This Sinner is working on being a Saint

  • September 14, 2013

TORONTO - Lino Rulli wants to be the patron saint of kissing — after all, he says he’s so good at it. He’s also good at being The Catholic Guy, the radio host known to champion the faith with wit and humour on Sirius XM Satellite Radio’s Catholic channel.

In his first book, he was a Sinner (2011), and this year, with his newly released book, he’s a Saint. His tales of misadventure and less-than-holy experiences are unexpectedly used to remind the faithful that the Catholic Church has a universal call to holiness and if Rulli can hope to be a saint, so can the rest of us.

Saint is dedicated to his mother, in part for Rulli’s great love for her, and to remind the ladies who read the book that he’s a sweet guy, even when they read about him doing drugs and other unsavoury things.

But it is his Italian-American family and heritage that’s largely responsible for his success, he said. Rulli grew up in a loud, expressive family where every Christmas was like a noise-filled party.

“I’m one of the least extroverted members of my family. I’m one of the least talkative members of my family, and I talk several hours a day,” said Rulli.

Talking is certainly a necessity for a radio host, but his heritage also kept him close to the Vatican. Rulli has family in Rome, which he calls his second home.

Visiting Rome throughout his life helped him gain knowledge about the Holy See. He’s brought his show to Rome seven times for a week-long run on Vatican Radio, and he’s brought his listeners on pilgrimages to Italy.

“It’s all just part of my career, but it’s nothing I had to study. It’s just like I know all this stuff because my cousin happened to restore this church or my cousin is an archbishop, so he happens to know the pope,” said Rulli.

“When I was growing up, John Paul II was more like a grandfather than he was the vicar of Christ.”

Calling the former pontiff’s funeral the saddest he’s ever attended, Rulli says it’s bizarre how he could feel such loss for a man he met only once, a man that represented the Church to him.

“When he was real, real sick and we thought he was going to die, I dropped everything, used my frequent flyer miles and I moved to Rome. And this makes me sound like this extremely devout person, which I’m not,” he said. “Sometimes you can’t quite explain love, and sometimes you can’t quite explain sorrow or sadness.”

What Rulli can explain, however, is how being a saint is like being a rapper. In high school and college, he loved all forms of rap, listening to the likes of NWA, Run DMC and the Beastie Boys. This was back in the 1980s and ’90s, when rap was a more “radical musical genre.”

“To me, at least, being a rapper was being countercultural. It was a different type of music; it was complaining about the powers that be. It was always outside of what normal society was dealing with, and I oftentimes feel as a Catholic that’s how I am. I always feel like I’m doing things that are countercultural, and I always feel like I’m complaining about the powers that be in society,” he said.

Rulli was a DJ at a local college radio station. He even tried his hand at being a rapper but utterly failed. Being Catholic turned out to be much more fruitful professionally, but when he was a communications major in college, he could not have foreseen where his career path would lead him.

He was an intern at a television station in Minnesota, but he didn’t have anchorman looks or delivery and realized the news business was not what he wanted. Around the same time, he began to wonder if God really existed and if he was a believer. He realized the classes he most enjoyed — and didn’t cheat on — were theology classes.

“I thought maybe I should learn more about this religion I’m supposedly a part of, and I did. By the time I started doing it in my senior year of college, by then I was already graduating. In order to take more courses, I could either stay as an undergrad or move to grad school. So I moved to grad school just to learn more about theology,” he said. “Once I got a master’s, then I was like, now what am I going to do? These two things are very strange. I never intended it to be in this type of work, but it certainly makes sense now that I’m here how those experiences helped.”

In Minneapolis, a priest was starting a television ministry. The priest thought Rulli was young, Catholic and had some personality, so took a chance, hiring him to work on Generation Cross, a show for Generation X where he broadcast the real faces of Catholicism in a fun way: rock climbing with priests, swing dancing with nuns. Ratings were good and Rulli won two Emmys for Generation Cross. He worked there for six years before CBS hired him to report on religion. He also won his third Emmy as executive producer of a Second World War documentary for CBS.

Years down the line, Sirius Satellite Radio was starting up a Catholic channel and needed someone who knew about Catholicism and the media. They interviewed Rulli for program director, but hired him to be on the air. He told them he didn’t do radio; they told him that he would just have to learn. Ultimately, Cardinal Edward Egan, retired archbishop of New York, made the final decision.

“He did something that a lot of Church leaders don’t do: he took a risk,” said Rulli. “That’s how I really got here, by people taking a chance and saying I don’t know if a Catholic TV show for young adults will work, but give it a shot... Let’s see if a funny, irreverent guy can talk about Catholicism several hours a day and people are willing to pay for it.”

Based in New York for the last seven years, he loves talking to everyday Catholics and hearing how his show inspired them to become Catholic, go back to church and to revisit confession.

“The more pious people will say it’s all credited to the Holy Spirit, but the Holy Spirit doesn’t have to pay rent. So I take full credit for it and I want to make sure the bosses know. Everybody knows it’s God… (but) I’m not going to play the pious card. I’m going to walk in and ask for a raise.”

When a joke is made in bad taste, Rulli expects to be called out on it, but he is bothered by criticism from within the Church.

“If an atheist thinks I’m crazy for believing in an imaginary man in the sky, it doesn’t hurt me. But if somebody I share the Eucharist with, somebody who I share the faith with believes I’m the antichrist because I use comedy as a way to bring people into the Church, that hurts because I go, ‘now the Church is even more divided and it’s my fault.’ I’m not trying to reach the healthy; I’m trying to reach the sick. And when the healthy tell me I’m sick, I go ‘I’m sick, but I’m trying to get more sick people with me so that we can all become healthy.’ ”

As for Saint, Rulli wants people to laugh, and then after laughing think that if they could see him as a saint — even after hearing about the first time he did magic mushrooms, about joining the circus or about the first time he kissed a girl — then they could see themselves as one too.

The Catholic Guy with Rulli and Fr. Rob Keighron can be heard on Sirius XM 129 from 5-7 p.m. Monday to Friday.

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