Life & Soul

A healthy serving of spiritual uplift

Fr Leo Patalinghug appears in one of his 'Grace Before Meals' programmes (CNS)

It is said that travel broadens the mind; in America, it tends to do this in tandem with the waistband. I head downtown to Miss Shirley’s Café, in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, for a breakfast meeting with an old friend, the celebrity chef and television evangelist Fr Leo Patalinghug.

Back in the day, as they say over here, I did time at Rome’s Jesuit university with students from the Pontifical North American College. The “NAC-ers” as they were known, were natural allies, finding the laid-back, romanità approach to most things even more frustrating than the English did. They were in awe of the history of the English College, which is, in every sense, venerable. They were mildly amazed at the freedoms we enjoyed. Theirs was a more collegiate, less individualistic version of formation even then. For example, they were made to wear clerical dress, while we were forbidden to until we were deacons. They had far bigger grants than we did, and travelled more extensively in Italy and in Europe, only returning to the US every second summer.

One of my erstwhile classmates was a young man of Filipino extraction, Leo Patalinghug. He matched a somewhat diminutive stature with a huge personality and fantastic sense of humour. He was pious, too, with a real interior life and a great devotion to the Mother of God. He did his postgraduate studies in Mariology, the theology of Our Lady’s role in salvation. We meant, as you always do, to stay in touch, but he went back to Maryland and I to England, and we were both busy learning how to be priests in parishes. I met him again by chance at World Youth Day in Sydney in 2008. Since then we’ve stayed in touch.

Fr Leo always liked cooking, and spent a lot of his spare time in Rome collecting tips and recipes from the restaurants and pizzerias he visited. He not only became an accomplished chef, but also realised that there was something profoundly theological about the symbolism of eating which could be used to evangelise.

Once ordained, he founded Grace Before Meals to strengthen faith and family life around the dinner table. This was, at one level, very practical. By encouraging families to prepare good food to eat together and to celebrate feasts, both domestic and ecclesial, human community is formed or strengthened. But the genius is to see that this then becomes a space for faith formation. It does as Scripture does, taking the essential human question of nourishment to its symbolic conclusion to pose the deeper question: “What are you hungering for?”

Fr Leo produces programmes and recipe books which take for their theme feasts or liturgical seasons, or secular holidays such as Independence Day and Veterans Day. He will introduce a topic with what he calls “bite-size” theological reflections on the particular event in salvation, the saint or even just the human virtue being celebrated on a particular day. Then there’s a “Let’s Talk” section in which he suggests questions a family might discuss at the table. For Ash Wednesday, for example, he says: “Think about a time when you were really hungry. How did you feel?” This is an appeal to universal experience. It is followed by: “Some people fast as part of religious observance. Why do you think they do that? What do you think they gain?” This progresses to: “During his 40 days in the desert, Jesus was tempted often. How do you resist temptation?”; and “If you and your family decided to change your lifestyle, what would you be willing to give up?”

Then comes a “Let’s Listen” section, which gives suggestions for Scripture passages for meditation. There follows a fabulous recipe for spaghetti aglio e oglio, (with garlic and oil), which I have wanted to make successfully ever since I first had it in Rome.

Fr Leo says that initially his priest friends teased him that the movement was a bit “schtick”, but that they began to see he was on to something. After all, he points out, didn’t Jesus teach his followers around the dinner table? Now he has published several books, has a well-established media presence and even a show on EWTN called Savoring Our Faith. What’s more, he picked up the bill for an excellent breakfast.

Pastor Iuventus is a Catholic priest in London

This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (12/6/15).

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