Living Advent Simply with Food and Family

By Jennifer Gregory Miller (bio - articles - email) | Nov 25, 2014

The season of Advent which opens the new Liturgical Year begins this Sunday after Thanksgiving. The Church provides this time as another opportunity to renew, refresh, and prepare. Trying to balance living a Catholic culture during these days is a challenge. Many of us are already overwhelmed with the secular preparations for Christmas, bombarded by the marketing and "holiday season" frivolity. To sort through all the wonderful Catholic traditions and ideas to celebrate Advent with a proper spiritual focus is equally distracting and paralyzing.

An Evening with Father Leo

In preparation for Advent, this month I attended "An Evening with Father Leo Patalinghug," a local event held at St. Veronica's Church in the diocese of Arlington, Virginia, hosted by Living Advent and Arlington Diocese Council of Catholic Women. It was an evening of delicious food, good conversation, uplifting thoughts and many laughs, but above all, Father Leo, the keynote speaker, zoomed in an essential practice that everyone should focus during Advent (and throughout the year).

It seems almost everyone has heard of Father Leo Patalinghug, "The Cooking Priest." He published his first cookbook, Grace Before Meals, in 2007, but his book orbited to a best-seller after winning a throwdown against Bobby Flay of the Food Network in 2009. It was then he answered God's call to begin his apostolate, Grace Before Meals, centering "on one fundamental concept: the simple act of creating and sharing a meal can strengthen all kinds of relationships." Father Leo keeps busy with activities including a cooking show on EWTN, Savoring Our Faith; a web series of cooking videos, Grace Before Meals; publishing two cookbooks and one on the theology of food; and traveling all over for various presentations and events.

His first cookbook, Grace Before Meals has gone through several printings. It includes 26 chapters centered around feast days and holidays, with a reflection, recipes, conversation starters and Scripture references to encourage the family to eat, converse and pray together. The second cookbook, Spicing up Married Life: Satisfying Couples' Hunger for True Love lays out material for twelve dates (one every month) between married couples: reflections, suggested menus with recipes, and points for praying and talking together. The book includes full-colored photos of the various dishes, and space to write personal notes for each chapter.  Father's latest book, Epic Food Fight: A Bite-Size History of Salvation shifts from the cookbooks to give a concise and casual introduction to theology of food. Aimed especially at "foodies" with numerous food references, the book covers various aspects of Scripture, doctrine and other aspects of living the Catholic Faith that touch on the theology of food, and concludes with ten tips to personal dieting. This is not a list of "shalt nots" but perspectives to help have a balanced spiritual and physical approach to eating healthy. 

The Evening with Father Leo began with Father celebrating the parish's Saturday vigil Mass. During his sermon he dropped several "F" words, not profanity, but words beginning with "F" that bring us back to the fundamentals. The first word was "Femininity"; a call to bring back and emphasize true femininity. This word is so rarely heard from the pulpit, but he considers it pivotal in restoring the Family and building the Faith (the other "F" words). He also encouraged everyone to eat the Family meal together as sharing Food together creates conversation, builds relationships, and can increase Faith and keep the Family together.

St. Veronica's Church in Chantilly already hosts many opportunities that recognize and nurture the Faith and food connection, proving the location was a perfect fit. This was a catered meal including wine and dessert for 200 guests. The mood was cheerful and conversation lively as the capable volunteer team of young ladies and gentleman of the parish served the guests.

After dessert, Father Leo donned his apron and entertained everyone with the story of the beginning of his apostolate as "the cooking priest" while he prepared a delicious meal of Bacon and Butternut Squash Brandy Creamy Penne Pasta. He admitted at the beginning that the idea of a priest doing a cooking show was all a joke, but the idea caught on fire, and instead of fighting it, he saw that this was God's calling for him. The joke has now expanded into a worldwide apostolate. While brandishing his chopping knife and sauté pan, he regaled the guests with his quick wit and jokes only Catholics would completely appreciate. In the midst of his jovial demonstration, Father brought the point home that food and Faith are an inseparable combination, citing basic examples from Christ's life, with His first miracle of changing water to wine, the miracle of feeding loaves and fishes to the five thousand and His final gift of the Eucharist.

