Fr. Leo Patalinghug

Praying with Priests: Fr. Leo Patalinghug

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Hi everyone. Welcome to another episode of “Praying with Priests” with the Prodigal Father. I’m Father Michael Denk, and I’m very blessed to be here with Father Patalinghug.

Father Leo:

Father Leo is perfectly fine. I’m impressed that you can even say it.

Father Michael:

So, we’re excited to be here with Father Leo, and you may or may not know him. You probably know him as the “Cooking Priest.” Father Leo, tell us a little bit about your background.

Father Leo:

Yeah – Cooking, ‘underscore’ Priest, that is my Twitter, and Instagram.

Father Michael:

It is.

Father Leo:

Yeah, so I’m a Catholic priest, a member of the community of consecrated life, Voluntas Dei, which means “the will of God.” I believe that it was God’s will for me to host a cooking show/movement, gracebeforemeals.com, bringing families back together around the dinner table. I travel around the country, around the world, with the tv show, radio, my books, and cooking demonstrations. I think the easiest way to touch peoples’ hearts and minds is to go through the stomach.

Father Michael:

That’s amazing. So you believe its God’s will for you to do that in that way. Are you a Catholic priest?

Father Leo:

Last time I checked! My institute is a Pontifical Rite, so in Voluntas Dei, our ultimate boss is the pope. I have to answer to him. I’m a Catholic priest, and I absolutely love being a Catholic priest.

Father Michael:

You can definitely tell that. Anyone that’s ever seen you or known you, knows you radiate that.

Father Leo:

That’s coffee, that’s what’s radiating.

Father Michael:

I don’t know; I think I drink more than you though. Well, we’re glad to have you, and what I do is ask for just a glimpse into prayer life of those in the priesthood. A lot of the Prodigal Father is coming to know God the Father’s love, and in many ways, we come to know that love through priests. I think priests are very blessed. I’m here in your place, and you have a chapel. We’re just blessed to have a lot of opportunities to grow close to God in prayer. What I like to do is interview different priests and hear about their prayer life from their childhood. So, the first question I like to ask is, what is your first memory of prayer?

Father Leo:

I have it recorded. My mother recorded me praying the Our Father.

Father Michael:

Really?

Father Leo:

For my grandmother. We came to America (I’m originally from the Philippines) when I was only one and one-half. In order for my grandparents to be very much part of our life, they recorded us talking, having conversations. Basically it was one of the first podcasts and they sent it to a limited audience, which was my family back in the Philippines. They recorded me praying, and I prayed the Our Father. I was so stinkin’ adorable, it was ridiculous. I said, “Our Fadder who art in heaven, Halloween’s your name.” It was my mom teaching me how to pray, and that was worthy to record and send to my grandparents because they wanted my grandparents to know that their grandchildren were being raised in the faith.

Father Michael:

That is absolutely amazing. What did they record on back then?

Father Leo:

That would be called a “tape recorder,” for those who don’t remember. You have to snap off the plastic, so you don’t record over it.

Father Michael:

Oh, that’s right.

Father Leo:

You have to use a pencil to wind it all; so yes, taping is amazing, actually. It’s a lot more technical. By the way, for all of your listeners, I am eating while I am talking.

Father Michael:

Of course, we’re eating. He’s always got a plate of food in front of me, which is phenomenal. So, that was your first experience of prayer. What was your first memory? Do you remember praying? What was it like for you as a kid to pray?

Father Leo:

That was it.

Father Michael:

You remember that?

Father Leo:

I remember being recorded, but I also remember praying the Rosary with my family. On Fridays, on the first, third, and fifth mystery, our arms would be outstretched in the form of a cross. I’m three and four years old, praying the Rosary with my arms outstretched like the cross, and ten Hail Marys is a long time for us to hold them out. We were very pious. I remember very specifically, Fr. Michael, that I tried to get out of it, so I faked falling asleep. My Mom and Dad lovingly put me on their bed, and we prayed around my parent’s bedroom kneeling down, and I did fall asleep, and then I woke up to a dark room, candles making the statues glow in a weird way and my family praying that Rosary – I thought I was dead! That is honestly some of my first memories of prayer.

Father Michael:

Wow! What kind of feelings did that evoke? Did you like praying with your family? Was it boring? What was that like?

