Serving One Another with Grace Before Meals

Q & A with Father Leo Patalinghug

by Sarah Ranson

Fr. Leo Patalinghug

Along with his work as a parish priest at Our Lady of the Fields in Millersville, Maryland, Father Leo Patalinghug is also the host and founder of Grace Before Meals, a movement to strengthen families and communities around the dinner table. Father Leo contributes a monthly food column in Baltimore’s The Catholic Review called “Catholic Culinary Confessions” and hosts a weekly cooking show called “Savoring Our Faith.” He is the author of Grace Before Meals: Recipes and Inspiration for Family Meals and Family Life and Spicing Up Married Life, and he spoke with Church Health Reader about why a cooking show needs a priest.

Sarah Ranson: What is the Grace Before Meals movement?

Father Leo Patalinghug: It’s exactly that. A movement. A lot of times people think Grace Before Meals is a ministry because I am a priest. But it’s an overall movement to strengthen families and relationships around the dinner table. So we see food not only as a means, but really as an end—family relationships being strengthened and opportunities created for togetherness, what Jesus did. A lot of good things happened around the meal.

What inspired the movement? Was it something that was part of your entry into the priesthood or something that developed later on?

It’s not something that I set out to do. I never said I want to be a cooking show priest! But it became a defining part of my life and of my priesthood. It started on September 11, 2001. I was supposed to go to France, but obviously everything was canceled. So I had a few extra days, and my travel companion, another priest, and I used those days for a retreat during that very difficult weekend. It was on that weekend, when I was doing the cooking, that I thought it was important to answer the question of not how to cook, but why.

Your approach to eating is energetic and fun. As a priest, what has the response been to your work?

Overwhelmingly positive. Lest one forgets, we really prove our humanity when people see us eat. Eating is at the core for anyone who considers themselves a minister. For example, people will call me “Father” Leo because I have to provide, in a sense, the bread for God’s children, and as a pastor of souls, a shepherd has to provide food for the flock. So while it may seem like a very new, engaging thing that I am doing with food, it’s really something that Jesus wanted his disciples to do. There is a joke, at least in the Catholic world, that if you want to find a good restaurant, just ask the priest!

What do you hope to achieve by this movement?

That’s a question I am constantly asking myself. It’s certainly trying to remind people about the importance of the family meal, and to make sure that God is invited to that dinner table. However, there are obviously going to be practical goals like getting this message to the whole world. Quite the goal. But probably another not so secret goal now would be to use food to bring about peace. It sounds so cliché, but I fully believe that this world could become a more peaceful place if world leaders ate together. Can you imagine if the president of the United States hosted a kosher barbeque with Palestinian and Jewish leaders? But in seriousness—no cameras, no media, just a good old-fashioned barbeque with approved foods that respected each other’s cultures and diets. Why can’t we do that, especially considering that every religion has feast days?

What is important dinner table conversation?

On a basic level, dinner conversation leads to conversion. I use those words very intentionally. They are wound in the same etymology. When you have a conversation, it’s easier to have a conversion—of heart and of mind. When you have a conversation, you get to know each other better. And for young people, this is important. According to the Center for Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA), teenagers have a general healthier life when they have a home base, a safety net, which they would call a regular family meal. But you don’t need research to know this. This is common sense. People will think that I’m doing this because I’m a priest, and that is certainly true, but I’m also doing it because I care about people. The meal is certainly something that should be a prioritized time in family life. So I don’t have a set of questions for families. However, both of my books have suggested questions that people can talk about. For example, on Mother’s Day I have a recipe for Mom—breakfast in bed. And maybe while Mom is eating the kids could answer the question, “What is your favorite thing about your mom?” Sometimes that is what it takes to reflect on these things.

How do you choose your recipes?

I have suggested recipes geared toward celebrations or certain holidays. I try to be thematic. For Thanksgiving I created a turkey recipe which is very good. I really don’t like turkey! So the recipes are as original as they can be. I certainly put my twist on things or use a different technique than perhaps your grandmother. But I do prompt people: If you don’t like the food, just read the chapter, ask each other questions, and then order pizza! The food is a means to the end.

How would you like to see people use Grace Before Meals?

Try the books. Visit our website and read the blog. We have lots of adventures! Follow along on Facebook and Twitter. We have a forum for people to share their insights and stories about this movement. We love to hear from people.

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