Drinking with the saints, reclaiming Catholic merriment

The mention of booze generates a look of horror among many of the non-drinkers living and working alongside Michael P. Foley in Waco, Texas, where the Catholic dad teaches at a dry Baptist college. There’s a “skittishness,” he says.

So Michael was prepared to raise eyebrows with his new book, “Drinking with the Saints: The Sinner’s Guide to a Happy Holy Hour,” a first-of-its-kind Catholic bartender’s guide pairing feast days with related cocktails. The cover alone – an image of a cardinal raising a brandy – gives locals pause. Isn’t that offensive? Shouldn’t I be offended?

There wasn’t much to lose then, Michael figured, given the chance to present his book to the famously conservative Cardinal Raymond Burke between sessions at a June conference on the sacred liturgy.

“I wasn’t sure how he’d react,” Michael says, “but I thought, ‘What the heck!’ and gave him a copy, and he giggled with delight. There was such a boyish innocence to his reaction.”

The marriage of faith and drink dates back to the very beginning of Catholicism, from Jesus’ first miracle and the sacred offering of eucharistic wine to the medieval monasteries that gave birth to modern brewing. “The Catholic contribution to the spirits world,” Michael writes in the book’s foreword, “is almost as impressive as its contribution to the spirit world.”

He’s quick to point out that such drinking is meant to savor and celebrate, not blur or black out. It’s part of an integrated Catholic worldview. “Living sacramentally means participating in the sacraments of the church,” Michael tells me over phone, as his 12-year-old attempts to pluck out the “Doctor Who” theme song on piano, “but it also means seeing all realities as sacramental, including what one eats and drinks.”

The art of Catholic merriment was on vibrant display as Michael grew up, gathering with his big French Canadian extended family for holidays, watching Uncle Claude grab his the guitar and belt out “Okie from Muskogee.” This was the uncle who worked as a homicide detective for the LAPD and, in his spare time, mimeographed a campfire songbook for his kin, a street-smart Catholic who held fast to the healing power of family and fellowship.

Now 45 and juggling a demanding academic career while raising six kids, Michael makes it a priority to mix a martini, invoke a saint and reconnect with his wife when he gets home from work.

“All it takes is one toast to make your amorphous get-together an event,” he writes in “Drinking with the Saints,” sharing a handful of tongue-tickling toasts, including Latin, Italian and Spanish phrases.

Here, he suggests, young Catholic foodies could take note. “While I’m impressed with the discerning palette of the upcoming generation, the one area where they could use some work is the toast.” The best ones elicit additional words of public praise and storytelling.

Besides creating 28 original drinks for his book, which contains nearly 350 cocktails in total, Michael was exhaustive in his research of the saints. They speak to him daily and call him to his better self.

He has great affection for St. Philip Neri, the zany 16th-century priest who would shave half his beard for comedic effect. “He knew how to get his ego out of the way and let the Holy Spirit guide the situation,” Michael says. As a father of teenaged girls, that means resisting the urge to be an expert in their complicated social dramas and instead offer support by simply listening and loving.

“The Christian life is the life of joy,” he says. “This book is not for partiers. It’s for people to be joyful. We Catholics have a great deal to be joyful about.”

   Christina Capecchi is a freelance writer from Inver Grove Heights, Minn. and the editor of SisterStory.org.  

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