Father Leo:

I felt as if it was an obligation, and that’s not bad. Simply because, Fr. Michael, I think people don’t realize, they forget that prayer is a conversation with God. You have to feel a sense of obligation to talk to Him in the same way you’re obligated to talk to your family, obligated to talk to your boss for God’s sake. The better your relationship is with your boss, the better the conversation is going to be. It won’t feel like an obligation, it will feel like a privilege. As a kid though, I always saw God as an authority, so I felt obligated to talk to him. But, you know, over the years I felt it all so natural, just to be able to talk about anything I wanted.

Father Michael:

That’s a great insight, you know, to keep that connection open. Sometimes it does feel like an obligation, just to check in with your family or your boss, as you mentioned, or your pastor. Keeping that communication open makes everything better. Sometimes you’ve got to get over that hump.

Father Leo:

So, for example, you came out here, because I was a little – I won’t say insistent or persnickety – but you had texted me and said “are you available on this day? I didn’t hear back from you.” I didn’t feel obligated in a negative way, I felt obligated in a positive way to reach back out to you, and that’s why we’re having such a great time, is because in a way we feel obligated to each other.

Father Michael:

Right, right, right.

Father Leo:

Wouldn’t that be wonderful, if the world saw a sense of connection, camaraderie with God? I think we’d feel joyfully obligated to talk to Him, not just one hour a week, but everyday of your life. To include Him in your conversations, to make Him a part of your day.

Father Michael:

I think sometimes people give up on prayer because maybe they don’t get a response from God right away. It’s just like you kind of checked back in with me; I think we have to do that with God, we have to keep going back to Him.

Father Leo:

Well, I mean, listen, if God is truly the Father, He doesn’t have to answer us immediately. He just kind of does it. It’s like when I call my dad. “Hey dad, how’re you doing?” He goes, “doing good, here’s your mother.”

Father Michael:

Give me a little bit of a development of how you might have grown in prayer. Did you have any personal prayer? Was it just prayer with your family? You mentioned you did talk to God, what was your prayer life as a child?

Father Leo:

It was caught up, really, in what I would call devotions, which is not bad. In fact, I was interviewing Cardinal Tagle on one of my shows and he said the reason why the Philippine faith is so strong is that it is very devotional. In order for devotion to be devotional, it has to be incarnational. It has to have something tangible. The Bible is very tangible. A scapular around your neck, a Rosary in your pocket, statues, those are tangible.

I had a very devotional experience of God. I remember one particular moment – I got lost on my bike, just riding. I was maybe eight or nine years old, and I got lost around the neighborhood. I finally figured it out, but in the meantime, there was a storm brewing. I was getting kind of scared. I remember my mom saying the scapular around my neck, which is very devotional, could protect you from all forms of evil. I remember as the storm started to brew, and I could hear it, I remember pulling the scapular off and shoving it up to the heavens saying “stop in the name of God! Mary said so!” I remember it lightening a little bit and then it kind of ended enough for me to find my way home. I get home, and it just downpours. So, I don’t want to call that a miracle, but I do just want to call that a tangible expression of God maybe listening to his children.

Father Michael:

Yeah, yeah.

Father Leo:

Yup, that was it.

Father Michael:

Beautiful. So Catholic grade school? Public grade school?

Father Leo:

I was a Catholic school boy until the end of high school. I went to St. Rose of Lima, or as they say in Ballmer, Lima. Then I went to Mt. St. Joe College Prep, which was a secular state university. Then I entered seminary about two years after college. I went to Catholic University, and American in D.C., a theological college. Then they kicked me out of the country. I studied in Rome for about six years. I got my degree in theology, and I have a specialization in Mariology. I have a degree in the study of Mary and the life of Christ.

Father Michael:

Great. Backtracking, before all that, how did you know God was calling you to this?

Father Leo:

To the priesthood?

Father Michael:

Yes.

Father Leo:

Well, and excuse me for talking, I feel like Cardinal Dolan. If you ever heard him on the Catholic Channel, he’s always eating, but worse things – popcorn of all things, right? But to backtrack, how did I know? I’ll tell you; it really started when a parish hosted a missionary preacher who basically challenged his people. I remember in so many words he said If you’re going to Church and you don’t know why, come to at least one night of the mission. If you don’t want to go, then you don’t have to. So I got on a pay phone, I don’t know if you remember them, but I called my mother up and said I’m going to go this mission. She said are you kidding me? Why would you go the mission? You don’t like church. I said, well because the priest said if I didn’t want to go after that, I don’t have to go.

Father Michael:

Wow.

Father Leo:

But he explained the Mass.

Father Michael:

Before that, what was the Mass like for you?

