Beliefnet
Faith, Media & Culture

Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith, media and culture.

Lino Rulli talks about Catholicism, his new book, his admiration of Pope John Paul II, his dream of being the next David Letterman, life in radio and life in general. I had the opportunity to chat with  The Catholic Guy (his popular show airs weekday on The Catholic Channel on SiriusXM 129) about his new book with the very Catholic title Sinner. FYI, I spent nearly two years working with Lino at The Catholic Channel. I produced the morning show (Seize the Day w/ Gus Lloyd) and occupied an office just across the hall from his. So, I can tell you, what you hear is what you get with Lino.

JWK: Alright, say something embarrassing. What’s New?

LINO: As you may have heard I’ve got a book. As horrible timing would have it, we also just hired a new staff member on the show. So, we’re redoing the whole show and I’m promoting the book at the same time.

JWK: How are you redoing the show?

LINO: We hired a priest (Fr. Rob Keighron) who is a regular on the show. He used to come by every week. (Also) now, we go producerless.

JWK: So, you’re the producer.

LINO: Yeah, exactly.

JWK: Maureen? (Maureen McMurray was Lino’s producer when I was at the channel and was known for her on-air rapport with Lino. She also left about the same time I did.)

LINO: She came back for a while and then she left again…She went to a high-paying job.

JWK: Where is she now?

LINO: NPR. I mean we’re still very close and she didn’t even try to get a job but they offered her a great job with a lot of money — (and she can) work from home. She didn’t want to leave the show but I couldn’t blame her and there’s a lot more career advancement.  I mean she could run NPR one day. So, you go “You can be a producer on the Catholic Guy show or…”

JWK: …rise to new heights with Lino Rulli.

LINO: You can’t do that here because…

JWK: But you may rise to new heights – to, as you wished in your book, become the new David Letterman.

LINO: And that would be the only way. But then she’s waiting for that to happen.

JWK: I’m waiting for that to happen too.

LINO: I am too. I don’t think it’s ever going to happen.

LATE NIGHT WITH LINO RULLI?

JWK: What would a Late Night with Lino Rulli be like?

LINO: It wouldn’t be as good as I’d want it to be.  Everything in my life comes up a little shorter than I want it to be.  I’ve got all these high aspirations for myself, my career and my faith  and it would come up not even close to what I want it to be.  I want to be a good Catholic, I’m not. I want to be a good host, I’m not. I’d want to have an excellent TV show, I wouldn’t.

JWK: Would your faith improve your ability to do such a show or restrict it?

LINO: See that’s what I’d like to figure out. I feel like talking about God three hours hurts my faith, believe it or not. I really think that some of the times where I was just working – when I was doing the World War II documentary for CBS – (and) I was doing something else I got to focus more on God because I wasn’t talking about God  all day.  (Now) I’m looking for schtick about God.  I gotta spend three hours talking about God today.

JWK: Where do you get your material for each show?

LINO: From the world and, mostly, from myself. The screwed-up world and the screwed-up Lino – that’s where I get my material. It’s tough. There’s no new chapters in the Bible.

JWK: Maybe you could write one.

LINO: I may write one. There’s not a lot of new stuff out there, so I’m always looking for a new spin on the old stuff.

ABOUT LINO AND THOSE 19 CATS?

JWK: Let’s talk about your book a little bit. First of all, do you really have 19 cats? That’s a  joke, right?

LINO: Of course, it’s a joke! I’m almost sad how many people have asked me do you have 19 cats and a medium-sized ferret? No! How could anybody think that’s true?!

JWK: It worried me. I’m glad to hear that’s not true.

LINO: How many reporters have asked about this 19 cats business and I go “NO, it’s a joke on the back of the book!”

JWK: That’s reassuring. How’d the book come about?

LINO: To give you a reflection of the sad state of publishing today, several publishers approached me to write a book – clearly saying nobody’s got any good ideas out there anymore.

JWK: But it is flattering.

LINO: It’s very flattering. For years people have been asking me to write a book and I just wanted to be flattered instead of actually going through with it and, finally, I just said let’s do it! Let’s give it a shot! The advance was very nice.

JWK: Actually, I enjoyed the book. I don’t know if you read my little comment.

LINO: Why do you have to say the word “actually”?  SO, many people have said “I actually enjoyed the book” and I go “You can say I liked the book.”

JWK: It made me laugh. It gave me some chuckles.

