By Jaweed Kaleem
As he stood in front of dozens of reporters a year ago to say he was leaving the Roman Catholic Church and marrying, celebrity priest Alberto Cutié took a plunge, putting his life on a path that would look little like what he imagined when he slipped on that first clerical collar and vowed a life of celibacy in his 20s.
These days, he's a suburban 41-year-old husband, sharing a three-bedroom house in Miami Shores with his wife and her son, often cooking Cuban meals before a game of Chinese checkers.
On Saturday, after dusting off the same white stole he wore when he knelt before Miami's Roman Catholic Archbishop 15 years ago to be ordained, he put it back over his shoulders. Padre Alberto is a priest again, this time in the Episcopal church.
It's not the only change in his life. In six months, the padre will be a dad. Ruhama Buni Cutié is pregnant.
"God's not all that interested in you falling down. God is interested in you getting up again,'' Cutié told Episcopal bishops and hundreds of parishioners gathered Saturday at Church of the Resurrection in Biscayne Park for the ceremony marking his return to the priesthood. He spent the past year at Resurrection, studying Episcopal traditions as lay minister.
It's a denomination, he proclaims, "that is welcoming of all,'' including himself, a once invincible priest who has seen many Catholics "act as if I dropped dead, as if I don't exist.''
As a Catholic, he secretly struggled with his church's stance toward homosexuality, contraceptives and his own celibacy. As an Episcopalian, he's speaking freely about his support of openly gay clergy, of birth control, and, when a woman's life is in danger, even abortion.
Life today is a far cry from what it was on Miami Beach, where Padre Alberto became a household name for his good looks and the one-man media powerhouse he built from scratch. That was before a Mexican tabloid printed racy photos of him getting cozy on the beach with a woman -- now his wife -- an undeniable turn against his vows.
His popular newspaper advice column, cable television show, book on love and relationships, and jobs heading South Florida's Catholic radio station and South Beach's only Catholic parish, are now little more than lines on a resumé.
Cutié's departure from top posts in the 800,000-strong Archdiocese of Miami -- Miami's biggest and most influential church -- to the 38,000-member Episcopal Diocese of Southeast Florida thrust him into the national spotlight for months.
'THE SAME FATHER'
He went on Univision and CBS' The Early Show, and he and 'Buni,' as he affectionately calls his wife, graced the cover of People en Español and discussed their wedding at the picturesque Spanish Monastery in North Miami Beach. By September, "Father Oprah'' had made it to his namesake talk show.
Still part of an influential inner Miami circle that includes celebrities, TV news personalities and power brokers, Cutié, is known to navigate the worlds of the sacred and the profane with ease. But in recent months, life has regained a normalcy unseen for years.
Today, his media outreach doesn't go far beyond an occasional Saturday morning appearance on WWFE 670 AM La Poderosa, where Episcopal priests host a show. But Cutié, who says he has "shied away from having a central role in media,'' rarely goes on live, preferring to tape comments.
"People love when he was on TV and people loved when he was on the radio, but with the controversy, he had to take a different step,'' said Emilio Estefan, to whom Cutié has turned for advice over the past year. "To me, he's the same father, in a different way.''
GROWING HIS CHURCH
The priest best known for his life outside church has instead turned inward toward family, faith and his parish -- one that was handed to him this time last year in disarray, broke and without a permanent priest for two years.
It's there that Cutié has shined: Sunday attendance has gone from 28 at a single service to 250 between two services in English and Spanish. A mixture of Haitian, Hispanic and Anglo Episcopalians and a few former Catholics now attend, and Cutié is leading Bible study and kids' classes.
The priest who was tapped by the Archdiocese of Miami several times to revitalize struggling Catholic parishes is now doing the same in Biscayne Park. A $36,000 project to renovate pews and landscape the grounds, including installing a life-size outdoor statue of Jesus to welcome parishioners, is under way.
"We used to not have AC. Now we have AC. There's new paint on the walls, new lighting,'' says parishioner Jose Areiza. "He inherited a debt. They owed on the telephone and electricity. Now many more people are coming, people from the beach as well.''