Father Leo:

Painful. I remember looking at my parents as a teenager and saying I’m going to kill myself. My mom would say you picked the right place to do it.

Father Michael:

Really?

Father Leo:

Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. Mom and Dad were just not messing around in Church. If I was living in their house, I could argue all I wanted, but I will be there. So even that discipline kicked in. When I was a young adult, I went to Church early that Sunday because I had to work. It was around Christmas time and the blue laws were repealed and I could work on Sundays for the Christmas rush. That’s when that mission preacher said come to this mission.

Father Michael:

Interesting, go ahead with that.

Father Leo:

I was bored to death at Church. I mean, there was one priest with a very unfortunate name, may his soul rest in peace now. I would just, I would be so depressed when I saw him walking down the aisle. Really, just such a horrible experience and this was at the turn of the Vatican where they were still experimenting with the Liturgy. They were trying to be cool, and the same time it could be painful. But then, when I went on this little night of the mission and he kind of explained the Mass, I was at the edge of my seat, fascinated at the fact that the Mass wasn’t something we made up just to bore you. It was actually rooted in the scriptures, it was rooted in tradition. That’s what this priest did. He kind of educated me.

I think that the reason why many people don’t understand the liturgy is because they just are in lack of a better word, and I’m saying this with charity, ignorant. They just are ignoring what Mass is about, which is why after that catechetical experience I was in awe with what the Mass is about. In fact, when he lifted up the Eucharist, I can’t explain it any other way, but I saw Jesus. I saw Jesus in the Eucharist. I can’t tell you what he looked like, I just know that it floored me, I was in tears, and it wasn’t even handsome tears. It was, like gross. Snot coming out of my nose, shaking. I just really had an encounter with the Eucharist.

Father Michael:

Talk a little more about that, what did you see?

Father Leo:

Well, you’ve go to know that the Eucharist didn’t mean much to me prior to all that. I remember my parents taking me as a child to the Tabernacle after Masses and pointing and saying Jesus lives in there. I’m like, in that little box? He must be little. I think the reason He becomes small, Fr. Michael, is so that he can fit in my puny brain. In my very small mind, my shrinking soul. So the Eucharist had always been a question mark in my mind. But when this priest explained the liturgy and he got to the elevation, something kicked in. I think that was just the moment where God, in His time, turned the light on in my soul simply because I was ready to at least give Him a chance. I think if we give God a chance, really give God a chance – I showed up for a parish mission, for God’s sake; I didn’t have to do it, I was 19 years old. But I did, I gave God a chance, and He never let anything go in vain.

Father Michael:

The Saints talk about that as being these mystical encounters with God. I think that’s what that was. Did you have any other experience like that in your prayer?

Father Leo:

No, because I didn’t take that much time to pray. I was in college and high school. I prayed before I ate, quickly. Philippine and Spanish tradition, we prayed. At least we made the sign of the Cross before we’d start the car. Whenever we pass a church, a little sign of the Cross. Pass by a cemetery, sign of the Cross. So I had at least that cultural Catholicism in me, which I think is great, as long as its an educating culture, and not a habit. Mafia killing people will make the sign of the Cross, you know? So, no offense to any mafia.

Father Michael:

That’s interesting, the foundation is there, but the experience or that personal encounter didn’t happen until you were in college?

Father Leo:

You had to be old enough. I’m not stupid, I’m not the smartest kid in the world, but I did like to ask questions. That was another thing I was willing to do. I think people question authority, but I don’t think they are really willing to listen to the answer. I was actually willing to ask a question and listen to what that answer is. Time and time again, I just find that whenever you have a question about God, the Catholic Church has the right answer, if you’re willing to listen to it patiently and to trust that you’re never going to understand God or the Catholic Church in one conversation. You’ve got to keep that going.

Father Michael:

Give us a transition then, from that initial time of calling until you went into the seminary. Any deepening of the prayer life?

Father Leo:

Oh, yeah. Let me tell you, Father Dude, Father Mike – we’re just kind of talking – one moment, it brought me to my knees in the confessional, and I just realized that I needed to make a change in my life. I realized that God was real. If God is real, then I’ve got to at least pay attention to God more in my life. Slowly I just started to ask the questions. My brother should really be the priest in the family, but he has seven impediments: his wife and six kids. He’s always been very faithful. He just started sharing with me a little bit about this place called Medjugorje. He paid for my ticket to go to Medjugorje. Are you kidding? I’m not going to pass that up. So I went, and that just floored me more because I didn’t see any miracles, and maybe I went out of fascination, but what I saw was the Universal Church. I saw people devoted to prayer. I saw people willing to go to Confession, like normal cool people. That impressed me. I saw more than just my parish experience.

