'Father Leo' on food, faith and family: 'God wants to feed us, we've just got to come hungry'

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PROVIDENCE — Father Leo Patalinghug, an international speaker, chef and priest known for his cooking ministry with Grace Before Meals, visited the Diocese of Providence earlier this month to offer two evening presentations for parish youth and families, as well as a daytime presentation for students at area Catholic schools. Following his morning presentation on Friday, Dec. 1, Father Patalinghug, widely known as “Father Leo,” sat down with Rhode Island Catholic to discuss the origins of his ministry and how best to strengthen the faith among young people and parents alike.

Though his love for cooking first developed while he was studying as a seminarian in Rome, Father Leo said the hobby didn’t become a ministry until the early 2000s, when Grace Before Meals began in the wake of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. He and several priest friends had been scheduled to travel to France, but, with their flights canceled, gathered instead to share a meal.

“We just had dinner one day and we wanted to watch the Food Network, but it was canceled, everything was off. And there was a sign that said, ‘In light of the nation’s tragedy, we encourage family and friends to just cook together and eat together.’ And that’s what me and my priest friends did.”

As Father Leo began to realize the power of community to console people after tragedy, his fellow priests began to notice his talent in the kitchen. What began as a casual suggestion would later take root and grow into an international apostolate focused on strengthening families in their faith by encouraging the cooking and eating of wholesome, shared meals.

“They came to watch me cook because we just wanted to be together, it was so sad,” he recalled. “They said, ‘Leo, you should have a cooking show.’ They joked about it. And that’s how it started.”

Today, Father Leo travels the world encouraging audiences to turn their appetites toward God. He hosts a show on EWTN and formerly on Sirius XM Radio and shares his love of the Catholic faith and cooking online through recipes and video tutorials. In 2009, he experienced his own Food Network moment when he took on, and beat, celebrity chef Bobby Flay in a cooking competition on the nationally-televised “Throwdown with Bobby Flay.”

While his approach of using food to bring people to God might seem unusual at first, Father Leo sees the ministry as tapping into some basic truths about the faith. He seeks to help people ask themselves the big questions of “What am I hungry for?” and “Where do I go to be fed?” and remind them that Jesus became food so as to better serve God’s people.

“It’s the one thing that we as a world have in common,” he said. “If we don’t eat, we die. And that’s why God wants to feed us. We’ve just got to come hungry.”

His message reaches listeners of all ages, from children to clergy, but his real focus is on the family and how families can use shared meal time and prayer to grow closer together in the faith. As the visibility of families has declined in Western society, the church has often spoken out about the importance of family for developing moral values and the wellbeing of children. However, Father Leo thinks churches and clergy can do more to minister to families as a whole rather than their individual parts.

“I have to almost constructively critique churches, whether they’re Catholic or not, that have no family ministry,” he said. “They have youth, young adult, women’s, men’s, seniors, but what do they do for the entire family? There’s very little.”

He also emphasized that while not all children grow up in a traditional family unit, all families need the influence of God and the church to help them on their spiritual journey. He encouraged parents to dedicate time to strengthening their relationship with each other and to consider their marriage a sacrament and raising their children a ministry.

“There’s always got to be a father who is God, and there’s always got to be a mother who is church, and there’s always got to be food on the table, that’s called the Eucharist,” he said. “That’s what makes the family. And a family that prays together and eats together stays together.”

For those seeking to continue to engage young Catholics as they move into adulthood, Father Leo recommended creating experiences that allow people to participate in and gain a new perspective on their faith. For young people, that means going out and experiencing a larger view of the church through pilgrimages and regional events, and for clergy and lay leaders, that means emphasizing the good news over the problems and being open to new ways of evangelizing. Church should be fun without being silly, he said, and young people should feel their faith is relevant and have opportunities to get involved.

“You can watch Food Network, but you’re never going to know how good it is unless you experience it for yourself. And so simply talking about the faith doesn’t do squat,” he said.

“They’ve got to experience it, which basically means they’ve got to get out and be a part of it.”