Restoring the Family Meal and Liturgical Feasting

Father stressed that it is vital to restore the ritual of eating at the dinner table together as a family. Time and again research proves that the family that eats together (and prays together) stays together. Sharing a delicious meal together is the avenue to strengthen relationships and nourish body, mind and soul.

I was particularly interested (and wholeheartedly agreed) when Father stressed "taking back" feasting with special food on Catholic feast days. I have written before how this feasting can restore a Catholic culture as it is both traditional and an easy way to build awareness of the Catholic faith.

After the last crumb was swept away, there was a slow realization that Father practiced what he preaches. He provided the perfect example of what sharing an evening meal together can bring: relaxation, conversation, communication, learning about the Faith, growing in Faith and deepening relationships.

Simplify Advent: Pegging the Family Meal

What does this have to do with Advent? Everything. We already see how the family is pulled apart by TV, electronics, social media, games, sports and other activities. It gets harder to juggle time to put down the phones and converse eye-to-eye and enjoy each other's company. The time before Christmas is no exception; in fact, even more outside commitments weigh down the family.

With all the this busyness, there isn't much time to squeeze in extra Catholic traditions even if it is such a holy season of preparation. How can we live our Advent? Instead of responding with frenetic activity, we need to realize that we must simplify and prioritize this Advent in order to bring the family together. So taking Father Leo's advice, every family should commit to this one thing this Advent: eat together as a family. This means a family dinner with only old-fashioned eating and conversing: dinner at the table with all the family and no TV, no electronics, or other distractions. Everyone needs to eat; just taking the time to slow down and communicate and enjoy each other's company will nurture the growth of the family.

Being together as a family at dinner is an opportunity to grow in Faith together. The commitment of putting the family meal as priority can be the peg or the centerpiece for any additional Advent activity, such as lighting the Advent wreath before the dinner meal. Conversations don't have to be stilted or scripted, but discussions can center around aspects of the Faith. Discussing the Advent season or the saint of the day are simple ways to expand in loving and living the Faith.

Families that have multiple outside commitments that fall around dinnertime can schedule an earlier or later dinnertime, or decide on a few days a week to commit to eating together as a family.

For those families already eating together, there is still room for improvement. Father mentioned a mother approached him asking what to do, because her children wouldn't eat broccoli. When he asked how she cooked it, he admitted he wouldn't eat it that way (in his words, "Yuck!"), either. He shared the way he likes to prepare broccoli (found in both of his cookbooks). The mother wrote later to say her children now love broccoli.

Now the goal isn't to teach our children to eat their vegetables, but a further resolution for Advent can be to make a concerted effort to develop that feminine touch and improve on recipes, provide variety and serve delicious meals. Dinnertime can often fall into duty and routine, and this can be a resolution to add love to the meals. Serving appetizing and beautifully plated meals is an opportunity to celebrate love for one another, and the old saying that the way to a man's heart is through his stomach applies also to a family. When a mother cooks with love, it speaks to the hearts of the family members. (I refer to the mother cooking the dinner, but I realize that many families have the father or children cooking. No slight is intended.)

And these family meals can be the return of feasting for Catholic feast days! While planning the dinner menus a few traditional foods related to the feast days (St. NicholasImmaculate Conception, Our Lady of Guadalupe, St. Lucy, the O Antiphons, to name a few) could be worked into the plan. (Catholic Culture has many suggestions for recipes for every feast day.)

The new Liturgical Year is an opportunity to make resolutions and changes for the rest of the year. The secular preparations of Christmas can create such noise and activity that the focus on remembering our newborn King and preparing spiritually for Christ's Second Coming gets completely drowned out. Unfortunately the counter movement of adding numerous spiritual Advent activities can be just as overwhelming. A singularly simple Advent resolution is to follow Father Leo Patalinghug's advice and restore the family meal. Eating meals together is a very effective way to feed the mind, body and soul and build the family. Family meals together can be a direct response to the hustle and bustle before Christmas and a way to slow down and prioritize our family and Faith in otherwise busy lives.

Jennifer Gregory Miller is an experienced homemaker, home schooler, and authority on living the liturgical year. She is the primary developer of CatholicCulture.org's liturgical year section. See full bio.

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