I got back, feeling very lonely because I just had such a powerful experience, and I saw this commercial on EWTN, which was just starting. It was a program called the “Life Teen” program. I thought, what is this, a bunch of young adults? They offered this advertisement for this gathering. I showed up thinking it would be young adults. No, it was a training session for how to become a Youth Minister. So, I was a Life Teen Youth Minister.

Father Michael:

You showed up again.

Father Leo:

I just kind of, again, just had to show up. That helped me tremendously because that program is so Eucharistic centered.

Father Michael:

Right.

Father Leo:

Fast forward, I started to pray more; I started to go to Mass every day. I went to college locally. I went to Mass early because it woke me up in time to serve as a lifeguard at the college pool. It was so embarrassing because I took the hours when the swim team was practicing.

Father Michael:

They weren’t going to need your help.

Father Leo:

Pretty useless, which meant I could just do my homework. At every Mass, those old ladies prayed the vocation prayer, and I know they were looking right at me.

Father Michael:

Isn’t that something?

Father Leo:

It was something. Those little ladies, they’ve got some power to their prayer.

Father Michael:

They do. There’s that tug at your heart, that feeling. I remember that growing up.

Father Leo:

Tug? That sounds gentle.

Father Michael:

Yeah, right. So, then you went into the seminary. What did the seminary do for your prayer life? Did it expand there?

Father Leo:

To be perfectly honest with you, I went to seminary in the 90’s.

Father Michael:

Okay.

Father Leo:

And so it challenged me. You’re a young buck of a priest. I was there when they fought about whether we could kneel during the Eucharistic prayer. They got angry at me because I led a Rosary group. They said that’s a private devotion, you can’t do that in the church publically. I prayed in my room. They said you’re not allowed to hold prayer groups in your room. They nicknamed my bedroom “The Upper Room” because they would hear us praying. They didn’t want us to have adoration. This was a sign of the time; I hold nothing against these people, but it challenged me. It did help me to see that there’s prayer outside of my experiences and devotions. They taught me how to pray the Liturgy of the Hours. For lack of a better way to describe this, they helped my prayer to grow with growing pains.

Father Michael:

Just so our listeners know, Fr. Leo, I think as lay people we learn a lot of pious devotions and the seminary will often, at least back then, kind of push those down to get you to learn more liturgical prayer.

Father Leo:

More Universal prayer, because not everyone likes to pray the Rosary. Not everyone likes to pray the Stations of the Cross. There are a lot of devotions.

Father Michael:

Yeah. You can’t teach them all.

Father Leo:

You can’t teach them all. In this capacity, I think the seminary wasn’t challenging me to expand it, they were challenging me because they perhaps saw some flaws in that approach of theology, and that is true. We can take Mary to a portion of Mariolatry, as opposed to Mariology. So they were just cautious, but at the same time, it was a sign of the times.

Father Michael:

In Cleveland, I know the seminary is a lot healthier with that, with the good formation. Even when I was there, we didn’t pray the Rosary. You were allowed to on your own, but there was no communal time together. Some of the reasoning behind that was that they can’t mandate private devotions, they can mandate the liturgy and divine office. So I think those are some of the reasons for that. That’s all part of our prayer.

Father Leo:

Oh yeah. It is part of our prayer, and I think it’s very important for people to have a balance of universal prayer, parochial prayer, and personal prayer.

Father Michael:

What is that? Give us an idea of what that means.

Father Leo:

Universal prayer is obviously the prayers of the universal Church. Making sure we know all the basics – the Apostle’s Creed, the Our Father, the Hail Mary, and Glory Be. We understand how to pray our Act of Contrition; we know the parts of the Mass. It’s great – you can go anywhere in the world, if the priest holds the Host up and says “lamalamadingdong” and you’re in line, the answer is “Amen.” That’s Universal. Parochial is like these little traditions a parish has. St. Anthony Devotions. They have St. Jude Shrine down the street. They have a whole list of prayers and a cute little song to sing goodnight to sweet little Jesus. And the personal is how do you really engage God’s love in your life when you’re not in church, but you’re in his Kingdom still.

Father Michael:

Any significant moments in your prayer life throughout the seminary until you became a priest as you look back on seminary time?

