The Catholic Church has always been all about the meal — the Eucharistic meal — so it is particularly fitting that the “foodie craze” includes priests.
Many of them are feeding their flocks beyond the altar and even using their cooking skills to fundraise.
Father Leo Patalinghug is the author of three books about cooking and relationships and host of the EWTN cooking show Savoring Our Faith. He uses the food movement to unite people and serve up the Gospel, having founded the Grace Before Meals movement (GraceBeforeMeals.com) to strengthen families and communities through sharing meals.
“It is life-changing for families to make the time to cook and eat with each other,” the cook-priest said. He anchors his goals on one fundamental concept: The simple act of creating and sharing a meal can strengthen all kinds of relationships. Research shows that families that eat (and pray) together will stay together, so this priest gives families the tools to come together at dinner time to be nourished, body, mind and soul.
“These ‘tools’ are simply delicious and easy-to-make recipes, ideas for talking together and prayers to bring God to the table,” he said.
According to Father Patalinghug, he’s only doing what a priest should do — feeding his flock. “Priests can be so much more effective if they know how to feed people,” he said. “It’s beneficial for priests to spend time with their flocks through the common connection of a meal.”
From ‘I’ to ‘We’
Cooking was something Father David Simonetti learned as a boy from his mother. Now, it has become an unofficial priestly ministry for him, as he often prepares meals for families experiencing difficulties. “I bring groceries, and I prepare the meal,” said the associate pastor of St. James parish in Sauk Village, Ill. “Then, when they come to church, they see me as a real person, and it changes the relationship.”
Recently, Father Simonetti cooked a meal for an old high-school friend battling colon cancer. “The meal was great,” the friend told him, “but that you came over and spent time with us — I can’t believe you did that.”
“I can’t make him un-sick, but I can lift him up through relationship,” Father Simonetti said. “Sharing a meal moves us from an ‘I’ mentality to a ‘we’ mentality.”
His love of Italian cooking has also inspired him to create his own brand of Communio Italian sauces (CommunioSauces.com), newly on sale. Half of the proceeds will go to help sick children, and the other half will support local Catholic education in the Archdiocese of Chicago, as he is the chairman of the board of The Pope Benedict XVI Academy of Excellence in Frankfort, Ill. The sauce label shows him sitting at a dinner table between his parents and says: “It’s more than a meal; it’s the way back home!” The first ingredient listed, before the imported San Marzano tomatoes, is “love.”
Across the country, many priests are raising large amounts of money by auctioning off meals.
“They are really buying the experience to get to know their priest in a less sacramental way and a more human sacred way,” Father Patalinghug said of eat-with-a-priest experiences. “My own cooking is not worth that much money, but it’s for the simple experience of sharing a beautiful communion moment around the domestic altar, the dinner table.”
In the Diocese of Bismarck, N.D., priests auctioning off dinners to raise money for Catholic schools have raised more than half-a-million dollars over the last 10 years.
While University of Mary President Msgr. James Shea was chaplain at St. Mary’s High School in Bismarck, he came to see the power of preparing and sharing a meal.
Seeing the busyness of students’ lives, and with so many of them talking about stress, Msgr. Shea said he considered the relaxing meals he enjoyed while in the seminary in Rome and began inviting students over for a meal with their parents, who also helped with the cleanup.
“I learned to cook in order to feed my students,” he said. “I’m a better cook than I used to be, but the beauty of a good meal is for the focus to be on the social and spiritual aspect” of mealtime.
When Msgr. Shea first offered to cook a meal with teacher Jerome Richter as an item in the St. Mary’s Carnival auction, it brought in a little over $3,000. “It shocked all of us,” he said.
Father Justin Waltz, pastor of St. Leo’s in Minot, N.D., also expressed surprise when his first offer to cook a meal sold for $2,500 at the Bishop Ryan Hall of Fame Banquet.
“It’s Eucharist-based,” Father Waltz said of the experience. “The good Lord has us gathering at every Mass, and Jesus based our salvation around a meal.”
Father Waltz explained that there are many food-based activities in which priests participate. For instance, he mentioned that Father Jadyn Nelson, St. Leo’s associate pastor and chaplain of Bishop Ryan Catholic School, holds wine tastings with wine from Italy and social events at the rectory to thank supporters of the high school’s chaplain program. And Father Waltz has developed a team of several dozen men who help him brew beer for the Theology on Tap program — all informal gatherings where theology and socializing intersect.
“I can’t stress enough that it’s about relationship,” Father Waltz said. He also pointed out that priests welcome invitations to share a meal. “We love to come over and hang out, even have Mass and [spend time with a family and] bless their house,” he said. “It doesn’t need to be anything fancy. We want people to feel that ‘this is our spiritual father who is available to everyone.’”
Patti Armstrong writes from North Dakota.