Lidia Cooks, Pope Francis Eats: The Papacy And Food

You may have missed the news – as did I – that while he was in New York, Pope Francis’ meals were prepared by celebrity chef Lidia Bastianich, famous to TV watchers from her many series on PBS over the past two decades. Lidia is a refugee immigrant to America who was born in Pola, a seaport which was once part of Italy; the city was given to Yugoslavia after the war, and is now a part of Croatia. She is what we non-Italians would imagine our Italian “nonna” (grandmother) to be, if we had one: a robust, cheerful, colorful lady, with a gusto for preparing you mountains of good food. If you have never watched one of her programs, I dare you not to grow hungry as you watch how she prepares and then REALLY enjoys tasting that plate of gnocchi or ossobuco that she’s just thrown together, in her beautiful kitchen full of copper pots and majolica platters.

“What an extraordinary honor this is,” she observed, about being asked to cook for Pope Francis. “For me, cooking for the Pope is special because, not only am I Catholic, but I came to this country in 1958 as a refugee from communist Yugoslavia and was cared for by Catholic Relief Services. They did so much to give me a start in America, so I am very proud to give back through what is most dear to me on this Earth: food and my family.”

As it happens, this is not the first time that Lidia has cooked for a pontiff. When Pope Benedict was in New York several years ago, she was asked to cook for him, as well. While Pope Francis has certain dietary restrictions based on his doctor’s advice, Pope Benedict’s own mother was a hotel chef, and so the pressure was on. After the final dinner she prepared for him, Pope Benedict praised the goulash Lidia had made that evening, saying that it was so close to that of his childhood, that “these are my mother’s flavors.” Naturally Lidia got a little teary-eyed at the compliment.

There is an interesting and bizarre history of Papal chefs down the centuries, and as one might expect some of it is quite unseemly to read. The Church hasn’t survived for 2,000 years because of uniformly good Papal behavior, but oftentimes in spite of it. If you’ve ever looked at a list of all the popes, you will see a noticeable gap of several centuries where there were hardly any saintly popes at all.

However one of my favorite tales comes from the reign of a very holy pope, Pope St. Pius V (1504-1572). The third pope to come from the Dominican Order, Pius V was an ascetic, in deliberate contrast to the excesses of many of the Renaissance popes. He fasted and prayed so much that he would forget to eat, and when he did eat it was often nothing more than a bowl of broth and some bread.

Apparently on one occasion, someone suggested to Pope Pius that his daily soup should be fortified with more ingredients. There were concerns that he was doing too much, and that he ought to be eating more to keep up his strength. In response, the Pontiff threatened to excommunicate anyone who altered his meals from exactly how he wanted them prepared.

Now while I may not want that’s the sort of thing I can raise a glass to, and I suspect Lidia would, too.


Chef Lidia Bastianich

Come and See: The Challenge of Pope Francis’ Papacy

Today Catholics everywhere will be reading about how Pope Francis has won a beauty contest sponsored by TIME magazine, a publication which spends much of its time working diligently to undermine the work of the Church over the past two millenia.  I realize that I will be expected by many to toe to some sort of accepted Catholic line here, about how great it is that people are paying attention to the Church because of this particular Pope, and how this pontificate is so full of – ahem – hope and change.  I regret to inform the reader that he will probably be disappointed.

Having read the four-page TIME cover piece on Pope Francis, I was as an initial matter struck by the fact that the secular media is absolutely obsessed with sex.  This should perhaps come as no surprise, since one could hardly expect a leopard to change its spots.  For all the oft-heard characterization of Catholics as being trapped in some sort of repressive timewarp, the Catholics in my circle seem to have a far better-integrated understanding of their own sexuality than those who have an insatiable need to talk not only about theirs, but everyone else’s all the time.

It also struck me as a bit strange that TIME would title their cover piece as: “Pope Francis, the People’s Pope”.  Who else’s would he be, exactly?  The title brings to mind the media-induced wailing that occurred upon the death of Diana, “The People’s Princess”, and betrays a fundamental lack of understanding of the role of the Supreme Pontiff in the Church.

I would imagine that the present Holy Father himself would be the first to say that the real “Person of the Year”, and indeed of every year, is of course Jesus Christ.  Pope Francis is simply His instrument, charged with the (unenviable) duty of shepherding His flock.  In imitation of Christ, the Pope tries to follow the instruction given at the Last Supper that “I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do.  Amen, amen, I say to you, no slave is greater than his master nor any messenger greater than the one who sent him.” (St. John 13:15-16)  From what I have seen so far, this Pope is doing an excellent job of making all of us feel decidedly uncomfortable about whether we are being a useful servant.

At the same time however, one needs to be careful in noting that being elected pope does not mean that one becomes a saint.  There are many saintly popes, for example Pope St. Damasus I whose feast day is today, and there are also many less-than-saintly ones.  There are popes who were personally popular but spiritually lazy, and popes possessing great personal sanctity whom no one particularly liked.  It is far too soon for us to have an assessment of Pope Francis’ papacy, which is not even a year old.  Whatever secular attention this Pope is receiving at the moment, his personal popularity among those who would never darken the door of a church, let alone a confessional, is completely irrelevant if that is all it remains.

And here, like it or not, is where you come in.  It would be ludicrous to suggest that it is solely Pope Francis’ job to get people in the pews.  How very easy it is to armchair quarterback this Pope and say, he should be doing this or he should not be doing that, thereby setting yourself up as your own sort of Antipope.  Yet if you are not out there evangelizing to others, in the myriad of ways by which one can do so in one’s daily life, I will not be particularly impressed by your prognostications on whether Pope Francis will create women cardinals or rent out the Papal Apartments for parties.