Father Leo:

 A Significant moment in my prayer life during seminary? Absolutely. I’m a little involved in devotional prayer and daily liturgical prayer. Praying Mass in Latin. But I also enjoy the charismatic renewal, praying in small groups. And the one thing that was very significant for me was this level of joy because I never prayed with other men my age who loved Jesus Christ as much as I do. Who read the bible and can talk on a deeper level. I remember one time I was praying the rosary with one guy from Arkansas, and this is how he prayed the Hail Mary (we all had our eyes closed): “Hail Mary, Full of Grace . . . “ I honestly thought he was looking at Mary in a vision until I looked up at him and he’s just rocking in his rocking chair, you know just totally casual. I remember just laughing out loud in the middle of praying the rosary. And the other guys who were praying with me laughed too because we were all thinking this guy is in mystical ecstasy, but he’s not. That’s just how he prays. And you can have joy. That was a significant moment.

Father Michael:

Spontaneous laughter to get to the Holy Spirit.

Father Leo:

Oh my gosh.

Father Michael:

Then describe the transition of your prayer life when becoming a priest.

Father Leo:

Oh, I’m so much holier now it’s amazing. No, I’ll be very honest, because I’m not going to lie to a brother priest. I wish I could pray like I was a seminarian.

Father Michael:

What do you mean by that?

Father Leo:

I was like stinking Aloysius Gonzaga. I was so good. I was just amazing at prayer. I was waking up at like 4:45 am, in chapel by 5:30 am. Did my holy hour mostly on my knees on concrete. I was kind of always impressed that I had to put patches on my knees on my pants. This is the kind of crazy neo-pelagian still devotional. I did it out of a sincere heart. But I was so good in the regiment of prayer. Not that I forgot to pray with my heart, but I was just trying to fulfill an obligation and to do it with love. And I did a lot of good things in prayer. I get into priesthood and I don’t have the time to pray. I can’t wake up that early anymore because I’m just spent at the end of the day. And I realize that I can’t go back to that kind of life.

Father Michael:

Seminary time is almost monastic because it is intense and structured and a lot of priests struggle with that difficulty in transitioning. Were you a parish priest at first?

Father Leo:

I was a parish priest at first.

Father Michael:

So you’re immersed in the parish and life goes…

Father Leo:

About a million miles an hour. But I was also a very active parish priest being asked to talk in different churches in the area. Very early on I was being pulled in several different directions. And now with the TV show and radio show, I am pulled in even more directions. And so, I say that I wish I could go back, but that’s ridiculous.

Often I feel like I’m not as holy anymore, but I just have to think Jesus was beautiful when He prayed. And how did He do it when He was carrying His cross? He wasn’t so good. He fell several times. But that was still a beautiful experience of God. Even though it didn’t look pretty, He was still fulfilling the Father’s will. And what I kind of say now is, “I may not look pretty when I pray, but I’m doing it.”

Father Michael:

So you’re a priest how many years now?

Father Leo:

18 years

Father Michael:

And over the years, how has your prayer changed or progressed or matured?

Father Leo:

Since I entered this community of consecrated life from Diocesan ministry, they actually have a great form of spirituality which I take with me every day. And so, if I can just briefly explain: Voluntas Dei, which means the Will of God, has a prayer practice called “The Three Fives.” The first set of fives are a prayer discipline: personal prayer, meditation, scripture, devotion to Mary and visits to the Blessed Sacrament. The second set of fives are attitudes, which gets very challenging. They are: practicing the presence of God, being a servant, being a peace maker, no complaining, no criticizing.

Father Michael:

That’s in there? No complaining and no criticizing.

Father Leo:

Yep. And those are thing that we make a promise to do every day. And I fail that miserably every day. Thank God for Jesus’ mercy. The third set of fives are pre-meditated moments where you can look at the beginning of the day until the end of the day. Almost like a pre-examination of conscience where you’re going to say, “There are going to be at least five times where I let God’s love manifest in me.” And it’s good, like playing chess. Here I’m going to do this; the devil is going to block me here which is why I’ve got to take this approach instead. I’m going to go into traffic, I know I’m going to manifest God by letting people in front of me. I’m going to meet with a very difficult person; I am going to love that. So that’s the third set of fives.

Father Michael:

I like that description, like a pre-examination. You know, St. Ignatius has the Examen Prayer App, the final step is resolution towards the rest of your day or tomorrow. It’s some kind of resolve. So you’re making five resolutions.

