Funny and honest. Smart and insightful. Practical and prayerful. Lino Rulli’s new book is an irreverent prayer book, a story of a real man on a journey. You’ll laugh, and you’ll be grateful for his transparent witness. No spin, just a Sinner. That, in fact, is the title of his new book — Sinner: The Catholic Guy’s Funny, Feeble Attempts to Be a Faithful Catholic. And Rulli, host of the Sirius radio show The Catholic Guy, comes close to a full confession with National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: “Having me write a book about the Catholic faith is like having a really bad actor write a book about the craft of acting. (Speaking of which, why hasn’t Pauly Shore written a book about acting yet?)” Why would I read a book written by the Pauly Shore of Catholicism? And is that very Christian — what you just said about Mr. Shore?
LINO RULLI: Actually, it’s one of the only regrets I have about the book: I’m comfortable making fun of myself. I shouldn’t have made fun of Pauly Shore.
LOPEZ: Is this a self-help book? A memoir? Or is it like watching a car crash (similar to Jersey Shore)?
RULLI: If this is a self-help book, the only person it aims to help is me — financially and professionally. So this might be a me-help book, not a you-help.
I didn’t write Sinner because I’ve got all the answers, and I want to be your guide. I’m saying, “I’m a mess. If you are too, join me!”
Is it a car crash? No. More like a unicycle accident: sad, but funny.
LOPEZ: “I’m insecure in my own faith and feel like I don’t fit in.” But you have a theology degree!
RULLI: Having a master’s degree allowed me to learn about the faith and to realize how much I don’t fit in with most Catholic circles. I still remember one of my first graduate-level courses: It was filled with seminarians, priests, a few nuns, some older laypeople, and it was a class about sexual ethics. I was 21 years old and single. It couldn’t have been more uncomfortable.
LOPEZ: What made you get a theology degree?
RULLI: I was about to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in communications, I had been an intern at the NBC-TV station in Minneapolis, and I really wanted to get into media. But I had started getting really interested in Catholicism at the same time. And I (mistakenly) thought someone who is a sincere Catholic shouldn’t work in media. It’d be like selling my soul to the devil (well, that part was partially true). So I ditched my plans for working in TV, and I decided to learn more about this Catholicism that I supposedly believed in. So I applied to a grad school — just to see if I would be accepted — and once I got in, I started learnin’ me some Catholic stuff.
LOPEZ: Who is this book for?
LOPEZ: By the way: You watch Jersey Shore? Do you confess that?
RULLI: I don’t confess watching Jersey Shore. I confess the sin of envy! I want the party lifestyle, the gym bodies, and the orange glow.
LOPEZ: Do you really want people to know you first and foremost as a sinner? Most of us put makeup on, we look to show ourselves in the best light. This isn’t quite the best way to walk into a job interview: “Look at me, I’m a mess!”
RULLI: When I went through puberty and ended up with a giant nose, I was embarrassed. Kids would make fun of me. And eventually, I realized I should beat them to the punch: If I make the joke before they do — and can do so in a more comical way than they can — I’m ahead of the game.
Same with my faith. If I tell you I’m a sinner (before you figure it out) I do all of us a favor.
The Church is a hospital for sinners. I’m a broken person who needs God’s help. The sooner people know that about me — and about themselves — the quicker we can get past the posturing that is way too prevalent in Catholicism.
LOPEZ: Is not being faithful to what you believe actually funny? Isn’t it miserable?
RULLI: Excellent question. Not that the other ones were bad, mind you, but this one is tough to explain. Let me set down my beer and really think it through.
I go to confession with the same sins over and over again. It’s depressing. It makes me miserable. And mad. And, at times, I think I should give up this whole Catholic thing and just live however I want to live.
But a priest once told me: “At least you’re not coming in here with a whole new batch of sins!” It made me laugh. So while I hate my weaknesses, I also laugh about them. I laugh about my pride that tells me I’m stronger than sin. And I get back into that confessional line. Sin isn’t funny, but the human condition is. You can laugh or cry about it. I usually do both.
LOPEZ: “Without the Church, I’d be a complete train wreck, not the small five-car derailment I am today.” So why hasn’t it made you perfect? Why hasn’t it transformed you? Are you just using the ability to confess as a crutch so you can keep doing bad stuff that’s way too much fun to stop doing?