Part of Cutié's attractions are his down-to-earth sermons and comedic charm. Last week, preaching on the Feast of Pentecost, he invoked the classic 1980s Hershey's chocolate syrup commercial starring "Messy Marvin,'' saying that the "holy spirit is everywhere'' -- even in chocolate milk.
FAITH OVER CELEBRITY
And even though he has preached at Resurrection as a lay minister -- not a priest -- for a year, "there are already a few churches that are saying, 'Why can't Alberto become the rector here?' '' says Bishop Leo Frade of the Episcopal diocese.
At St. Francis de Sales, the South Beach Catholic church Cutié left last year, the pews are still largely full on Sundays, partially a legacy of Cutié's smart management. It's also a testament to faith over celebrity.
"Father Cutié doesn't even come up in conversations,'' says Anne Burgess, 29, who joined St. Francis two years ago. For weeks after Cutié packed his bags, the archdiocese shuffled priests in and out of the parish, but a permanent pastor, the Rev. Gabriel Vigues, came in late last summer. A handful of St. Francis members followed Cutié, but most have stayed put.
"I never wanted to be the anti-anything poster child,'' says Cutié. "I love the Roman Catholic Church and I love the Roman Catholic community. I understand the good the bad and the ugly of the church.''
But privately, he has voiced some criticism of the church. Last fall, when the Vatican said it would let Episcopal/Anglican churches that were unhappy with their increasingly liberal denomination join the Roman Catholic church while keeping their distinctive traditions -- notably the policy that their priests could be married -- Cutié fired off an email to friends.
"Why does the church accept married priests from other churches, but does not allow its own priests to be married? I would ask the Vatican: Are we [Episcopalians/Anglicans] heretics and schismatic or are we good guys? Please make up your mind.''
Cutié's move has also soured ecumenical relations between the Archdiocese of Miami and Episcopal Diocese of Southeast Florida, insiders from both churches say. But while his supporters staged protests last year against the Roman Catholic policy on clerical celibacy, Cutié has had little impact on the issue.
"Did his leaving change local Catholics' thoughts on celibacy? Probably. But overall, the Cutie 'switch' will not change anything in the Catholic church,'' says Christine Gudorf, a professor at Florida International University who studies Christianity.
The Episcopal Church, which has worship services similar to those of the Roman Catholic Church, considers itself the "middle way'' between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. It is the U.S.-wing of the worldwide Anglican communion, which broke from Rome in the 1500s.
The church approves the use of contraception within marriage and ordains women, unlike the Catholic church. Nationally, the church also has two openly gay, non-celibate bishops. Episcopalians do not see the pope as their leader.
Cutié dove into such issues over the past year, studying the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer and Anglican history.
"We talked about differences between the Episcopalians and the Catholics. Some theological, some liturgical,'' said the Rev. Howard Stowe, a retired Episcopal priest who taught Cutié and stood by his side on Sundays to celebrate the Eucharist, which Cutié could not do as a layman.
"He wanted to know what we believe about some of doctrines of church, our understanding of what the sacraments are, the role of marriage in the church,'' Stowe said.
DOLING OUT ADVICE
While Padre Alberto further separated himself Saturday from his past as he became a priest, he retains elements of his Roman Catholic upbringing. "In his Bible, he still keeps a photo a Pope Benedict XVI. He says 'I still pray for him, he's going through so much,' '' said Stowe.
And while his media empire is all but gone, Cutié continues to dole out advice to couples, one by one instead of en masse, in his church office.
Recently, Cutié called friends, including Estefan, to break some news and request advice for himself. A baby -- Cutié doesn't know if a boy or a girl -- was on the way.
"In order to preach and to talk to married people and couples, it's good to live and understand how people live,'' says Estefan. When he heard about the child, "I told him, sleep, because you will never sleep again.''
More: 'Padre Alberto' becomes Episcopal Church priest, Episcopal Life Online, 6/1/2010