LINO: Why did you say you “actually” liked the book. I think there’s something deeper here we can identify – because you’re not the first to say “I actually liked it.”

JWK: I guess you always think people are going to doubt that you’re being sincere – so to sell it a little bit more , I say “I actually liked the book.” So, if you have any doubt, the “actually” should, you know, fix that.

LINO: It can also be used as a word of surprise. You know, “I actually liked it.  I actually didn’t think I’d like that movie.” “Yeah, I actually liked that. I didn’t think I’d like spinach.”  “I actually liked the book” to me sounds like “I didn’t think I’d like the book.”

JWK: Maybe, I was a little surprised.

LINO: See! Now, we’re getting to the root of the problem here!

LINO, THE ORGAN-GRINDER’S MONKEY

JWK: You’re family life sounds interesting.  What was it like growing up as an organ-grinder’s monkey? (See Chapter 1: Monkey Boy, about Lino working alongside his father who left his job as a parole officer to follow his dream of being an organ grinder.)

LINO: It was ridiculous. It was absolutely insane. Only later can I look back and see how it actually shaped and formed who I am — but I think that’s sort of God’s way of  doing things in our lives. You don’t get it while it’s happening. You only look back and say “Now, I see how it all came together.”

It was ridiculous. It was embarrassing.  I was a teenager. I didn’t want to be a monkey…but it taught me a lot about being creative, it taught me a lot about bucking the trends. My dad didn’t do what everyone expected him to do with his life. So, it taught me a lot about how I act and how I look at my career and being like everyone else. Doing something different actually pays off.

JWK: So, God  said “I’ll make him an organ-grinders monkey and that will have an impact that will lead him to…?”

LINO: I don’t know about all that but you don’t get it at the time .

JWK: I actually know what you mean.

LINO AND POPE JOHN PAUL II

JWK: So, you’re respect for Pope John Paul II comes out in the book. Why is he your favorite pope?

LINO: A lot of people my age or younger, or even older, say how much they loved the guy and maybe they loved an encyclical he wrote or maybe something like that. For me, it’s not a great theological thing. For me, it actually is more like a family member. I got my aunt and uncle and cousins all in Rome and he was sort of this grandfatherly figure who every time I would go to Rome I would see and so I just always grew more and more attached to him. He was like part of my family in Italy…So, it was never like “Wow, he’s the Vicar of Christ, the successor of St. Peter, the leader of the Catholic Church, the Shepherd.  It’s what he’s done with communism.” It was none of those things that, perhaps, other people admire and love him for. I just loved who he was and, then in turn, he would make people want to learn more about the Catholic faith and like the Catholic faith.

LINO ON BEING CATHOLIC

JWK: What do you like about the Catholic faith?

LINO: I like that the Catholic faith encourages me to be better than I am. The Catholic Church strives for perfection. It doesn’t let me just go “Ah, it’s okay, I’m a fallen human being.”  No, no, no , you’re supposed to be perfect.  I like the Catholic faith’s art, the confessional.

JWK: You like the confessional?

LINO: I hate the confessional. I love leaving the confessional. I hate going to the confessional. I would be a mess without it.  There are a lot days where I don’t know if God exists. There are a lot of days where I think the leadership of the Church is wacky, a lot of days where I really doubt why I am a part of this thing. But, down deep, I know it to be true. Down deep, I know how much I love it and that’s what sort of gets me through.  The churches are the pope, and its priests and its mystery and everything. I just sort of like the whole thing.

JWK: Have the recent Church scandals given you any pause in your faith?

LINO: It didn’t upset my faith at all. It upset me as a person. It still upsets me as a person. Primarily, because I think there are criminals in the Catholic Church.  As Pope Benedict XVI said “What filth is in the Church?” and that makes me mad.  It makes me sick but it makes me mad.  So, it doesn’t damage my faith. I don’t believe less in American government because of a bad politician. I don’t believe less in the Catholic Church because of a criminal priest but I wish we were doing more – and had done more in the past especially – to do something about these things. It doesn’t harm my faith but it gets me just mad that these things have existed.

LINO ON WRITING SINNER

JWK: What do you hope this book accomplishes – besides making you a little more money?

LINO: A little bit of money, a little bit of advance in the professional life.  I think I wrote the book  for a guy or girl like me 20 something years ago — or it could be still be me today — but  someone who kinda goes to church but doesn’t always go to church, was raised with some sort of religious foundation  and asks himself “Why do I keep trying?  I suck at being Catholic. I suck at being Lutheran. I suck at being Jewish,” whatever.