Truthfully the TIME honor is not so terrible, as far as back-handed compliments go.  However now that everyone at the office or the grocery store is talking about the head of the Catholic Church, you have an opportunity to flesh out the very incomplete portrait painted by this magazine and the secular media in general.  For in the end, not surprisingly, TIME got it wrong.  The theme of this papacy is clearly not, “Who am I to judge?”, but rather, “Come and see.”


Thank You, Holy Father

Like much of the world, when I learned that Pope Benedict XVI had decided to abdicate the Throne of St. Peter and retire to a life of prayer, I was initially both shocked and saddened.  Almost immediately however, so much of the commentariat was focused on conspiracy theories as to why he was stepping down, or who the new Pope would be, that it was too easy to get sucked into speculations which will ultimately prove futile in assessing his Papacy, or of prognosticating the future of the Church.  As I pointed out in an interview I gave yesterday, the Pope has visibly grown more frail over the past year or so – he is after all in his mid-80’s – and those who are trying to second-guess what the Conclave will do are more likely than not going to be wrong.  So rather than pay attention to what the so-called mainstream media reports about the Holy Father’s decision, or respond to what dissenting “experts” argue the Church must do next in order to satisfy their own personal political agendas, allow me to thank Pope Benedict for what I see as some of the great accomplishments of his pontificate.

One of the great legacies which this Pope will leave for future English-speaking Catholics in particular, has to do with one of the most fundamental aspects of what it means to practice one’s faith, and that is in repairing some of the translation problems with both the mass itself and in the lectionary.  Whenever you translate from one language to another, it is never going to be absolutely perfect, particularly when you are shifting from Latin to English.  The work to bring the mass in English as close as possible to that of the text in Latin is something which all of us will benefit from for the foreseeable future.

In a related move, I see this Pope’s encouragement of a wider use of the traditional Latin mass as a part of his effort to bring more people of good will within the fold.  While efforts to reconcile with those who split with the Church over the use of the Latin mass are ongoing, and no doubt that work will continue under the next Pontiff, this Pope has clearly shown that he not only appreciates the beauty of tradition, but wants to encourage Catholics to re-discover their own rich history.  Even in his choice of vestments, Benedict has often made a point of bringing back things which had been abandoned in the upheavals that occurred in the 1960’s and ’70’s, not to go backwards, but to emphasize continuity with and connection to the past.

Similarly, the establishment of the Anglican Ordinariate to reach out to those members of the Anglican church who felt themselves drawn to Rome but still loved their own traditions, is something which in and of itself is of tremendous historical significance.  I remember well the day that this news was announced, when several friends and I gathered at an English-style pub here in downtown Washington to celebrate what we enthusiastically referred to as “Anglo Catholic Reunification Day”, and to raise pints not only to Pope Benedict, but to welcome those Britons, both clerics and laity, who would soon be joining us on this side of the Tiber.  Now of course, our own Cardinal Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington, has been put in charge by Pope Benedict of overseeing the establishment of the U.S. version of the Ordinariate, and we have already seen a number of Episcopal communities coming into communion with Rome, something which people like St. John Fisher, St. Thomas More, and Blessed John Henry Newman are no doubt very pleased to see happening with their American cousins.

Additionally, while things are still moving slowly, we have seen that this Pope has reached out to the Eastern Churches, continuing the work of his predecessors, in  attempts to reunite the two “lungs” of the Universal Church.  One cannot undo one thousand years of the Great Schism at a stroke, obviously.  However I have always felt that this Pope, in taking the actions described above with respect to those who wish to celebrate the traditional mass, and to repair the split with those Anglicans willing to work with him, has been laying a foundation for ongoing, future dialogue with the Orthodox.  The joy in Christendom if the Catholic and Orthodox churches were finally to be reconciled is something which I can only pray and hope that I live to see in my lifetime, and if it happens clearly we will have to point to this Pope as one of those who moved that reconciliation forward.

There are many other areas of endeavor which one could examine in assessing the work of Pope Benedict XVI.  We saw his continued outreach to the youth of the Church, drawing even larger crowds than his predecessor; his embrace and encouragement of the use of new media as a tool for re-evangelizing the world; his writings, sermons, and speeches; his historic visit to England and address in Westminster Hall; etc.  I would also mention two items of personal importance to me: his visit here to Washington, where I was fortunate enough to attend the Papal Mass at Nationals Stadium, and his visit to consecrate the iconic Sagrada Familia church in Barcelona, which he raised to the level of a minor basilica.  While his pontificate has lasted only eight years, one wonders whether any of us, if we live to such an old age ourselves, would be able to do so much.

While I am very sad indeed to see him go, I also greatly respect Pope Benedict XVI for taking what must have been the very tough decision to recognize that, in the particular circumstances in which he finds himself, it would be best for the good of the Church if he were to step down.  It cannot have been an easy conclusion to arrive at, knowing that there is so much more he could do, and yet physically he will not be able to do it.  So to step away from the world, and retire to a life of prayer and drawing closer to God, in preparation for the day when one finally meets Him face to face, is something that sets a tremendous example for all of us to ponder.

My hope is that His Holiness will be able to do so, for however long he remains with us in this present life, like the tremendous but humble scholar and teacher he unquestionably is: ordering his days of prayer on behalf of the Church and in the sacrifice of the Holy Mass, while having time to rest, surrounded by the books of the great spiritual writers, the classical music he loves, and hopefully a friendly cat.