Father Leo:

Well, it’s supposed to be five. Hey listen, Voluntas Dei is an amazing community. They just know you’re still a work in progress. And so for me, I try to do five you know, but there are times where I don’t have any appointments, so how am I going to do five? There are things I’ve got to do. These are personal things. One of the ways I’m going to manifest God is I’m actually going to go for a run. One of these things, I’m going to call my mother, I’m going to eat healthy.

Father Michael:

Simple things.

Father Leo:

Things like that make God more tangible, and if we can’t touch God, I think you have the wrong God.

Father Michael:

Well, tell me about the first five. Can you illustrate yours personally, because I’m sure for everyone those five are different. What do those five look like for you?

Father Leo:

Personal prayer

Father Michael:

What’s that like?

Father Leo:

What does it look like for me? I have a chapel, and it is a chapel with the Blessed Sacrament with the approval of the local bishop and my institute director.

Father Michael:

Which is awesome.

Father Leo:

It is. He’s like my roommate. It’s a cute little thing actually. I’m just in my chapel in the morning meditating on the Office, which is the priest’s promise to pray a set of prayers throughout the day. I pray the rosary every day, which is kind of like my devotion to Mary.

Father Michael:

So that covers three of them.

Father Leo:

Well, exactly, with the Lectio Divina and my meditation and my visits to the Blessed Sacrament. Because I can just literally pop into my little chapel and be like, “Hey Jesus, what’s up.” I like that. I still do pray a holy hour of sorts, but I’m on the road a lot, and there are times when I can’t get to a chapel, and if I can, it’s closed. Sometimes I’m up at 4 o’clock in the morning to catch a 5:30 flight because I have TSA pre-check. I don’t have to be there two hours in advance. Even when I’m doing things at a parish (I do a lot of parish missions, a lot of talks in religious settings, I’m signing my books) I can’t even get into the chapel to pray. And so the Institute knows that on a practical level there are days when the only thing you can do is make visits. And it’s like a relationship. Honey, I can’t spend the whole day with you but I’m going to call you like a couple of times just to hear your voice, for you to hear mine and to tell you I love you; and, hopefully, that’s good enough to keep the relationship going until I can spend more quality time with you.

Father Michael:

Checking in. You know, John the XXIII did that actually with his visits to the Blessed Sacrament. He would stop in for a moment throughout his Papacy and make some visits. Did we cover all five?

Father Leo:

Yes. Scripture.

Father Michael:

What are the five?

Father Leo:

Personal prayer, meditation, (I call it daydreaming sometimes), scripture. Making sure it’s part of your life. Fourth is devotion to Mary, and then the fifth is visits to the Blessed Sacrament.

Father Michael:

Those are wonderful practices for all of us.

Father Leo:

One would think, but they don’t think about why the institute mandates these realities.

Father Michael:

What are the significant moments in your life where you have felt the union with or the presence of God in prayer?

Father Leo:

In prayer. Okay. Well, there are at least several times where I experienced that. One was prior to the seminary. It was the unveiling of the cross on Good Friday, and you know how the priest says, “Behold the wood of the cross, come let us worship?” He stopped right at the pew, and I was right at the end of the pew, and they unveiled the hand, and I could see the hand. Maybe it was my imagination, but I just saw it move and I’m like, “Oh my gosh, that crucifixion thing is really real.” It was like watching the Passion of Christ, but this is way before the passion of Christ. It just kind of called to mind the reality of that hand. I mean that hurt. I can only imagine. So it was the first time I experienced or recognized the suffering of Jesus. So that was one.

Another was when I moved to Rome and I lived there for six years. I was away from my family for at least two full years and I remember it being Thanksgiving and I was a little depressed. It was at Mass, the Thanksgiving Mass at the seminary, that I just said, “You know, I’m just going to give up my homesickness to you, Lord, and it was almost as if He said, “Why are you homesick? You are at home.” And that was a real beautiful moment.

Another moment, again, when I was in Italy, I called my Mom up and was like, “Mom, I had Mass with the Pope” and she goes, “Great, I had Mass with Jesus.” And it was just a reminder of the grandeur of Rome and all of the amazing churches and the Pope.

Father Michael:

 Who was the pope?

