By Jennifer Neville, Special to The Catholic Virginian

Calling Jesus “the biggest foodie ever” and jesting that Christ “is the biggest Food Network star,” Father Leo Patalinghug combined wit and wisdom when he described “the theology of food” at a lecture and cooking demonstration July 14 and 15 at Immaculate Conception Parish in Hampton.

Father Leo, speaking as part of the parish’s Bishop Keane Institute Lecture Series, has a quirky resume. He is a chef, black belt martial arts teacher and former award-winning choreographer for a break dancing group. He is host and director of Grace Before Meals, the host for the TV show Savoring our Faith on EWTN and a bestselling author. Father Leo has been featured on ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS, EWTN and the Food Network where he won a competition on Throwdown with Bobby Flay.

Father Leo Patalinghug talked about faith and food as he whipped up some penne alla vodka during a cooking demonstration at Immaculate Conception Parish in Hampton July 15

Food and faith are intertwined, Fr. Leo said, pointing out that food is an important part of the Bible, beginning with Adam and Eve and continuing through the resurrection of Christ.

God wants to feed us from the moment of our conception as our belly buttons remind us, Father Leo said. Similarly, before God created Adam and Eve, he created a plentiful world to nourish them. The only caveat was they could not eat one particular fruit.

God wanted to make sure they were eating “the right things” – the way parents make sure their toddlers aren’t eating Lego pieces, Father Leo said. Nonetheless, at the devil’s encouragement, Eve ate the forbidden fruit and Adam followed.

“The devil has a fantastic way of tempting us and making sure bad things look good,” Father Leo said.

Father Leo spoke about how the relationship of food and faith is woven throughout the Scriptures. This relationship can be found at the very beginning of the New Testament, starting with Christ’s birth in Bethlehem. The word for Bethlehem means “house of bread” in Aramaic and ”house of meat” in Arabic, Father Leo explained. The Latin word for “manger” – where the infant child was placed after birth – means “to eat.”

Food makes more obvious appearances in the Bible as well, Fr. Leo said. He cited the parable of the prodigal son whose father celebrated with a banquet when the son returned home after squandering the money his father had given him. Christ’s first miracle was turning water into wine at a wedding, Fr. Leo said. And in the Acts of the Apostles, when Jesus told Peter through a dream to “Get up, slaughter and eat,” Peter declined saying he had never eaten anything profane and unclean. Jesus responded “what God has created, you cannot call unclean.” Most importantly, Jesus is the bread of life, and he is present in the consecrated bread and wine we receive in the Eucharist.

As Father Leo prepared penne alla vodka in his cooking demonstration, he spoke of cooking shows and networks, and he joked Jesus is the biggest star on the Food Network. Then he amended it: “Jesus is the biggest network you will ever meet. He is a network to the point where he literally wants to incorporate you.”

Father Leo said a priest’s job is “to make faith more digestible, to make it more appetizing, to make it look delicious so that you want to consume it and digest it so that it can incarnate in you, so that it can be a part of who you are because Mom and Mother Church are right: you are what you eat.”

Yet people often complain that church services are boring or that they aren’t getting anything out of the Mass. That’s because people must come to Mass spiritually hungry, he said.

“If you aren’t coming hungry, it might be because you are already full of yourselves,” he said.

“God wants to feed you, but so does the devil,” Father Leo said. “We’ve got to ask ourselves ‘what are we feeding our minds? What are we feeding our bodies? What do we feed our souls?’”

To get to Heaven, he said, one must do God’s work, be God’s people, and eat God’s food.

Father Leo said the word “food” can be an acronym for formation, obedience, opportunity and discernment.

He likened formation to bread: if you make the dough but don’t form it, you will have a mess. Jesus told his disciples to be the leaven in society – to go out into the world and “form somebody.” Christ told his disciples as they evangelized they should eat what is set before them.

Father Leo listed four ways to form children: in academics, in spirituality, in pastoral service (how the child can serve others) and in human formation (how to “grow” a child to be a good, effective leader for our world.)

He likened spiritual formation to feeding a child broccoli. One might make broccoli more appealing by making it with olive oil, spices, bread crumbs and parmesan cheese. Likewise, “you’ve got to learn how to feed each other good things, and sometimes you have to hide it.

“Obedience means to listen. “Our world is so stupid these days because we don’t listen to each other,” Fr. Leo said. “True obedience” is taking time to listen to what your family and children “hunger for.” “Obedience evokes good conversation,” he said. He told the tale of a couple who had been married more than 60 years. The husband always gave his wife the heels of a loaf of bread. The woman didn’t like the ends of the loaf, and after years of silence, she complained to him. He told her he preferred the heels which is why he gave them to her. Although this story may seem endearing, the truth is that the woman never said she didn’t like the bread, and he never said they were his favorite parts. Neither took the time to talk or listen to each other, Father Leo said.

Food is “the best vehicle” to get someone to listen to you because one can’t talk with his mouth full, Father Leo said.

Quoting “Thy kingdom come; thy will be done,” he rhetorically asked “Are we being obedient to God who sometimes speaks through each other and definitely speaks to your heart in prayer?”

Opportunity entails “opening up your mind” to gain perspective, he said. It can be as simple as eating different foods, worshipping at a different Mass time or visiting a different church, or it can be as intense as going on a retreat or going on a pilgrimage to another country, he explained.

He added that we don’t take time to discern – to just reflect – anymore. Rather, many have bought into the fast food mentality that says “I can get whatever I want whenever I want wherever I want from whomever I want,” he said.

“We’re treating faith as McMass,” Father Leo said. “We need to learn to be patient because good things come to those who wait,” especially the goodness of Jesus who gave us his body, blood, soul and divinity.

Citing a MTV study that revealed that what makes teenagers the happiest is spending time with their families, Father Leo said regular family meals meet all four parts of the acronym – formation, obedience, opportunity and discernment. Sharing meals can cement good relationships, making it clear that teens can turn to their parents when they have a problem. Family meals also enable parents to learn what their children are “hungering for.” In addition, regular family meals can prevent drug abuse, teenage suicides and teen pregnancies and can improve test scores, Father Leo said.

“Family meals are all about conversation which is the word conversion, turning toward each other,” he said. Unfortunately families today often have too many diversions to come together for a meal each day. He told the audience to be masters of their schedules rather than allowing their schedules to be masters of them because cooking and eating a family meal is “your liturgy that brings your family into communion.”

“So make it a priority,” he advised.