JWK: So, the book could work for people of different faiths?

LINO: I think so. I think the funny thing about my Jewish friends are they’re like “I want some bacon” and I go “You can’t have bacon!” and they go like “Ah, I guess I’m a bad Jew.”  Or my atheist friends will say “I lost my key. I’m going to say a prayer to Saint Anthony.”  I say “You can’t!” and they say “Well, I guess I’m a bad atheist.”  I think were all a part of something. We’re striving (to be) more than we are…I really don’t only see religion as being for people who are perfect. They’ve got it all set. And I’m not like that.  I’m not like the pope, I’m not like pastor Joel Osteen, I’m not like a lot of the rabbis or imams I see. They’ve got it all together.  This is a book for people who don’t have it all together.  And I think misery loves company.  The more people I see go “Oh, wow! You’re struggling with this too, you haven’t given up,” that encourages me. And I, obviously, hope people are going to have some laughs along the way. This isn’t a serious tome.

LINO ON GUILT

JWK: You say the Church calls to you perfection and you never quite get there. Does that lead to guilt?

LINO: It leads to guilt but guilt’s good thing.

JWK: Is it always a good thing?

LINO: Guilt is always a good thing.  If I kick you in the groin right now and don’t feel guilty about it there’s something wrong with me.  Something’s wrong with my conscience.

JWK: Can there ever be too much guilt?

LINO: Well, everything can be brought to the extreme. Food is good, overeating is bad. Possessions are good, hoarding is bad. Guilt is good, obsessing about guilt is bad.  But I think guilt is good because I’m like, “Hey, I just stabbed that guy and I feel pretty good.”

JWK: Is that a confession to me?

LINO: That’s a confession…I think this is where the quote, unquote, “Catholic guilt” gets in the way.  Somebody might go, “I went to church but I got distracted. I’m a horrible person, beat myself up.  I’m horrible, I’m a sinner, I’m going to hell.”  That’s a psychological problem. You can’t blame all people’s psychological ills on religion. A lot of people were crazy before they got in a religion and they just happen to be crazy and religious.  So, guilt is good.

(Comment: I have to disagree with Lino here, if only semantically. More on that tomorrow.)

JWK: What do you want to accomplish with the radio show?

LINO: I think I have less lofty goals with the radio show.

JWK:  What does Fr. Keighron do on the show?

LINO: He’s my sidekick. We have excellent chemistry.

JWK:  The priest is your sidekick?

LINO: Yeah, so it’s a turnaround. For five years I’ve been the funny guy and the one who’s supposed to know about theology and it’s tough to do both. Well, we’ve got somebody who’s funny and knows about theology. Fr. Keighron is sort of like me. People say to me “You’re the Catholic Guy? You’re sorta like me. You’re kinda crazy?”…He’s got a wicked sense of humor, he loves sports, he’s not your typical priest.  And, yet at the same time, he studied in Rome for five years. He’s a smart guy…Plus he’s Mr. Conservative. He’s only 30 years old. He’s been a priest for five years. He’s like, you know, a 30-year-old young conservative Catholic priest with a crazy, sense of humor, a crazier laugh…When we take pilgramiges with the listeners…he’s doing masses during the day, talking Church history and also singing karaoke and at the bar till two in the morning.

WHY LINO THINKS “CATHOLIC MEDIA SUCKS”

JWK: What do you hope to accomplish with the radio show?

LINO: Catholic media sucks.  It’s  boring. It’s for old people. It’s not interesting. It’s like you’re in a class with an 80 year old nun.

JWK: Sometimes you are.

LINO: Nobody wants that! That’s not using the media. That’s not using any of the gifts of what media is. So, I’m an advocate of “Let’s not suck!” There’s a reason why very few people listen to Catholic radio, very few people watch Catholic TV. It’s because there’s no quality to it and so it’s like, if you put quality there, if you’re real broadcasters, you make it entertaining. You make real Catholic radio. So, all we’re doing is we’re doing is what the sports guys are and the same thing Howard Stern is. We’re making entertaining radio. We’re talking about Catholicism and we’re talking about everything else along the way.

JWK: Why does it seem faith-based projects have such a hard time getting past the gatekeepers in the media? I mean especially on television?

LINO: People in mainstream media – I guess I worked in it long enough to know  that they’re afraid that it’s going to be boring.

JWK: Maybe they’re afraid it going to be popular.

LINO: No!

JWK: You don’t think so?

