I went to New York to watch the taping of a talk show. You know, those clapping, cheering people in the studio audience. I was in one of those. But this was not just any talk show. This show is hosted by an Episcopal priest named Father Albert Cutié. Father Albert is airing on Fox-owned stations this summer.
You remember him? He was in the news—particularly the tabloids—when he was spotted on the beach kissing the woman he would later marry. This made the tabloids because Fr. Albert was at the time a Roman Catholic priest who was hosting a very popular Spanish-language talk-show on Telemundo called Padre Alberto. The show was so popular that some people called him “Father Oprah.”
So the tabloids loved this… but the Catholic Church not so much. The Church punished him for having a girlfriend. Telemundo cancelled his show. So what happened next? He got married. And he and his wife were received into the Episcopal Church; and, eventually, Bishop Frade of Southeast Florida received Father Albert’s orders. Today he serves as vicar of the Church of the Resurrection, a diverse Hispanic, white and African-American congregation in Miami.
His new book, Dilemma, is about his faith journey from Rome to Canterbury—one that started way before he met his wife—and how the papparazi simply crystallized the path he was already on. Now he is trying to start up another talk show, this time in English, called “Father Albert.” If everything goes according to plan, he will make it out of the summer try-outs and get syndicated.
When I got the e-mail invitation to go watch a live taping. I was curious: what to make of this show? Would it be Dr. Phil meets Ellen meet Fulton J. Sheen? I wanted to find out.
Even though the media (and the lead in to Father Albert’s own show) makes much of the tabloid story of a Roman Catholic priest who got married this was to me not the real story. The real story was how this Episcopal priest—this colleague--would come across in this strange world of the talk show.
I had my own dilemma when going to this show: to collar or not to collar? Since Father Albert wears a black suit and clergy collar on the set, I went for the clerical collar. The producers noticed. And before the taping began Father Albert asked me a few questions from the stage before the first taping.
At the end of the day, a person with a headset and a clipboard called me out of the audience and led me backstage to meet Father Albert and his family.
I asked Father Cutié about this unusual ministry. I learned that when he started out on Telemundo, it was more about giving people answers to questions, to teach them what The Church taught but in an entertaining context. Over time, that changed. It became, and is now in English, much more about listening to people’s stories and giving them hope. He discovered that the way one helps ordinary people live faithful lives is not to boss them around or yell at them. What works is to listen, to ask questions and to guide.
People have problems, they have to make choices, and they don’t know how to sort them out. Father Albert, by letting people who’ve made some pretty interesting (or just plain weird) life choices tell their story and asking questions, helps people figure out which way they might point their lives. Maybe not the guests, but certainly the viewers. He is not there to preach: so this is neither Fulton J. Sheen nor is it the 700 Club. But he does ask questions: “Why?” “What do you think?” “What if…?” “What about…?”
He's most at home talking about relationships. I saw this most clearly on a show that I did not see taped, but where he was talking to a woman who lost a lot of weight on another TV show and in so doing discovered the power of faith to change her life. When Father Albert gets practical and really connects with people’s struggles, this is when his show truly shines.
The two shows I watched being taped were rather different. Both showed the dilemma of trying to bring meaning out of hot-button issues in a talk show context. The first was a topical show about the Casey Anthony trial. This is a big, never-ending news story, particularly in Florida, and this episode would air the day after her scheduled release from jail. There were two groups of guests: one that through that “Anthony was guilt as sin” and the other who thought that at least the jury was right if acquitting her of most charges, and one who thought she was outright innocent.
The floor staff encouraged the audience to both ask questions (we even practiced raising our hands) and encouraged us to react when someone on stage said something provocative. I am not sure that the format of people with polar opposites disagreeing, even with a priest moderating the talk, moved the ball forward very much. I kept thinking that there are an awful lot of people in pain in this story, not to mention a dead child, so where does one find meaning in all this? Where does God show up? Is grace possible in the course of a murder trial? If it were me, I probably would have substituted the journalists for a therapist or an ethicist, and perhaps tweeked the question from “was justice done” to “how do we find hope in the midst of imperfect justice.” But I don’t know how to make that a sound byte.
The second taping clearly was meant to build on the media hype around “the priest who got married” meme. “Forbidden marriages” covered a series of heterosexual couples in different relationships: a 51 year old TV star married to a 16 year old model; a guy who found his (third) wife through an agency that finds women in foreign countries who want to marry Americans; a couple in an open marriage; and finally, a woman who left a plural marriage in a splinter Mormon group and wrote a book about her experience.
The audience asked good questions, particularly around the observation that all these alternative arrangements are pretty good deals for the men, but that they all skewed the power in the relationship away from the women and certainly away from any notion mutuality.
Which led me to observe that the point of the exercise is not really about the guests, it is about the audience and the viewer asking the questions for themselves. Guests are certainly questioned but the idea is not to change their minds but to hear their stories. Both of these sessions were discussion starters not conversation closers.
Cutié says this is a talk show not a religious program but God-talk can’t help but pop up. Guests refer to God or to their faith. Sometimes the reference is heart-felt and sometimes it’s a throw away. Sometimes the producers or writers give in to the temptation use clichés, and this can get in the way.
On the bus ride home with the other participants, some of whom were talk-show audience veterans and would tick off the names of the shows they’d seen, I asked a few of them what they thought of the show. One 24 year old woman said “well, it was cleaner!” When asked if it made a difference that the host was a priest, the answer was a tentative “yes” but the people I spoke with could not really name the difference. Most of the people I spoke with were only partially familiar with his back story. And two women I spoke with did not really get the difference between his former church and where he ministers now.
Father Albert talked a little about his ministry as a communicator. He wants to communicate a message of hope that is accessible to people. He is very mindful of the everyday challenges that ordinary people face and the need for both guidance and hope. He is still adjusting to life in his new church and seemed genuinely happy to meet a colleague and is very much at home in the Episcopal Church. Father Albert will put the Episcopal Church before a new audience.