Father Albert's Pulpit Show

He's got looks, charm, and the church on his side. But even this priest may not save Telemundo's ratings.

He came in and I said, 'You look like a nerd.' And he said, 'I'm a priest, I can look like a nerd.' 'Nope,' I said. You have to change your look. I'm sorry, it's TV."

They narrowed the search to two priests: a Mexican American from San Antonio and Cutié. Both did screen tests in a talk-show format. The videos were reviewed by focus groups and Cutié was chosen. "What happened was two or three days later I get this contract hand-delivered [with a note that says], 'Sign this in two days.'"

Only Cutié was on a different schedule. "I'm Catholic," he says. "Nothing happens in the Catholic church in two days. We're 2000 years old. We have been taking our time for a long time and we still are for a lot of things."

Father Albert puts some spirit into his Masses
Steve Satterwhite
Father Albert puts some spirit into his Masses

He told Galán he needed to discuss it with his pastor, his spiritual director, and the bishops. Then he needed to pray about it. "I told [her], 'Nely, if this is what God wants I'm willing to do it. If God doesn't want it, I want it less,'" he relates. "Her eyes were like, wide open because I told her I don't need to be on television. These big-shot TV people don't like to hear you don't need to be on television. They want you to think they are rescuing you or something. [But] messing with a priest is something different."

Once Galán got used to the idea of his autonomy, she relished the fact that Cutié wasn't the same needy talent with whom she usually worked. For the public-relations staff at Telemundo that has tried to control information about the show, Cutié's independence and openness has proved to be something of a headache.

The Archdiocese of Miami has sanctioned the show, excited about the publicity they anticipate from Father Albert. The opportunity to enliven Catholicism seems to outweigh any potential pitfalls. Besides, the diocesan bishops say, they trust Cutié to do the right thing.

Bishop Gilberto Fernandez visited the sound stages, ceremonially blessing the Telemundo studio on the first day of taping. "It wasn't just for the place," says the bishop. "I prayed that the show would carry a message of morals, ethics, and entertainment."

Fernandez hopes Cutié will appeal to young people and perhaps by example encourage them to join a priesthood in which ranks are flagging.

It was Bishop Thomas Wenski who recommended Cutié to Telemundo. Wenski wants Cutié to follow in the steps of Bishop Fulton Sheen, a popular television host in the '50s. At the height of his popularity, Sheen, who died in 1979, reached 30 million Americans on his program, Life Is Worth Living. Dressed in a flowing cape with nothing but a blackboard and piece of chalk as props, Sheen added warmth and wit to his message of finding the sacred in everyday life. His show, which ran from 1952 to 1957, garnered an Emmy Award. In 1953 it even topped Milton Berle's Texaco Star Theater as the number-one-rated show and earned its host the sobriquet Uncle Fulty. Cutié says he has always been an admirer of Sheen. One of the first books the young priest read upon entering the seminary was a tome written by the television cleric.

Wenski recognizes that the days when a priest could simply sit in front of a blackboard are over. He is confident Cutié can avoid the temptation that television offers, especially its tendency to sink to the lowest common denominator. But will the young priest be able to handle success if it comes his way? At one point Sheen received 9000 letters per day. "The big question is whether it will go to his head," ponders Wenski. "But if you are doing this five days a week there will always be a couple of days when you flop on your face. That should keep his ego in check."

Galán also recognizes the danger. She says it's unlikely Cutié will be doing much publicity. "We don't want to overcommercialize him to the point where it stops being what it started out to be," she says. "The core of the show is based in spirituality. Even though it is very fun and energetic and all that, you can't forget that the mission of the show is to inspire people to be better people. If we are burning him out then he is not going to be in a good place to be giving that message every day. That's my job as the keeper of this little baby."

The heavens could smile on Telemundo yet. After initially abandoning much of its telenovela programming because Univision had the better product (through the Mexican company Grupo Televisa), Telemundo has hooked up with TV Azteca. (The Mexican-based Azteca burst on to the scene a few years ago with its series Nothing Personal, a hard-edged, thinly veiled political drama more NYPD Blue than One Life to Live. (Telenovelas, unlike American soap operas, generally end after about 360 half-hour shows.) In addition Telemundo has a Sunday-night block of original programming that includes an All in the Family-style comedy involving a Cuban American whose daughter takes up with a militant Chicano. Also to come, a dramatic series about a single immigrant mother from Mexico trying to raise her young son.

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