'Padre Alberto's' story resonates worldwide

May 29, 2009

Although it is not unusual for Episcopal and Roman Catholic priests to leave one denomination and join the other, news of former Roman Catholic priest Alberto Cutié's move to the Episcopal Church has sparked worldwide public attention.

"It [the story] has been everywhere," said Neva Rae Fox, public affairs officer for the Episcopal Church, adding that she had received more than 600 notifications of news stories, including CNN (worldwide), the New York Times, CBS, Fox-TV, Religion News Service, Univision and Telemundo.

Episcopal News Service’s story from May 28 may be accessed here.

"Here, it's as big as Elián González," said Jaweed Kaleem, religion reporter for the Miami Herald, in a telephone interview, referring to a custody and immigration-status battle over the Cuban boy among his relatives in Miami, his father in Cuba and the U.S. and Cuban governments in 2000.

There were 50 reporters and videographers at a news conference held at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Miami following the service that accepted Cutié into the Episcopal Church. The Spanish-speaking media is following it detail-by-detail, said Kaleem.

Cutié is known as "Padre Alberto" in his radio and TV appearances. He and fiancé Ruhama Buni Canellis were received into the Episcopal Church by Bishop Leo Frade, of the Diocese of Southeast Florida. (The Miami Herald covered the service exclusively.)

"He and Mother Angelica, they are the Roman Catholic televangelists," said Anthony Guillen, the Episcopal Church's program officer for Latino and Hispanic Ministries. "This is like Joel Osteen [a popular Christian preacher, author and televangelist] changing faith, abandoning ship."

Photographs of Cutié and Canellis kissing on a beach were published in early May by a Spanish-language magazine. Roman Catholic priests take a vow of celibacy. The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Miami subsequently removed Cutié from St. Francis de Sales Catholic Church, where he was priest-in-charge.

Cutié also served as general director and president of Pax Catholic Communications, a multimedia operation of the archdiocese, and has been a popular radio and television show host and newspaper advice columnist. He is also the author of "Real Life, Real Love," a book about relationships.

"He was the face of the church in many ways," Kaleem said, when asked about Cutié's popularity. "Part of it also is that he's not a typical priest, he's younger, some people think he's very good looking, he's eloquent, charismatic. And he hung out with stars; he's friends with the Estefan family, [singer] Gloria Estefan. For someone who is a celebrity here to basically, very boldly go against his promise to the church and its teachings and to go further and switch churches is not unprecedented, but for someone who's a celebrity it is a big deal."

For the past two years, Cutié had been in the discernment process with the Episcopal Church. The Diocese of Southeast Florida had planned to accept him by the end of the year, but the photos changed all of that, Frade said in a telephone interview.

"Nothing like a priest committing a sin, as seen by Rome; a good looking man finding someone he loved," Frade said. "We were hoping that it would be low key, but that was impossible."

Cutié was in New York May 29 for an appearance on CBS-TV’s Early Show; his story also spent the day at the top of the Top People search on MSN.com. The story has also taken Latin America by storm, Frade said.

Romance is a powerful aspect of Cutié’s story, noted the Rev. Paul Barton, director of Hispanic church studies at the Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, Texas, in a telephone interview. The Roman Catholic laity's acceptance of Cutié's girlfriend and now fiancé, can be attributed to the fact that most people would like to see mandated celibacy done away with, he said.

"The fact that it is a romance, certainly, within the whole Hispanic tradition, there is a respect for romance between men and women and Cutié is a living example of that," Barton said. "And part of it has to do that he is seen in a heroic way, standing up for his right to exercise his sexuality."

Cutié's switch will generate interest from clergy and lay people interested in learning more about the Episcopal Church, but a flood of new members isn't likely, Barton said.

"I think that people would be more interested in going to his church than going to an Episcopal Church, but it [the media coverage] shines a light on the Episcopal Church as an alternative," he said.

 

Lynette Wilson is staff writer, Episcopal Life Media.