Father Leo:

It was John Paul II. Nothing compares when you recognize it’s Mass with Jesus. And then there was another time when I got back from Rome and I was having a, you know, when the shiitake hits the face day. I was saying Mass, and at one point I realized, my gosh this was Diaconate Ordination anniversary. It was right in the middle of the Eucharistic Prayer, and I was mad. I was in a bad mood. Everything went wrong. The ushers were acting like idiots. They read the wrong reading. Music was just off key. The altar server was picking his nose. People looked like they were bored and I was just trying to get through Mass because I was mad. And it was at the Eucharistic Prayer that God just went, “BOOM. Dude, it’s your anniversary to your Diaconate. Happy Anniversary, you big jerk.” And I literally just started to cry. And I’m not a crier, but I just started to cry. People are like, “What is wrong with this guy?” And I joked at the end, and I said it was allergies. Then I told them that I was just having a bad day.

Father Michael:

What was behind the tears?

Father Leo:

Gratitude and remorse and just being like a wretch, and yet knowing that God loved me so much that He spoke to me in the middle of my anger. Because I was trying to pray, I was (excuse my French), I was pissed. I was just mad, praying the Eucharistic Prayer, but I did it, and I was saying, “I’m mad,” and in the back of my mind, I was telling God that I’m mad. And He just cut through my anger and said, “Happy Anniversary” and He gave me a little hug.

Father Michael:

I think it’s an amazing thing that God reaches us wherever we’re at. Any emotion that we’re at. Any disposition even, He’s able to reach us.

Father Leo:

If you’re willing to have Him in. And even when I’m in a bad mood, I am still inviting God into me. I’ll tell you this Father, even when I’m sinning I will invite God into my life. Even when I’m driving very quickly and I shouldn’t be, and I’m in a bad mood, I’m still trying to invite God into my life.

Father Michael:

How do you invite Him in?

Father Leo:

I’ll just say like, “God I’m in a bad mood, I still want you here, and you know that I’m a jerk, but I’m in a bad mood. I still need your love, but I’m in a bad mood.” And He’s like, “Yeah.”

Father Michael:

I caught that.

Father Leo:

It might have been the steam coming out of your ears right now.

Father Michael:

I like to ask people about their personal experiences with God, and by that I mean the Trinity. Do you believe in a Tri-Person God? So God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit. I’d like to start with God the Father simpy because of the Prodigal Father. This notion of what’s He like, what’s God the Father like for you?

Father Leo:

So, God the Father has always been that iconic white guy with the white beard and really old. And God the Father has never always been so clear to me, but He is clear enough now. There is a song called Good Good Father. (singing) ‘You’re the good Father; it’s who you are, it’s who you are . . .” And that’s what He is to me. He’s a good Father, and that’s why The Prodigal Father is what I can relate to very deeply. Because this is a Father who has allowed me to just screw up and yet welcome me lovingly. That is who God the Father is to me. I’m sure for the prodigal son He was a little distant. He didn’t feel that closeness. Actually, when I said that I experienced Jesus. That’s not true. I kind of misspoke. I experienced God in the Eucharist, and it was bigger than I really have described it. So, this uncreated light, the one who created all things out of nothing, that’s who God is to me and it kind of leaves me wondering. Like, whoah, you’re kind of mysterious, dude, and I don’t know you fully. Thank God for Jesus because it is through Him I have known how loving the Father is.

Father Michael:

Now tell us about Jesus. What is He like?

Father Leo:

For me Jesus is, I’m going to sound a little like John on the Cross here, so please forgive me. He is a brother; He is a best friend, He is a lover, He is a companion. When I say companion, it is Cum Panis, with bread. That’s what the word means. He’s compassionate. He suffers with me. And so He’s just someone who I know I can eventually touch. He images the kind of love the Father has by this absolute generosity, this absolute kindness. Now I kind of look at it like my Dad had a very difficult childhood. In the Philippines the father was . . . his was just a different kind of culture all together. My Dad experienced some abuse. Some emotional, some physical. Not out of hate, that was the culture. Yet when my Dad talks about his Dad, he speaks of him with such love and devotion. It’s kind of shocking actually. So Jesus in a way tempers all of that Old Testament angry God kind of thing. He says, “You got it all wrong, I was doing this out of love not out of hate and anger.” So that who Jesus is. He helps explain the Father.

Father Michael:

 And Holy Spirit.

Father Leo:

Inspiration. I always think of dunamis,n where we get the word dynamic, which basically comes from the word power. That’s why we have dynamite. That’s what I see in the Holy Spirit, this dynamism, and that is why I really love the Holy Spirit, because without it I will not be inspiring, in spiritus. I won’t be dynamic. I’ll just be boring. Though I’m going to kind of challenge a lot of people: if you’re boring, it’s because you don’t know the Holy Spirit.

Father Michael:

That’s one of my favorite sayings of prayer too. If your prayer is boring, you’re not doing it right.

