BACK WHEN he was an award-winning break dance competitor, Leo Patalinghug hardly seemed the type who’d turn out to be a priest. He was a busy guy whose considerable energy was poured into sports and dancing. He used to lack the time or inclination to sit and ponder his life calling.
But then the Catholic Church has a long history of unlikely sorts turning toward and thriving in ministry.
“If God can use me, there’s hope for the world,” says Patalinghug with a smile. Certainly he brings plenty of talent to the table. In addition to his skill on the dance floor (he once belonged to the “Breakanics,” who won Baltimore’s best break dancing award in 1983), Patalinghug has black belts in various martial arts, including tae kwon do and arnis, a system of Filipino martial arts.
And if that’s not enough, his love for cooking, which he developed as a seminarian in Rome, propelled him to begin production of a TV show, Grace Before Meals: Recipes for Family Life, in the hope of strengthening families as they cook and eat together. He has also published a book by the same name.
While his life blends many passions, nowadays all of them lead back to a singular focus on vocation. When Patalinghug is not traveling around the country leading retreats and speaking at conferences, where he occasionally break-dances or does martial arts, his days are spent directing seminarians and assisting them on the road to priesthood as the director of pastoral field education at Mount Saint Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland.
Although he is serving men still on the way to priesthood, he says he is the one inspired by their witness. “I’ve never felt so unworthy of my vocation until coming here. It’s helped me reflect on my own vocation because [the seminarians] so intensely want to do God’s will,” he says.
Not the perfect candidate
His own desire to do God’s will was a gradual process. Although Patalinghug grew up in a devout Catholic family of Filipino immigrants in Baltimore, the priesthood was not on his radar screen. In fact, he failed an altar server test three times at his parish, and his only motive to try again was to ensure a spot on the annual parish trip to a theme park that summer. “I’m not the perfect candidate. I’ll be the first to admit that, but God chooses the weak and makes them strong,” he says.
Despite his tepid interest, the Catholic faith was unavoidable in the Patalinghug household. Every Friday evening the family gathered to pray the rosary with arms outstretched for the first, third, and fifth decades. In addition to family prayers, Patalinghug attended Catholic schools and catechism classes, giving him a “double dose” of Catholic education.
While the prayers and formal education continued, Patalinghug took part in typical activities of a youth in the 70s and 80s and became skilled in break dancing and martial arts. He helped his brother open a karate school, where he also instructed students.
Years later, in 1999 when the bishop anointed his hands on the day of his ordination, Patalinghug pondered in awe that the hands considered weapons would now be used to bring Christ to others. That day, “I felt like the Lord said, ‘I’m going to use your swords as plowshares.’ ”
He now looks back on his younger days and knows that God was working even through those times of the “good, the bad, and the not so bad,” he says. Patalinghug sometimes still uses his break dancing and martial arts skills when giving a talk to young people. It is imperative to reach people at their level in order to truly evangelize, he says.
A dramatic shift
Striving to become a better person was what essentially led Patalinghug to a deeper understanding of his faith. As a young adult, he was on a search for truth. “It was ‘faith seeking understanding,’ ” he says, reiterating the words of Saint Anselm of Canterbury.
During his young adult years, he sought out “deep, soul-satisfying friendships.” It became frustrating, however, “because I could never express myself fully to just one person.” He was restless. And he was busy. His days working as a disk jockey, an instructor at his brother’s karate school, a life guard, and member of a speech and debate team did not avail him time to search for answers to the deeper questions lingering in his heart.
Soon, however, the busy-ness of his life came to a screeching halt: Patalinghug dislocated his knee while skiing. “It was a dramatic shift,” he said, remembering his two weeks of bed rest. It was a frustrating and confusing time, as all his activities were placed on hold. Patalinghug lay in bed and contemplated life and his future. This respite from his fast-paced life was the start of his journey toward his vocation.
After recovering from his injury Patalinghug made a pilgrimage to a Marian apparition site where he “felt that Mary was asking me to be a priest.” It was the first tugging at his heart to discern the priesthood. Upon his return home, he began praying the rosary fervently, going to Mass during the week, and interacting with other Catholic young adults.
“I was slowing down and learning more about my faith,” says Patalinghug. That process eventually led him into youth ministry. He drew more deeply from the well but would soon learn that God wanted everything from him. Patalinghug found himself injured again, dislocating the same knee for the second time, after which he was placed in a large cast. Again he was forced to sit still, and he had time for contemplation.
The next push toward the priesthood would happen at a Halloween party he attended while still recovering from his second knee injury. He failed in his efforts to dress as a vampire or a mummy. So Patalinghug dressed himself in black, wrapped white fabric around his neck, clipped it behind his collar, and decided to go as a priest.
Eyeing him through her bedroom mirror, his mother was taken by surprise but was pleased with what she saw. He confidently assured her that it was merely a joke, which continued as he offered “blessings” throughout the night. The act was so convincing that a few people were fooled, he adds with a grin.
“I was a 20-year-old punk just being flippant,” says Patalinghug, adding that though it was all in good humor, something was stirring in his soul. “I liked that people saw a priest in me.” The Halloween costume was one more episode bringing him closer to his leap of faith.
As Patalinghug continued healing slowly from his second knee injury, he looked up in frustration, threw his hands in the air, and said, “What do you want from me? What does all this mean?” It was as if God responded to his very words. “I felt God saying, ‘I want all your gifts. I want to use them.’ It set me to tears. God wanted me to give everything to him.” Moved by the invitation, Patalinghug said, “Yes” and was ready to take the next step.
“I felt like I was asking a girl out on a date,” he says about the trepidation and nervousness he experienced when calling the diocesan vocation office. Upon hearing the voice on the other end, he immediately hung up the phone. He called again and eventually met with the director of vocations for the Archdiocese of Baltimore.
“I started to get emotional. To say ‘yes’ to the Lord means you have to give something up, and it can be painful,” he said. But as he moved forward into the priesthood, Patalinghug found peace. “God worked best in the midst of the frustrations. . . . It didn’t always make sense, but faith is mysterious. It’s not a math equation. It requires trust,” he says.
A rewarding life
Now a priest for nine years, Patalinghug starts his days at 5 a.m. with a holy hour, morning prayers, and Mass. The role of spiritual father is one of his favorite aspects of his vocation. “There’s something satisfying about being a fatherly figure,” he says. He finds his life humbling, challenging, and frequented with joyous experiences. At the same time he notes that the life of a diocesan priest can make one sometimes feel alone.
“I live a solitary life; therefore it can feel lonely,” he says. It is the sacraments and the love of God that give him the strength to carry out his daily tasks and face difficulties. “In all of those challenges,” says Patalinghug, “what is a guy to do but throw his hands in the air and say, ‘What now?’ and He says, ‘Trust me.’ ”
That trust brought Patalinghug to where he is today, and he considers it enough for the future as he continues to turn over to God his talents in speaking, dancing, martial arts, cooking, and perhaps a few skills as yet undiscovered.
Henrietta Gomes is a staff writer for the Arlington Catholic Herald of the Arlington, Virginia diocese.
To learn more about Father Leo Patalinghug’s various projects and to view his speaking schedule, see www.gracebeforemeals.com.