By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 3, 2009
Mass had been over only a few minutes and the Rev. Leo Patalinghug had already traded his green and gold robe for an apron, his priest's collar poking out over the top. He was chopping onions with the speed and flair of a celebrity chef --which he is.
The unusual cooking demonstration occurred on a recent afternoon at a Catholic bookstore in downtown Washington. About two dozen people took their lunch hour to see the compact, smiley 39-year-old show how to make penne alla vodka, with dramatic flames of burning liquor and a dose of spiritual encouragement delivered in a snappy, chatty manner.
"This is my favorite sound!" Patalinghug proclaimed as he popped raw onions into a pan of hot oil. "That, or 'Go in peace and serve the Lord.'"
Corny, telegenic, not aggressively religious -- that's Patalinghug's style, more Emeril than Benedict. The Baltimore native has two self-published cookbooks and a Web site that has 10,000 visitors a month. He travels frequently to speak to crowds who want to see the priest who cooks, break dances and stick fights. (He has won a world championship in arnis, a martial art.)
PBS is hoping to put him on the air. The Food Network is taping a test show with him in June.
It has become commonplace for Protestant ministers -- evangelicals in particular -- to embrace pop culture and the mass media. And then there's the Orthodox rabbi with the TV show and the jet-setting Muslim preacher who has wowed crowds worldwide with his theology. But few Catholic priests are in the public eye in that way, and Patalinghug says it's time to try something new to engage people and their faith. It is part of a movement among traditional Catholics who are pushing what Pope John Paul II called "the new evangelization," an effort to use mass communication to draw people to the Church.
Patalinghug is using his role as a budding celebrity chef to preach the importance of the dinner table in family life. The family that cooks and eats together stays together, he says.
"Grace Before Meals" is the name of what Patalinghug calls his "movement." It's also the title of his first book (which has sold 6,000 copies), Web site, e-mail blasts and "webisodes" of him cooking. What he describes as his "calling" involves him in marketing meetings, fundraising and fretting that the camera is adding five pounds. But it's all a plunge into pop culture that he feels is necessary for Catholicism.
To Patalinghug, who grew up cooking in a Filipino household in Baltimore, food as ministry comes naturally. The references in the Bible are everywhere. Adam and Eve eating in the Garden of Eden. Jesus at the Last Supper. The Hebrew word "Bethlehem" means "house of bread."
"I didn't initially want to do this. I thought it was silly. But things that have happened because of this have been profound," he said in an interview. "I've received e-mails from people around the world saying I'm helping to save their families."
Joanne Alloway, 61, an Annapolis writer, said hearing Patalinghug speak prompted her to push for more family meals with her daughter and grandson. Seeing a man who is supposed to be a representative of God be "so real," she said, boosted her faith. "A lot of clergy act like they're almighty. He makes it clear we are all God's people, we all make mistakes and God takes us back."
Patalinghug studied performing arts in college and won break dancing contests in Baltimore in the 1980s. With his growing popularity as a cook, he has become a sought-after speaker on the Catholic young people's circuit. He talks about chastity among the unmarried, "fearless sex" (which to him means without contraception) among the married, and, especially, the sacred aspects of food.
His videos show him cooking, and aside from the collar, the location -- some are shot at his current assignment, Mount St. Mary's Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md. -- and his occasional religious references, they look much like other cooking shows. His cookbook, however, includes Scriptural passages and parenting advice. Each chapter includes advice for conversation-starters, such as: What events should we celebrate in our house over a meal that we don't already?
Patalinghug is aware of the danger of looking gimmicky -- or unpriestly -- and addresses the subject even unasked.
"It looks like such a shtick: a priest cooking show!" he said during Mass at the Catholic Information Center, the downtown bookstore-chapel where he did his recent penne alla vodka presentation. "But I know the only way I can reach your hearts and minds is through your stomach."
Many of those at the bookstore were conservative Catholics, regular Mass-goers who said they would like to see more priests like him.
"A lot of them are so --" Gilda Del Signore, a tour guide from Northwest Washington, made a sour face. "So many aren't very social."
Signore, like everyone else at the event, didn't seek out Patalinghug for spiritual information. She wanted to know which spices he was adding and why he didn't use Parmigiano-Reggiano as well as heavy cream.
"Sure, he wears a collar, but I think it's kind of cool, and to be honest, it's a different marketing experience," said Larry Rifkin, a programming executive with Connecticut Public Television, which hopes to produce a show with Patalinghug. "You're always looking at ways to have your series stand out."
Right now, Patalinghug said, people are buying into the "fast-food" mentality, not only in what they eat but in how much time they spend together.
"It's the mentality that says: I'm too busy for the people I love. I'm too busy to cook for you. I'm too busy to even care about what you might be eating."