Father Leo:

That’s right.

Father Michael:

You know what I mean because we’re experiencing that dynamism. That relationship with the Son, with the Father, the Holy Spirit. The great mystery. Our prayer, hopefully, it’s amazing.

Father Leo:

Yes, and even if it’s not, there are still effects happening in you. You just have to trust it. So there are many times, Father, where I will just sit there: “Hi, I’m just sitting here.” And remember, it’s a relationship like when you see an old couple just sitting there. Nothing much is happening.

Father Michael:

 Yes, they’re just together.

Father Leo:

 And that’s all right.

Father Michael:

Who have been some mentors in your prayer life? Who have been some people that have shown you how to pray, or taught you how to pray?

Father Leo:

There’s a lot actually, and I’m still learning. My spiritual directors over the years have given me something to think about by challenging me. The others are people who I have observed either in my seminary days or priesthood days. As you can tell, I’m not shy, but I’ve always have been fascinated with the quieter and humbler ones. There was this guy, Mike Flannery, he just kind of looked like Francis. He’s balding at a young age, but Flannery had a way of talking in a kind of quiet, simple voice and he was a real kind of gentle soul. I just kind of wanted to be his friend. I found his gentleness so inspiring.

But then I’d meet dynamic people. These awesome preachers like Fulton Sheen who just got out there with all his theatrical drama, and I think, “Dude, you’re awesome.” That’s pretty crazy. Look, when I see Mormons and their devotion walk around in that heat in that little outfit of theirs and have that joy, that’s inspiring. When I saw a Muslim pull out his prayer rug in the middle of a mall and find a corner to pray, I just thought “I’m a jerk.” Really, this guy, that’s pretty impressive. Whether he’s got the right God or not. I’m sure he’s got the right God. Muslims who don’t have the right God? There are many Christians who don’t have the right God.

Father Michael:

How would you encourage someone that wants to learn how to pray or grow their prayer life? What would be encouraging to them?

Father Leo:

Don’t do it, it will make you change your life for the better. Oh my gosh! I would encourage them literally to not take themselves so seriously. To stop trying to emulate someone and just to become more yourself in the presence of God. Authenticity. To quest the author who made you. And to literally start off by saying to God, “Who are you in my life?” “Who am I in Your life?” And if you just start with those basic questions, a lot of things can happen; but, you also must be disciplined enough to take some time for that. Again, it’s a relationship, and you need time to develop that relationship.

Father Michael:

What does that mean, practically speaking, for somebody?

Father Leo:

You have to spend at least 2.5 hours on your knees on uncooked rice. That is the beauty. This really all depends on you and God. Talk to God about how much time you should spend. I do. You know, honestly, there are times when God says, “You are spending time with me.” You’re not in the chapel or you’re watching TV. You’re with me, and I’m with you, ” and you know that. And then there are times I’ll sense God say, “All right, you’ve got to shut up a little bit.”

Father Michael:

Really? Does that really happen?

Father Leo:

It happens all too often when I literally sense God saying, “All right, just relax.” You know, I have got a really earthly relationship with God simply because He came to this earth and I just think if it’s not earthly, then it can risk just being spiritual. Remember, the Word became Flesh among us.

Father Michael:

Thank you. Well, tell our listeners if they want to find out more about you or some of the things you’re doing what’s a good way to do that.

Father Leo:

My telephone number is 555, but my website is very easy: gracebeforemeals.com. You can Google the “Cooking Priest.” Cooking_priest is my twitter name

Father Michael:

 We’re going to try to get you on live social media too.

Father Leo:

No, no, no. Just watch me on TV every Thursday night at 5:00 pm Eastern on EWTN.

Father Michael:

Thank you, Father Leo. Would you bless all of our listeners?

Father Leo:

May God hold you, keep you in His love. May the family of Jesus and all the saints guide you along the way and bless you all in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

About the Author Fr. Michael Denk

Fr. Michael was ordained into priesthood in the Diocese of Cleveland on May 12, 2007. He is dedicated to helping others encounter Christ through the celebration of the Eucharist, preaching, the Sacrament of Reconciliation, spiritual direction, and prayer.

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I'm Father Michael J. Denk, a priest of the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland. I am a contributor of content to The Prodigal Father Productions, Inc., a non-profit corporation functioning in accord with the traditions and the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. The corporation and I are separate, it doesn't speak for me, the parish, or on behalf of the Diocese of Cleveland, and I do not speak for it.