remembers. It was only when he returned to the outdoors that he rediscovered his faith in the Almighty: "It brought me back to the realisation that there is a God."
He is certain that a love of shooting and fishing can lead others to faith in God. "I never met an atheist outdoorsman," he asserts. This conviction has stirred him into writing a book on the subject, Hunting for God, Fishing for the Lord: Encountering the Sacred in the Great Outdoors.
"When I first had the idea, I thought: 'nab, I don't have to time for that.' But then it kept on nagging me and I thought: 'well, maybe somebody is telling me I need to do this'" He enjoyed the writing experience so much that he is now planning a second book. "I'll be in the chapel praying or driving around," he reveals. "Then barn! The Lord clobbers me with ideas and I have to note them down."
So if you are ever in Missouri and you hear a loud noise, it might be Fr Joe shooting some beast, or perhaps experiencing a flash of literary inspiration.
Hunting for God, Fishing for the Lord: Encountering the Sacred in the Great Outdoors by Fr Joe Classen will be available to buy online at arnazon.com by the end of September