LINO: I mean, at the end of the day, every media entity is in the business of selling soap. They’re not afraid of being popular. Do you know any TV or radio executive who passes on a popular idea?

JWK: I think sometimes they do.

LINO: They need to make money, John.

JWK: Demographics I think have skewed the whole system and it’s like a portion of the audience is declared more important than the rest of the audience and they want this sort of edgy programming and, meanwhile, the broader audience might prefer something that touches the heart a little bit more.  They don’t get it because they (the gatekeepers) have the game rigged.

LINO: Well, now you’re talking about two different things.  Yeah, I agree with you demographically, but they are in the business of making money  and they’re risk averse. So, if there were five or ten or fifteen other popular religious TV shows and they go Holy Cow! Look at those ratings!

JWK: Touched by an Angel was on for how many years and a very popular show. I haven’t seen a lot of imitators.

LINO: Right. Because it’s crap.

JWK: Right, but (if it was crap), it was popular crap.  And if they’re only interested in making money than why haven’t they imitated it?

LINO: I guess it was popular (but) what are the other models out there? I genuinely believe that  if its going to get them more eyeballs in the demos that they want they’re going to do it.

JWK: Right, in the demos.

LINO: Touched by an Angel was an older demo.

JWK: That’s what I’m saying. They want one audience to be more important than another audience. Anyway, (let’s move on) I want this to be about you.

LINO: But I think it is about me because I don’t think it is about faith. I think it’s about their fear that  it won’t attract their right audience.  Old people are going to spend more money than a 22 year old but they want the 22 year old eyeballs, right? And so with a radio show, with a book…  My book is selling well. The radio show is doing well.  People don’t expect the book to sell well. People don’t expect the radio show to do well. And when they find out our radio show is just as popular or more popular than other shows at this company, people don’t want to believe that.

(Comment: I think Lino made my point here. More on that tomorrow too.)

JWK: I remember when I was here – except for the fact that we got phone calls – we never had a clear  idea of how many people were listening.

LINO: No, we don’t have ratings but I can say “Hey, wait a minute, I’ve got the same number of Facebook fans as three other shows here that aren’t Catholic.

JWK: So, you feel like you’re reaching the younger audience and making the Catholic faith approachable for them.

LINO: I mean I know we are. We know we are because we hear the callers. I know what callers sound like on other forms of Catholic media and they’re old boring people. Here we got a younger, funny audience – people of all ages…People just expect a Catholic book to fail. They expect a Catholic radio show to fail.

JWK: You had all these publishers making offers to you. They wouldn’t do that if they thought your Catholic book was going to fail.

LINO: Right. They hope it’s not going to…but they ‘re just afraid it’s not going to work.  Which is weird.

LINO GOES TO THE BAHAMAS

JWK: Tell me about your time in the Bahamas.

LINO:  I worked in the Bahamas. It was funny because I really did want to spend a year serving others. This is like one of those rare highest moments in my life. It was like “I want to serve the poor, I want to do something for others.” And, just like a lot of things in my life, which is why the book is called Sinner, I got the right intentions and then what comes along? A gig in the Bahamas.  Well, it’s not exactly sacrifice, now is it? I get to live in the Bahamas. I taught at an excellent high school. I had an excellent time. It was just a fantastic time in my life.

JWK: How long did that last?

LINO: Just a year. I was teaching high school religion. And, I thought, it would be one thing and it turned out to be something completely different. Better in many ways than I thought – but I wan’t exactly in a Third World country beating malaria. Every weekend I was laying on Paradise Island…To this day, I’ve been around the world, I think it’s the most beautiful beach in the world.  And, I go  “See I tried, God. I tried to do the right thing” and I lived in a monastery. I thought about becoming a monk.

JWK: I read that story.

LINO: Did I end up being a monk? No. They rejected me. It’s crazy. That’s really strange. I mean, maybe it worked out for the best. I probably wouldn’t be here today if they had said yes. It’s one of those things like wow, he said no. So, it was a weird year because I wanted to do something for God (and) I got turned away. I said, okay, I’ll just keep doing what I’m doing.

JWK: I think there could be a sitcom in that. I think you should think about that.

CATHOLICISM: THE GOOD, THE BAD & LINO

JWK: What’s the best thing and the worst thing about being a Catholic?

