He won an Emmy in October for “Generation Cross,” a public-access cable show for 20- 30-year-olds, featuring his wit and wisdom along with footage of priests and nuns participating in activities the public doesn't associate them with. He also works as a television reporter. He recently spoke with Register features correspondent Tim Drake.
Drake: Tell me about your family. Where did you grow up?
I was born in 1971, the only child of Angelo and Gina, a probation officer and a high school teacher. We had a very Italian upbringing and attended St. Ambrose Catholic Church in St. Paul, which closed in 1998. It was quintessential Italian Catholicism and I loved it.
Have you always been comedic?
I've always tried to be funny. I was actor in high school, but I never played the romantic lead. I always played parts like Nathan Detroit in Guys and Dolls — the guy who never gets the girl. I was the attempted class clown.
When I was young, my father started collecting music boxes and then organs. Eventually he became an organ grinder and was hired to provide music for a three-ring circus known as Circus Flora. During the summers I would accompany him. They would dress me up and let me ride around on the elephant, Flora, and wave to kids.
Have you ever considered the priesthood?
I didn't think about it growing up. It hasn't been until recently that I've started thinking about it. Working at a church will do that to you. I knew that priests said Mass on Sundays, but I didn't know what they did during the week. I had no clue.
Having worked with them I have found it truly amazing the amount of work they do and the way they have given up their lives. It's a remarkable thing. Who wouldn't want to do that?
I understand that it was a friend's suicide during college that moved you closer to the Church?
Yes. While a junior in college I discovered the body of one of my friends. He had shot himself in the chest in his car. That forced me to re-evaluate everything. I found that I needed to pray, but cannot explain why. It was something I needed to do.
For the first time I attended evening prayer with the monks to try to make some sense out of life, death and God. I also attended confession for the first time in a long time. When you experience a death, you find yourself at church a lot more often than you usually do. It encouraged me to start learning more about my faith. I attended church more often, took a few more theology courses, and realized that I wanted to learn more.
I decided that if God is real than I had better learn more about what we claim to believe. I ended up pursuing a graduate program in theology and graduated with a master's degree in theology from St. John's University in Collegeville, Minn., in 1995.
How did you get started in television?
The television show was a complete accident. I was totally unemployed and attending St. Olaf Catholic Church in Minneapolis one Sunday.
The priest was Italian and so after Mass I went up to him and said, “I'm Italian too and I'm looking for work.”
Father John Forliti suggested that I could help them produce their televised liturgies. After doing that for several months I interviewed a priest about what the Church says to young people today.
It was lousy television and we never aired it. We were crazy to think that 20-year-olds would watch something like this. So, we decided to try to do something creative and goofy to attract people my age. We figured that no one was watching us, so what did we have to lose?
I eventually became the host of the show. That's how it all started. At one point Father John asked me how we would know if anyone was watching. I told him that maybe after a year, I might be in a bar, and some woman might come up to say she saw the show. We didn't have a clue.
Tell me about the show. What is the purpose of “Generation Cross”?
The purpose of the show is to show the human side of the Church. We've taken a priest to the Minnesota State Fair to eat a “pronto pup” and ride the amusement park rides while asking him questions about being a priest. We've gone bowling and ice fishing and duck hunting with priests. We've also gone fly-fishing with a sister.
Next month we'll be visiting a sister who is a snake handler at the Minnesota Zoo. We talk about vocations and how the person knew they were to be a priest or nun. Father John also does a cooking segment on the show, and part of the show is filmed in Italy; he teaches about the history of the Church.
Do you have a favorite episode?
The episode I hear about constantly is when I went rock climbing with Father Andrew. I have a huge fear of heights, but Father Andrew was able to talk about how rock climbing is about faith. He told me that I needed to trust him and trust God. With that episode viewers could tell that we were real. The episode also featured St. Paul and Minneapolis Vicar General Father Kevin McDonough, who does not know how to cook, making Ramen noodles during the cooking segment. This episode is when we realized that we were funnier than we thought.
While the show is lighthearted it also reaches people. Explain some ways in which it has impacted viewers.
I receive approximately 150 e-mail messages each week from viewers. People often go out of their way to tell me that they're not Catholic or that they would never watch a religious show, yet they do.
It's a religious comedy show, but people end up asking me the most serious theological questions possible. It makes me realize that those with questions about the Church have no place to turn except to this goofy kid with a big nose.
Many viewers have written to say that the show has changed their perception of the Catholic Church.
One woman had e-mailed me with a statement about the Church's refusal to ordain women. I e-mailed her back and tried to explain the reasons behind it. She ended up e-mailing me with more questions.
Eventually she met with a priest and wrote to me saying, “I'm joining RCIA and I think I have you to blame.” I had never met her, but here she was asking me to be her RCIA sponsor. “What are you talking about?” I thought. “We're a cooking show.” But I said OK, and she came into the Church.
Has your faith grown as a result of doing the show?
Yes it has. I joke that I am in seminary now because of how much I have to learn. People expect me to know things like why Catholics have a certain number of books in the Bible and why Lutherans cannot receive the Eucharist in a Catholic church.
You're also the religion reporter for WCCO-TV?
WCCO recognizes that there is an audience. Saying what you believe doesn't have to offend people. I do 4-5 minute feature religion segments for WCCO. It's positive to be able to do shows about religion on CBS.
Was winning the Emmy last October a surprise?
Completely. I convinced myself we wouldn't win. No cable access show has ever won, and ours was a Catholic show. We were up against people with an actual budget.
What do you have planned next?
We would like to go national with the program. Unfortunately, the religious networks are scared of us and the secular networks are scared of us. The religious networks don't think we're holy enough, and the secular networks think we're too holy. But if it works in the Twin Cities it would work anywhere. It's not only Minnesotans who think that priests cooking is humorous.