With one hand, Padre Alberto grips the wheel of his blue Isuzu Rodeo as he heads south on the Florida interstate. With the other hand, he punches in numbers on his cell phone. At this hour—11 a.m.—he’s supposed to be in front of the cameras at Channel 41, a Spanish language television station in Miami, except he’s just left his rectory in Pompano Beach, 35 miles away.
His assistant has already alerted the show’s producers that Padre Alberto is running late, but he’s more concerned about another deadline: his 1 p.m. mass on Radio Paz (WACC-830 AM), the station he runs for the Archdiocese of Miami.
“Monica,” he says into the phone. “We’re going to tape, right? Do you know how long the taping will be?”
He hangs up and shakes his head. “It’s amazing. If you would have told me 15 years ago when I entered the seminary, ‘Albert, you’re going to be a parish priest, a radio director, a television personality and a columnist, I would have said you’re high and on drugs.’ ”
But a dizzying and high-profile career is reality for Father Albert R. Cutié, (pronounced Koo-Tee-Ay) 33, a handsome six-footer with glossy black hair, an apricot complexion and piercing blue eyes known to his fans in Latin America and America’s booming Hispanic enclaves as “Padre Alberto.” The son of Cuban immigrants, his bilingual fluency, telegenic charisma and unalloyed passion for people and his faith have made him the only Catholic priest in America who’s also an international media star.
From 1998 until 2001, he hosted an afternoon talk show on Telemundo, the country’s second-largest Spanish language network. Reruns of the “Padre Alberto” show continue to appear throughout Latin America. His televised bilingual Sunday mass is seen around the world. He’s on the radio and the Internet, (www.padrealberto.net) and writes a five-day-a-week advice column in Miami’s Spanish newspaper El Nuevo Herald. Every six weeks, he jets down to the Dominican Republic to tape a talk show, Padre Alberto y sus amigos, co-produced by a Catholic and secular channel.
Of course, there are priests on television, hosting shows on EWTN and other religious programming. But not since Bishop Fulton J. Sheen beat Milton Berle in the ratings wars of 1950s television has a Catholic priest enjoyed such prime time access to the secular air waves.
But as glamorous as these gigs sound, they don’t really define him, Padre Alberto says. “I’m a priest of the archdiocese of Miami. That’s the first thing that I am.”
“My mission is the mission of any priest. To say what needs to be said in today’s world, to speak with clarity, with truth and to try to bring people to an understanding of who God is in their life.”
A convergence of personality, aptitude and boundless energy combine to give Padre Alberto an extraordinary opportunity to wield the tools of modern communications technology—radio, television and the computer—to market that faith to the fastest-growing immigrant class in America—35 million Hispanics, most of whom are Catholic.
His mission—judging from half a day spent in his company—a 17-hour marathon that began with prayers at 6 a.m. and won’t end until after 10 at night when he returns to the rectory after a client party for Radio Paz advertisers—keeps him racing from laptop computer to microphone and altar to television camera at breakneck speed, usually a few steps behind schedule.
“You need a pair of roller blades
to keep up with this guy,”
says Adrian Gonzalez, whose family owns David’s Cafe II in Miami Beach where Padre Alberto’s autographed picture hangs alongside other celebrities.
Eight hours on the go with Padre Alberto offers a snapshot of what he calls his “crazy life” and the intimate relationship with God that propels him on this nonstop journey to sell his faith to the masses. “It’s a mission that has to do with reaching out,” he explains. “A still bee gathers no honey, so you gotta keep moving.”
* * *
“Gigi” doesn’t want to live with her mother-in law.
“I don‘t blame her,” Padre Alberto says, peering at his laptop screen. It’s 8 a.m. and he’s already been at his rectory desk for two hours banging out his newspaper column, “Consejos De Amigo” (“Advice from a Friend.”)
Dressed in black pants and a collarless white shirt, the dregs of his instant oatmeal at his side, he’s already tackled three letters, including one from a woman who complains her husband isn’t as interested in sex as she is. “I told them to seek marriage counseling.”
He reads “Gigi’s” letter aloud in Spanish, providing an instant translation.
