Priest’s cooking, martial arts, lifeguarding experiences give students recipe for a better life

By Carol Kovach, Sun News

PARMA HEIGHTS, Ohio – About 500 junior high school students from SS. Joseph and John School in Strongsville; Incarnate Word Academy in Parma Heights; St. Michael, Independence; St. Peter, North Ridgeville; St. Ambrose, Brunswick and St. Barnabas, Northfield, got a recipe that will help them for the rest of their lives.

During a program sponsored by The Fest at Holy Name High School on April 14, they learned how to lead a life pleasing to God. Their instructors were a pair of animated, engaging priests who connected with the students through a series of questions, stories, interactions and role plays.

The Rev. Bob Stec, pastor of St. Ambrose parish, warmed up the crowd and shared information about Mission Possible, an initiative that builds houses for families in the Dominican Republic. With help from a few students, Stec showed the size of the structures they build to house six- to eight-member families.

“The whole house is about the size of your living room,” he said.

He also briefed the students about The Fest, a daylong religious celebration in the Diocese of Cleveland that he started in 2000. This year’s Fest will be noon to 10 p.m. Aug. 3 on the Borromeo Seminary grounds, 27800 Euclid Ave., Wickliffe. The first Fest drew about 5,000 people. Stec said last year’s event had crowds approaching 40,000.

There is an outdoor Mass, plenty of music, vendors, family entertainment, food, fun, a message of faith and fireworks, Stec said. Students who previously attended The Fest agreed.

Stec said Pope Francis told attendees at last year’s World Youth Day that they could make a difference by having the courage to go against the tide. It was a perfect segue for the headliner, the Rev. Leo Patalinghug of Baltimore, Md.

Father Leo, as he’s known, told the students he shouldn’t be a priest. The diminutive cleric said he’s a former lifeguard and knows first-hand that it’s hard to save a life. He’s also a black belt in Tae Kwon Do, a champion in contact stick fighting, choreographer for an award-winning break-dance group, an author and a chef — hardly the background for a typical priest.

“My brother should be the priest in our family. But he has seven impediments: his wife and six kids,” Father Leo quipped.

He used the lifeguard analogy to help the students visualize saints and the power of prayer to fight evil.

What does a modern saint look like?” he asked, as he chose volunteers from the schools to come up front. They were asked to strike a “saintly pose.” After that, they were asked to demonstrate a sinner’s pose. He explained that saints are like lifeguards who separate from sin and join God.

“If a saint is willing to reach out and a sinner is willing to reach out, they can connect and someone is saved,” he said.

Father Leo said families can save someone by eating together and praying. He suggested that the students cook a meal for their families, pointing out they can find some recipes on his website,

“When Bobby Flay (the well-known chef) challenged me to a fajita cooking contest on The Food Network, I felt like David and Goliath. The night of the throwdown, my website got 2 million unique hits. I won, but I cheated. I beat him with prayer,” he said.

He also connected prayer with martial arts moves.

“You need to pay attention, offer respect, be ready and rest,” he told the students and teachers.”Prayer can save your life and helps you to be a lifesaver.”

Stec said the takeaway for students was learning how to be a saint in today’s world by living a life pleasing to God, full of joy and energy.