Priest's mission starts with getting people to the dinner table

IMAGE: CNS photo/Chaz Muth

By Carol Zimmermann

(CNS) — For Father Leo Patalinghug,
faith and food go hand in hand, or in cooking terms, they blend; there is no
trick to folding one into the other.

“The idea of food in faith is
implicit in our Scriptures.It’s implicit in our liturgical calendar,” he
said, also adding that without question it’s a key component of the Mass.

The 45-year-old
Filipino-American, known as the cooking priest, has made the blending of those
two worlds his life’s work with his apostolate, “Grace Before Meals,”
which aims, as he puts it: “to bring families to the dinner table and
bring God to the table.”

He not only does a cooking show
on the Eternal Word Television Network called “Savoring our Faith,” but he also travels across the
country giving parish workshops and speaks at conferences, on radio programs and
via social media about the need for families to celebrate not just Catholic feast
days but everyday meals together. He also has written three books and is
currently working on two more.

Without irony, he says there is
a hunger for this ministry, noting that the parish workshops he gives are
typically booked, filled with parishioners of all ages interested in how food
and faith meet and on connecting or reconnecting with each other and God.

When Catholic News Service met Father
Patalinghug at his Baltimore home Feb. 24, he had just returned from a series
of parish missions in California and Chicago and was about to leave the next
day for the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress. Oh, and he also was
having about 30 family members over that night for dinner, so he needed to get meat
in the oven and a pasta dish started.

But noting that a busy schedule
is pretty much how he rolls, he demonstrated that with some advance planning he
could also easily whip up a Lenten meal of brown butter smoked paprika sauteed with
cherry tomatoes and shrimp over pasta.

“If a family thinks ahead
about what they’re going to do in Lent — as opposed to making it seem like a
drudgery” that they have to think of something meatless to eat, he said,
they can easily prepare a similar dish and not have to rely on cheese pizza or
frozen fish sticks.

Case in point: His simple
meatless meal seemed easy to make, looked good when plated, as he put it, and
was also really tasty.

That’s part of his ministry,
helping people see they can and should eat well and eat together.

The priest has tapped into a
current food fascination, popularized by Food Network, the very spot where he
gained some notoriety seven years ago when he beat celebrity chef Bobby Flay in
a steak fajita cook-off on “Throwdown! With Bobby Flay.”

At that time, the Baltimore priest,
who is part of a community of consecrated life called Voluntas Dei, was already doing a cooking show
and had written the “Grace Before Meals Cookbook,” but cooking had
been part of his DNA long before that.

Over the years, he has occasionally
taken cooking classes and when he was in the seminary at the Pontifical North American
College in Rome, he ended up picking up tips from chefs at local restaurants.

But what really got his cooking
juices going was from being the youngest of four children and growing up in
what he jokingly calls “Hotel Patalinghug” because of his family’s
hospitality so typical of the Filipino culture. He said he helped or watched
his mother cook and they never ate dinner until his father, a doctor, came home
from work, usually around 7:30 p.m.

These days, with family
get-togethers, he is not always the main cook, because his mom is such a good
cook and his family members often bring something.

The go-to meal for the priest
who is frequently on-the-run is cooked vegetables and rice and maybe some steak
“because who doesn’t like a little meat?”

His kitchen, set up for cooking
demonstrations, is uncluttered. The counters are bare and cookbooks are stacked
high above cabinets, with the appearance that they are not often needed. On a
chopping block is a small wooden statue of St. Pasqual, the Franciscan monk who
worked in a monastery kitchen and is considered the patron saint of cooks and

Father Patalinghug admits his
work is not a traditional ministry, but he said it is meeting people where they
are just as Jesus sent his disciples out and told them to “eat what is set
before you.”

He gives the example of St. Paul,
“who followed such a strict diet, but when he went to evangelize the
nations, he had to, for the first time, eat bacon, and he loved it I’m sure.”

He can’t seem to help throwing
in cooking terms when talking about his work, noting that Christians are all
called to be leaven in society and that his ultimate goal is to bring people
back to the Lord’s table.

He also said his ministry
provides bait: “Once people nibble on the truth, once they’ve tasted and
seen the goodness of God, they hunger for more.”

And he sees the fruit, so to
speak, with the response including an email from a woman who told him that after
watching his show, she went to church the next day, went to confession and
received the Eucharist for the first time in 30 years.

“And I thought, I was just
cutting onions, you know? It’s kind of crazy,” he added, “but I was
doing it in the name of the Lord.”

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