“They’re buying a new house. The husband wants the mother to move in with them. So you can imagine she’s not a happy camper.”
He starts typing, and for several minutes, gentle tapping is the only sound in the room. His reply is diplomatic, but firm: “I didn’t trash the mother-in-law, but I told them it was better if they lived on their own.”
“Gigi’s” problem is a familiar one in Hispanic families. “In our American culture,” he explains, “at 18 everybody goes to college and they move on. In the Latin culture, people stay around until they get married and sometimes they get married and they still stay around and people suffer a lot. When they come to this country they find another culture. There’s a clash.”
Padre Alberto’s own family fled communist Cuba before he was born in 1969.
“I was conceived in Spain, born in Puerto Rico, raised in Miami,” he says, and switches easily between Spanish and English. “I live in bilingual mode.”
He estimates that 80 percent of his ministry connects him to Hispanics, but his background gives him an uncanny ability, his friends say, to bridge Anglo and Hispanic communities. “He has his feet grounded in both cultures,” says Father John Hays, a close friend from seminary days. “He can articulate the truths of the faith to both.”
Whatever language, Padre Alberto is articulate, affable and self-possessed, able to preach a sermon or host a talk show without notes. He appears genuinely energized and content with his grueling multi-task life. “I’ve always been the classic extrovert,” he says. “My seminary rector once said, ‘Albert sweats confidence.’ ”
He runs spellcheck and transmits the finished column to the newspaper. As the modem’s wheezy squeal fills the room, he checks his watch.
“We go on the air in like six minutes,” he says, reaching for the day’s newspapers and his breviary to prepare for “Al Dia,” a half-hour radio chat he hosts five mornings a week from the rectory.
At 8:28 a.m., Padre Alberto straps on a pair of Sony Dynamic Stereo Professional headphones and flips switches on the small stack of sophisticated equipment that occupies a corner of his desk and connects him to the radio station. “Three buttons and you’re on the air.”
Audio equipment has been part of his life since he was a 12-year-old disc jockey named “DJ Albert” who played weddings, school dances and bar mitzvahs. “I love technical things. If I wasn’t a priest I’d probably be a sound engineer.”
His senior year in high school he hosted a youth show on Miami public radio, envisioned having a family, but by then the secular world had competition. “I started meeting young priests who impressed me as very happy people and people that produced something worthwhile.” At 18, he bequeathed his sound equipment to his DJ buddies and entered the seminary. After his 1995 ordination as a diocesan priest, he served a Fort Lauderdale parish and in 1998 was assigned to St. Patrick Church in Miami Beach where he taught religion in elementary and high school.
At 8:30 a.m., he leans into the microphone and Padre Alberto is on the air, greeting his morning listeners. “Muy pero muy buenos dias amigos,’ he says. “Como estan ustedes.” With the morning papers on one side and English and Spanish breviaries on the other, he spends thirty minutes breezily discussing the day’s headlines with three colleagues in the Miami studio—the expulsion of Ohio Congressman James Traficant, arrests on Wall Street, the Pope’s visit to Canada—and reminds his audience that it’s the feast of Saint James.
At peak hours, the station draws 100,000 listeners, immigrants from “practically from every country in Latin America. Radio Paz is their connection to their places of origin, their faith, their traditions.
“We’re the alternative,” he says. “You don’t tune in Radio Paz to hear the vulgarity that other radio stations carry. You tune in because it’s a family message.”
He signs off and puts on another hat. He’s been administrator of San Isidro Church since last May when the archbishop appointed him to replace the pastor who was suspended after a former altar boy filed a lawsuit accusing the former pastor of sexual molestation.
He checks in with a locksmith consolidating the parish keys, the crew repairing the rectory’s leaky roof (“These are parts of priests’ lives that people don’t know.”) In the parish hall, he stops to chat with a young man who’s leaving to enter the seminar.
Back at his laptop, “José, the confused” wants to know if a Protestant minister has the power to heal. Most of the letters Padre Alberto’s receives (about 900 a week), like “Gigi’s”, seek guidance on family issues, but many want help with spiritual quandaries.