RULLI: Another excellent question. Seriously, you should do this journalism thing for a living.
I’ve asked God that very question a lot of times: Why aren’t I perfect yet? Why am I not transformed?
Let me tell you what really annoys me: People whose lives are transformed. This guy was addicted to porn, and now God has “freed” him! Alleluia! This woman was a drug addict who converted to Catholicism, and now she isn’t tempted to even do drugs anymore. Glory be to God!
Well, Lord, what about me? Why do I still lust so much? Why am I so guilty of the sin of pride? Maybe I haven’t opened my heart enough to Your grace? But how many more times do I have to say, “Lord Jesus, I take you as my personal Lord and Savior” until it sticks? How many more creeds do I need to recite? Marian shrines to visit? I’ll be honest, it’s exhausting, but I keep trying.
Oh, and I work very hard to never make confession a game. It’s not as if I say, “Oh what the hell, let’s get the heroin and hookers. I’ll just say I’m sorry tomorrow.” God knows my heart. He knows how truly sorry I am. And I promise you, I’ll trade in the “fun” any day to never have to be back in that confessional line with my mortal sins.
LOPEZ: “God seems to speak in a crystal-clear way only to people He really likes.” Wrong, right?
RULLI: Not sure. I get the vibe that Jesus must like Saint Faustina or Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque more than me. He appears to them — not to me. And I’ve met all sorts of bishops, sisters, and laypeople whom God spoke to really clearly with His plan for them. Me? Very little crystal-clear speaking going on, it seems.
LOPEZ: What’s so special about confession? Why would anyone need a priest as a middleman? Isn’t that just some kind of male-dominated power play on the part of the Catholic Church?
RULLI: I’m glad you’ve identified what others have hidden: Of course confession is a male-dominated power play of the Church! Thank you for having the courage to say so! Here’s the genius of the all-male priesthood: On a beautiful summer day, only men are allowed to sit in a stuffy little box listening to people’s deepest problems that, of course, these men will never be able to reveal to anyone else — or they’ll be kicked out of the Church. We can’t let women in there and share all that fun and excitement. (For the denser readers, that’s called “sarcasm.”)
Why does anyone need a middleman? I agree when it comes to home furniture: I buy from the factory and pass the savings onto me. But we need “middlemen” when it comes to faith. We don’t baptize ourselves; we don’t preach homilies to ourselves; and so on. It’s just the way Christianity has always worked. Jesus picked a bunch of guys to go and be His “middlemen.”
I think the most beautiful part about confession is the accountability of it all. Quite frankly, it’s easy to sin and say silently in my heart, “Sorry, God” — as important as that is. But to leave home, go stand in the confessional line, go inside a stuffy booth, and say things like “fornication” and “jealousy” and “pride” out loud? Well, now we find out if I’m really sorry or not. Am I remorseful enough for that kind of outward acknowledgment? Yes, I am. Oh, and plus, there’s the psychological aspect of it all: To have the “middleman” absolve me — not by his own power, but God working through him — lets me know I’m forgiven.
Can I add one last thing? Jesus gave the apostles the power to forgive sins. It’s in the Bible if you don’t believe me. So don’t blame me for all this confession stuff! Blame Jesus. It was His idea.
LOPEZ: So you confessed sins before First Communion as a child, and then didn’t go to confession again until you were 18? “I went to a Catholic high school, and I don’t think it ever came up.” Is reconciliation Catholicism’s best kept non-secret secret?
RULLI: I think so. And I think it’s the fault of some Church leaders. Yep, I’m pointing fingers at “leaders” who for decades kept confession on the down low. That was a bad idea, folks. See, that’s the beauty of calling the book Sinner! I can call people out, and no one can accuse me of being “holier than thou.” I’m “more sinful than thou,” but even I know not trumpeting a sacrament like reconciliation is wrong.
LOPEZ: Why on earth do you tell us the story of some pretty girl in Jordan who lives in a cave? And, for real? You made that up.