LINO: The best thing about being Catholic is that you’re a part of something bigger than yourself and you’re a part of the community that’s been there for 2000 years and it’ll be there till the end of time. I don’t know, it’s strange. I think the best part of being Catholic, strange as it might sound, is that I know it’s right. It’s true. I know that sounds weird because what do I say to my non-denominational friends? Are they wrong? What do I say to my Jewish friends? Are they wrong? It’s dangerous to say – but I know it’s right. So, that’s the best part – is knowing you’re doing something right.

JWK: How does someone say “I know my religion is right” and not come off to your Jewish friends or non-believing friends as some sort of (annoying and arrogant) Mr. Know-It-All? Who says you’re right?

LINO: I think John Paul II is probably a perfect example of it.  He was pope but he grew up in his little town in Poland with a lot of Jewish friends. A lot of them remained his close friends till his death. You’re friends. Of course, he thought Catholicism was right. He’s the pope.

JWK: If he thought another religion was right, he’d be another religion, I guess.

LINO: Right.  You give people credit. Obviously, they’re Jewish for a reason, they’re Muslim for a reason , their non-denominational for a reason. They think they’re right. Why would I think that I’m wrong and stick with the Catholic faith? So, to say that I think I’m right is not to insult anyone else.  And I think its actually much more simple than we think…There isn’t any defensiveness in my case. If some goes “I don’t think you’re right,” I go “Okay, I’m sure you don’t because if you thought I was right, you’d be Catholic too and if I thought you were right I’d be whatever you are.” So you just kinda go with a smile and go let’s move past that topic because we’re not going to agree on that.

JWK: Do you ever get into any uncomfortable discussions – being The Catholic Guy.

LINO: I don’t.

JWK: Nobody comes up to you and challenges you about whatever’s going on in the news or whatever?

LINO: I don’t because I respect their opinion but if they’re looking to pick a fight, they’ve picked the wrong guy…I mean if somebody is saying a lie, I’ll correct it if they want to have a conversation.  If someone wants to pick a fight… Arguing with an anti-Catholic is like arguing with an anti-Semite. If you’re anti something you’re probably not looking for a serious or even funny conversation.  You’re looking to fight. I’m not gonna fight. What do I care?

JWK: Anything about being Catholic that’s particularly hard?

LINO: Yeah. I think there’s a ton of things about being Catholic that are hard. Going to Church every week is tough. I’d like to go to church, like, every couple of months. Going to confession is hard. Confessing my sins out loud is a very difficult thing.

There are church teachings which I agree with but have struggled with intellectually (and) I’ve had to understand over time. So, it’s not always easy because the church often times challenges what I might think, what mainstream society might think, because a lot of stuff is counter-intuitive, counter-cultural.  Lay down your life for others? Nah, I don’t want to do that. That’s a counter-intuitive thing. Turn the other cheek? Pray for those who persecute you? Love your enemies?  This is all very counter-cultural stuff  and it’s really hard to do.

People sometimes focus on the red button hot topic issues and I’m, like, you know, who cares about priestly celibacy? I’m thinking about how am I forgiving my enemies? How am I turning the other cheek? How am I loving my neighbor as myself?  To me that’s 10,000 times more difficult than to say should priests be married or not be married? I’m, like, I think we’re wasting all out energies on the wrong thing.  Let’s work on the most difficult stuff.

JWK: Should priests be married?

LINO: I don’t care! I’m thinking about this other stuff. There are married priests. It’s a discipline of the church. I think it’s something that’s silly for me to comment on. I’m not a priest. If all the priests go we all want to be married and the pope goes  all priests should be married than I say go for it.

LINO ON THE FUTURE OF LINO

JWK: Where do you want to be in five years?

LINO: I don’t ever answer questions like that…It was five years and three days ago I took this job…I was working in television in Minnesota. I had no idea whatsoever  that one day I’d be working in Catholic radio. It wouldn’t have occurred ot me. I’m glad it happened but it wouldn’t have occurred to me. If’ I’m here, wonderful. If I’m doing something else, I hope its better.  But I never even try to figure out what I want to do in five years because I don’t know what I’m gonna do in five days. I don’t even know what I’m gonna have for lunch. So I go “God, you’ve got a much better sense of humor than I do, anywhere you lead me.”

I wouldn’t have guessed (on) being an organ grinder’s monkey. I wouldn’t have guessed grad school, the Bahamas, Italy, TV, radio. I would never have guessed or predicted these things.  So, I’m best off just sort of waiting and seeing what happens.

Catholic Guy flashback: 1/22/08

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=swyi7iC1iB0

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

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