“José, the confused” is told, “God can use anyone,” although Padre Alberto draws a theological distinction. “In fact, no minister can heal. Only God can produce miracles.”
Whether it’s as a talk show host or Latin “Dear Abby,” he draws his credibility from a church-centered Hispanic culture. “People don’t go to therapy in Latin America,” he says. “They go to the priest.”
What El Nuevo Herald’s mostly Catholic readers get, says Gloria Leal, his editor, is Padre Alberto’s brand of “compassion and no-nonsense attitude.” In a recent column his advice to a woman in an extra-marital affair was blunt: “Everyone has a right to be happy. No one has the right to destroy a marriage.”
“Life is not about instant satisfaction,” he says now. “It’s about getting up every day and trying to be a better person. God’s not finished with any of us yet. If you’re struggling and you have issues, welcome to the club.”
* * *
Billboards flank the Palmetto Expressway under darkening skies as Padre Alberto approaches Miami later that morning, behind schedule for his TV taping and radio mass. The nonstop stream of commercialism provides a backdrop for an impassioned mini-sermon.
“They’re making big money selling mediocre messages. We’ve got the best message in the world and we don’t know how to sell it. Talking in street terms, the Church stinks at marketing.
“We don’t have priests that can speak to cameras,” he complains. “We don’t have priests that can speak into microphones without being afraid or without using the same monotonous boring tone that they use in their sermons. You can’t speak to the world today in that tone. It doesn’t work.”
His media role models wear the cloth: Bishop Sheen, Mother Teresa and his hero, Pope John Paul II—“the most photographed man in the world. In the old days that would be considered lack of humility. Nowadays it’s necessary.”
“It’s a tricky thing,” he acknowledges as lunchtime traffic zips past. “But it’s not foreign to the church. St. Paul was a marketer of the faith in the first century. I’m convinced that if St. Paul had satellite and TV cameras and all that, boy, then he’d be there like a bear. He wouldn’t miss a moment.” He chuckles, savoring the vision.
Dodging rain puddles, Padre Alberto ducks into Channel 41 for his guest appearance on Puente de Amor (“Bridge of Love”) which unites long-lost loved ones. “Here’s the worst part of TV,” he says, sitting in a tiny room, his clerical collar protected by a pinstripe smock as a makeup woman applies face powder with a sponge and brush, coats his lips with gloss and runs a pencil over his eyebrows. His thick hair, gelled that morning, is left alone.
He tapes the interview and by 12:53 p.m., he’s back on the highway, racing to the station for mass. He calls ahead and arranges for the noon show to stay on the air until he arrives.
In 1998, Padre Alberto was a rookie parish priest when Telemundo launched a nationwide talent hunt for a new program. What is a talk show but a secular version of the confession? reasoned Nely Galán, the executive who conceived the idea. And who better to host it, especially for a Hispanic audience, than a priest?
“To have a priest conduct a show makes a lot more sense than anybody else,” Padre Alberto agrees. “When you bury a three a year-old girl who’s drowned in a pool and when you deal with a mother whose teenaged daughter told her I’m pregnant and when you deal with the husband who can’t live because his wife died of cancer you develop a real sense of understanding people’s suffering and pain.”
Producers interviewed 500 Spanish-speaking clerics before selecting Padre Alberto, but he wasn’t sold on the idea at first.
“I’m not sure this is what God wants,” he recalls telling Galán. “If God wants it I’ll do it. But if God doesn’t want it, I want it less.”
He got permission from the church which received an honorarium for each show filmed. “The bishop said, “ ‘Albert, there’s nothing the church can’t talk about, so just go for it’ .”
On Sept. 27, 1998, the “Padre Alberto” show faced off against against Cristina, the reigning talk show queen on rival Univision. “I was ordained Padre Alberto. They turned it into a brand,” he says with a chuckle.
The format and themes were familiar—truculent teens, troubled spouses, Siamese twins, infidelity, incest, homosexuality —except that the earnest host wore a clerical suit and led the audience in prayer before the cameras rolled. No chair throwing and Padre Alberto tried to avoid preaching. “You want to hear me preach,” he says. “Come to Mass.”