RULLI: I’m 39 and single. I hear about “soul mates.” And I say soul mates don’t exist! The beautiful girl I met in Jordan — and no, I didn’t make her up; I’ve got photos — was a perfect example of that. Someone you meet, whom you feel as if you’ve known your whole life, and you want to be with them. It might feel as if they “complete you,” but that’s bad theology. My soul is just fine without a wife. God created it perfectly. So the Jordan girl didn’t complete my soul. But when I saw her, my heart skipped a beat. (Primarily, because of a heart defect; not because she was my soul mate).
LOPEZ: So you wanted to be a Letterman writer, and you were a little creative telling people how close you were to being one, at one point in your life. About that period — during which your face-saver was that you had determined it was not God’s will for you — you write: “I wish that Old Lino could talk to Young Lino and just say, ‘What do you enjoy doing, and what are you good at? There is a pretty good chance God put those desires in you for a reason, and you’ve got to figure that out.’” Would you like to take that message to every wandering youth? And the not-so-youth?
RULLI: Simple answer: Yes. I’ve spent a lot of years trying to figure out God’s plan for my life. When, in fact, it’s as clear as the (oversized, prop-like) nose on my face. But sometimes we all have a tendency to overthink or overanalyze God’s plan for our lives.
LOPEZ: “What’s scary about my life is that if I had to do it all over again, I’d probably make the same mistakes. Because Jimmy and Will were a lot of fun, even if it did earn me a permanent record.” Aren’t you supposed to wish you hadn’t sinned?
RULLI: Just being honest. I’m truly sorry for my sins. But thank God I won’t be back in college with those same temptations — because I know myself too well.
LOPEZ: “I can barely say the word commitment without hyperventilating.” This book is just a more elaborate ad for one of those Christian dating sites isn’t it? Playing hard-to-get there?
RULLI: I’m insulted by that question. My entire career is an elaborate ad for my dating life. To narrow it just to this book ignores many years of self-serving dating stories on television and radio.
LOPEZ: Seriously though: You’re far from alone — maybe especially in the big city. Do you see yourself as a messenger to singles? A model — not inasmuch as you’re perfect — but that you have the right end in mind, and take some of the right roads?
RULLI: That’s the first time anyone called me a model. I admit, I do have rugged good looks and always thought I could make it as a male model, so I appreciate your support.
As for being a messenger for singles, honestly, I’ve never thought of myself that way. I do regularly hear from people who say they can relate to my stories, my loneliness, my desire for a mate, and all that fun stuff, but I’ve never wanted to be a model for singles. I’m a model for sinners — and a reminder that God’s love and forgiveness is still there for us, single or not.
LOPEZ: That — being single — can be a vocation, can’t it?
RULLI: Oh, that’s a tricky one. When the Church talks vocation, it’s usually married life, priesthood, or religious life. Is there a single vocation? I don’t know. What’s the politically correct answer on this one? Whatever Bishop/Archbishop/Cardinal ____ (pick the most orthodox one at the time of this writing) says regarding the vocation of the single life, I agree with him.
LOPEZ: What a heartbreaking revelation about Maria you make. Pray without ceasing, eh?
RULLI: Yeah, it’s stories like that that make my sinful, self-centered life seem a lot less fun.
LOPEZ: How was World Youth Day this summer in Madrid? Hanging with the pope in the heat, isn’t that sort of weird?
RULLI: World Youth Day was amazing. 1.5 million people coming together for Catholicism? That’s absolutely insane. Is it my type of thing? No, I’m not a “raise your hands up for Jesus” type of guy. Plus, I’m a city guy, so the whole “let’s sleep outside, rain or shine” thing isn’t for me. But I love the good it does for the Church. I’m inspired by seeing so many people get excited about Catholicism.
LOPEZ: “Saint Lino Rulli? Tough to believe. Celebrity Lino Rulli? Maybe for fifteen minutes.” But do you want it — even more than replacing David Letterman?
RULLI: I want to be a saint but without all that “holiness” and “prayer” stuff I’m not very good at. I know the right answer is that I would choose God and holiness over everything else — my career included. Let’s just be grateful I’m not talented enough to really have dreams of replacing a guy like David Letterman. So I can say yes, I’d rather be a saint than replace Dave — because replacing Dave ain’t happenin’.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.