This month, families across the country will gather around their tables to celebrate Thanksgiving. It is a scene that Father Leo Patalinghug, a priest in the Archdiocese of Baltimore, is trying to get families to recreate the other 364 days of the year. He’s doing that through his Grace Before Meals movement (www.gracebeforemeals.com), which encourages families to prepare and enjoy meals together. It is a movement that Father Leo says has its heart in the Eucharist.
“Relationships are what I’m trying to encourage…relationships that are developed when we spend time with each other and feed one another,” he says.
St. Anthony Messenger spoke with Father Leo about the Grace Before Meals movement last June at the University of Dayton before his presentation to the Stewardship Summit for the Archdiocese of
A Lifelong Love of Cooking
To find the roots of Father Leo’s love for cooking, you have to go back to his childhood. He was born in the Philippines, but came to the United States with his family at age two. His mother, Fe, a home economics teacher, used cooking to keep her son busy.
“Growing up the youngest of four children with brothers and sisters off to school, I’d have some activities to do, but when I’d finish them quickly and complain that I was bored, Mom would say, ‘Cut this vegetable. Stir this pot.’ Something about cooking—which is a multitasking activity—got me interested.”
He has continued to hone his skills over the years by reading books and taking culinary courses during vacations, such as at the Cordon Bleu in Perugia, Italy. As a seminary student at the North American College in Rome, he often invited the cooks of the local restaurants back to the seminary where they exchanged cooking tips.
He also points out, “I have to admit, the Food Network teaches a lot.”
Man of Many Talents
But cooking is not Father Leo’s only talent. He is a third-degree black belt in tae kwon do and arnis, a form of full-contact stick fighting, as well as an award-winning breakdancer. He has taught speech and debate and, in 1988, he and his brother, Carlos, Jr., founded Kick Connection, Inc., a martial arts school in Pasadena, Maryland.
Two years later, he graduated from UMBC (University of Maryland, Baltimore County) with degrees in political science and journalism.
He was a junior at UMBC when he felt a calling to the priesthood. But even then, he says, it took him a while to make the call to the vocations office. Six months after graduating, he finally called.
It wasn’t one defining moment that led him to the priesthood, he says, but rather “a lot of little steps and confirmations through participating in young-adult groups and prayer groups and doing a lot of youth ministry.” He recalls that “there were a few times during major liturgies where I would feel or sense a call to do something outside the pews.”
Father Leo was ordained in 1999 and served as a parish priest for five years at St. John’s Church in Westminster, Maryland. During those years, he would often join parish families for dinner. On the Grace Before Meals Web site, Father Leo says, “I wanted nothing more than to get past the mannerly surface chat that so often masked the real needs of the people I was there to serve.”
He recalls how “one day, without advance warning, I surprised a family who had invited me to dinner by announcing that I was going to take over their kitchen and, with their help, make dinner for them.”
His plan worked.
A Movement is Born
But how does one get from a love of cooking and cooking for parishioners to starting a movement focusing on food and faith? Father Leo says the roots of the Grace Before Meals movement actually lie in the tragedy of 9/11. He was heading to Lourdes, France, for a retreat, but was unable to make the trip when all flights were grounded. Following a busy and difficult weekend of ministry, he and some fellow priests decided to go on a retreat of their own. During the retreat, Father Leo took care of the cooking.
His fellow priests said that he should have a television show. “That’s when the idea came up,” Father Leo remembers. “I really thought it was a joke. I wasn’t against the idea, but I thought it was silly.”
A few years later at St. John’s, he met parishioner Tim Watkins, a television producer who had heard about and liked the idea. Watkins is the owner of Renegade Productions. Only then did Father Leo start taking the idea seriously.
Fast-forward another few years and Father Leo filmed a pilot. At that time, Father Leo says, “I realized how much people hungered forsomething like this—if not the show, then at least the encouragement. This is why we call it a movement more than a book, more than a Web site, more than a TV show.”
Father Leo is also glad that “the Grace Before Meals movement presents the Catholic message to the people outside the Catholic Church in a family-friendly, bite-size way.”
PBS has promised to carry the Grace Before Meals television show as soon as funding is secured. But Father Leo says he’s not a fund-raiser, especially for something like this.
“So many other groups could use the money, so I choose not to fundraise. If people want to sponsor it, that’s fine,” he says, adding, “We already have a show—a Web-based show—which generates a million and a half hits on our Web site a month.”
In addition to his work on Grace Before Meals, Father Leo is currently a member of the faculty at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg. There he directs the pastoral field education program for future priests.
In 2008, one of the million and a half hits to the Web site just happened to be someone from Food Network. That November, Father Leo received an email from a representative of the network. He thought it was a joke, but a follow-up e-mail convinced him otherwise.
The network said it was interested in developing an episode about food topics presented on the Internet. They wanted to explore ways to film a segment about Father Leo’s cooking and the Grace Before Meals movement.
Little did Father Leo know, however, that he was being set up for a “Throwdown” against American “Iron Chef” Bobby Flay. As part of the network’s show Throwdown! With Bobby Flay, unsuspecting cooks are lured into thinking they are filming a segment for a future Food Network show when they are unexpectedly challenged to a cooking competition with Flay.
On June 8, 2009, Father Leo began filming his segment featuring his Fusion Fajitas. All was going as planned until the following day when Bobby Flay showed up and issued a “Steak Fajita Throwdown.”
In his book, Grace Before Meals: Recipes & Inspiration for Family Meals & Family Life, Father Leo recalls his response to the challenge: “As God is my witness, I am not afraid. Bring it!” He goes on to write: “Without reducing faith to a cooking show, I must say this surprising moment in life requires a response of faith. I was issued a challenge—a big challenge. Our faith, our lives, our families are constantly being issued big challenges. Are we ready for a throwdown? With God as our witness, we need not be afraid!”
On September 9, 2009, Father Leo gathered with friends, family and about 300 guests in Baltimore’s Little Italy to watch the show. At the end of the episode, Father Leo emerged victorious.
Looking back, he calls the entire experience “rather surreal.”
Food and Faith
For those who find cooking intimidating, Father Leo says he wants “to respect where people are in their culinary background. Not everyone can have a cooking show. Not everyone can compete against an Iron Chef.”
But he encourages people just to dive in and get started. “I don’t care what recipes you use to cook. Cook from your own recipes, your own experiences. It has nothing to do with the food as the end, but rather food as the means. If we keep the means and end in perspective, the end is simply a more loving, deeper relationship with people and God. God made himself known to us through food. With this perspective, the pressure is off.”
And for those who say they are too busy to sit down with their family for meals, he challenges them, “Make the time! If we don’t make the time we are going to fall prey to the fast-food mentality: ‘I’m too busy to cook for you. I’m too busy to care about you. I’m too busy to eat with you. I’m too busy to take care of my body.’”
He admits that it’s something with which he himself struggles. “My mother will call me and say, ‘Aren’t you the guy who talks about spending time with the family? Where were you this weekend?’ It’s as much a challenge for me—the messenger—as for the receiver.”
But it’s worth it, he says. Numerous studies have shown that regular family meals help improve SAT scores and reduce drug addiction, teen suicide and teen pregnancy.
When asked what he wants people to get from the Grace Before Meals movement, Father Leo says that, while there is a buffet of things he hopes they get, “Ultimately, it is an awareness of the theology of food. If there can be a theology of the body, I’m going to start a theology of food, which is truly eucharistic at its core.”
To that, this busy mom of four says, “Amen.”