Aided by psychologists and other experts, he preached reconciliation not rage. Fame followed with profiles in the New York Times, Newsweek and TV appearances. The Washington Post called Padre Alberto “a combination of the pope, Ricky Martin and Oprah, who is as apt to talk about sex as salvation.”
He kept his day job at the parish and taped six shows a week. It was a killer schedule made worthwhile by compliments like the one from a Jesuit in the Dominican Republic: “He said to me, ‘Father, the best thing your show has done for the people here is that there’s a lot of issues that they would never talk with a priest about. And ever since they saw you they say, ‘Father Alberto talked about this issue and I want to talk to you about it.”
But after 400 shows, Padre Alberto fell victim to trash TV and low ratings. “The cheapest most vulgar show when they put it in the same time period I was on it gets double the ratings,” he says. “The reason is people are attracted to the slapping, the hitting, the insulting.” Telemundo replaced Padre Alberto with Laura, a blonde Jerry Springer-clone from Peru. Galán, the show’s creator, filmed a crossover pilot in English, but networks have yet to bite.
At 1:13 p.m., Padre Alberto pulls into the Radio Paz parking lot.
Inside a chilly studio, a chalice, cruets, missal and multi-line phone await along with the day’s congregation: five station workers, who soon will be joined by callers, many of them shut-in who call in with prayer requests. Padre Alberto dons a white linen alb and scarlet stole. He puts on a headset, takes a seat in front of a blue Radio Paz microphone and celebrates “La Santa Misa,” alternating the familiar rhythms of mass by hitting a phone button and answering, “Intencíons por favor.”
After Mass, he gathers up a station volunteer’s family, visiting from Chile, and heads off to lunch in Miami Beach.
“There’s not a person who’s around him that doesn’t feel his energy,” says Anna del Rio, the station’s public relations director, “Wherever Father Albert is people want to be there.” Del Rio, 23, and her fiancé like to hang out with the priest. “He doesn’t get shocked by anything. He lives with his feet in this world.” Then she adds. “He’s the most traditional liberal priest in the world.”
It’s a paradox that illuminates the appeal of Padre Alberto as well the source of his seemingly boundless evangelical energy.
“You’re trying to connect a very old institution that’s perceived by many as outdated and old-fashioned, to connect it with reality and today,” he says. “What I spend most of my time doing—I do it on the radio, I do it on TV, I do it in my column—is try to speak to people in very down to earth language without using a lot of theological mumbo-jumbo. We talk about what’s up –what’s up with life.”
After a quick lunch of fried eggs and rice, a Cuban staple, he’s back at the wheel. From 4 p.m.-6 p.m.—“Catholic drive time”—he’ll host another call-in show, “Direct Line,” then do an interview with CNN Español about the Pope’s visit to Canada before the party for his station’s clients. With a few minutes to spare, he zips over to St. Patrick where he spent four years until his recent transfer. Spotting a crew replacing windows at the elementary school where he taught catechism, he brakes to a halt and hops out to talk with Smitty, the Haitian-American maintenance chief.
“When are you coming back?” Smitty asks.
“It’s all in God’s hands,” Padre Alberto says. “Listen, God bless you.”
Back in his car, he picks up his cell phone and calls the station. “Hey! How are you? I’m on my way. Be there in five minutes.” Padre Alberto looks both ways and shoots back into traffic.
Published in Catholic Digest and the St. Petersburg Times, 2002.
Postscript: Profiles often veer between hatchet jobs and hagiography. As hard as I tried to find skeletons in his closet during my reporting; there was never a hint of any improprieties in any of the numerous profiles written about Padre Alberto. I never could find anyone who had a bad word to say about him. However, it turned out Padre Albert was keeping an explosive secret. In 2009, seven years after this profile appeared, a photographer caught him on a beach kissing a woman later identified as his girlfriend. He said it was the only time in 22 years as a priest that he violated the oath of celibacy. He later married, become a father and is now an Episcopal priest, a faith that allow priests to marry. He had a short-lived television show in 2011. In 2012, he published “Dilemma: A Priest’s Struggle with Faith and Love.” In it, he traced his relationship with his girlfriend to 1998.