January 29, 2016
Americans have developed a big appetite for preparing meals with flair. There is even the Food Network with food travel programs and cooking competition shows.
The Catholic Church is all about the meal—the Eucharistic meal—so it is particularly fitting that the foodie craze had included priests; feeding their flocks in a number of ways and even using their cooking skills to raise funds.
In the Bismarck Diocese alone, auctioning off dinners cooked by our priests has raised well over half-a-million dollars during the last 10 years. At St. Mary’s Central High School Carnival in Bismarck, the Bishop Ryan Hall of Fame Banquet in Minot, and the Fall Gala in Dickinson, auctioning off a meal cooked by a priest typically brings in several thousands of dollars.
As the author of
Grace Before Meals and host of the EWTN TV show
Savoring Our Faith, Father Leo Patalinghug is particularly notable internationally among the cooking priests. He uses the food movement to draw people together and strengthen relationships. He founded
Grace Before Meals as an apostolate to help strengthen families and communities through sharing a meal.
In an interview for the
Dakota Catholic Action, Fr. Leo explained that he began the movement as a way to take a theology of food more seriously. “It is life-changing for families to make the time to cook and eat with each other,” he said. “It’s also beneficial for priests to spend time with their flocks in some way through a meal.”
According to Fr. Leo, priests auctioning off meals has become such a lucrative fundraiser because it’s a way for people to get to know priests as a person and an opportunity for priests to show themselves as true servants. Ultimately, he explained, it’s not the food people are after.
“What they are really spending money on is the experience of eating with a priest; to get to know him in a more human, sacred way,” he said. “It’s for the simple experience of sharing a beautiful communion moment around the domestic altar—the dinner table.”
Fr. Leo came to Bismarck to cook and speak at St. Mary’s Central High School several years ago, invited by Msgr. James Shea who got to know him in Rome at the Pontifical North American College where they both attended seminary. While Shea was the chaplain at St. Mary’s, he came to see the power of preparing a meal for his students as a way to get to know them outside of the classroom.
Seeing the busyness of their lives and with so many of them talking about stress, Shea said he considered the relaxing meals he had enjoyed while in the seminary in Rome. “When I went to college, I could barely boil water,” he admitted. “I learned to cook in order to feed my students. They would come to my house and put their feet under my table and we’d get some help from parents doing dishes.”
Shea credits Sonia Lunardi the parent of one of his students, Alex Lunardi, with teaching him how to cook. “I knew how to eat in Italy so I knew what to aim for,” 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. I like to do this, because it makes people happy and it’s a beautiful way to care for people.”
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,” Shea said.
Fr. Justin Waltz, pastor of St. Leo’s in Minot also expressed surprise when his first offer to cook a meal sold for $2,500 at the Bishop Ryan Hall of Fame Banquet. He said he’s come to understand that the attraction is about a priest’s love to engage with people and his desire to lead them deeper into their faith. “It’s Eucharistic based,” Waltz said. “The good Lord has us gathering at every Mass and Jesus based our salvation around a meal.”
Waltz explained that there are many activities besides their own cooking where priests engage in socializing and refreshments. For instance, he mentioned Fr. Jaden Nelson’s wine tastings with wine brought in from Italy, events at the rectory to thank supporters of the high school’s chaplain program, and Waltz’s team of several dozen guys that help him brew his own beer for the
Theology on Tap program, are all informal gatherings where theology and socializing intersect.
“I can’t stress enough, that it’s about relationship,” Waltz said. He also pointed out that priests welcome invitations to share a meal. “It does not have to be fancy,” he said. “We love to come over and hang out, even have Mass and bless their house. We want people to feel that this is our spiritual father who is available to everyone.”
Last year, while seminarian Greg Luger spent a pastoral year at St. Leo’s, among the things he learned from Fr. Waltz was how to cook. “I did not have much experience with cooking,” Luger said, “but he taught me that it is a good skill to have as a priest to help fundraise, to entertain, or to just have a good meal.”
He said he now appreciates the work of planning and putting together a meal. “In the seminary, they teach us to be very human for living a good holy life,” Luger said. “Being able to put meals together is an integral part of that human formation that underlies any vocation.”
Luger noted that in the New Testament, the Pharisees accuse our Lord of eating with tax collectors and sinners. “By sharing a meal, our Lord was reaching out to them,” he said. “Jesus did not come for all the righteous, but for sinners and sharing a meal was a very personal way to show that.”