‘The Catholic Guy’ Lino Rulli brings radio family home to Twin Cities

| Jonathan Liedl | August 30, 2018 | 0 Comments

Radio host Lino Rulli, center, talks with Rob Hedrick, left, of Louisburg, Kansas, and Chuck Fanelli of Bergenfield, New Jersey, at Rock Bottom Restaurant and Brewery in downtown Minneapolis Aug. 17. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Lino Rulli doesn’t have any children of his own. Married two years ago, the 46-year-old and his wife, Jill, are hoping that changes soon.

But the Minnesota native and Catholic media personality is already the pater familias of his own unique brood: a devoted community of listeners to “The Catholic Guy,” a weekday afternoon drive program on Sirius XM Radio’s Catholic Channel, which Rulli has hosted since its conception in 2006.

About 200 members of this tight-knit crew came to the Twin Cities Aug. 17-18 for “Catholic Guy Con.” The main event consisted of a recorded show and presentations from Rulli and his co-hosts. That was preceded the night before by a meet-up at Rock Bottom Restaurant and Brewery in downtown Minneapolis. Mass celebrated by co-host Father Jim Chern, dinner catered by the St. Paul Italian eatery Cossetta Alimentari, and a tour of Hill-Murray High School in Maplewood — Rulli’s alma mater — closed out the two-day fan fest.

“My biggest takeaway from this experience is just a feeling of gratitude,” said Rulli, who admits he had no idea the event would be such a success when it was being planned. “I’ve found myself thanking God over and over again for this career, and for our audience, and how lucky I am to be able to be in people’s lives.”

A sense of family

While the event was the first official Catholic Guy Con, for many fans it was not the first time they had gathered with each other and Rulli, who hosts several pilgrimages for Catholic Guy devotees every year. One Catholic Guy Con attendee had been on five.

But for listeners like Chuck Fanelli, who went to the Holy Land with Rulli in 2017, Catholic Guy Con was something special, a unique opportunity to be together with all four current members of the show and hundreds of Catholic Guy fans.

“I said there’s no way I’m missing this,” recalled the 33-year-old native of the Newark, New Jersey area, who has listened to every episode of The Catholic Guy show since he first came across the program two years ago.

Fanelli was the first to buy a ticket for Catholic Guy Con, which sold out in 24 hours. And when he found out his wife was due to deliver their third child only days after the fan fest, he still made the decision to come.

“[The Catholic Guy community] energizes me, renews my faith, and really helps me get back to being a better husband and father,” said Fanelli, who made it home in time for the birth of his son, Michael Paul. “We all feel like family. A big, weird family.”

Like most families, The Catholic Guy show’s listeners speak their own language, replete with inside jokes and good-natured ribbing. Even those passing by downtown Minneapolis’ Brave New Comedy Workshop, which hosted the radio show portion of Catholic Guy Con, could get a sense of this simply by reading the venue’s marquee: “Welcome Nasty Listeners #ReadingMarqueeIsHard #BearsAreFast.” 

Inside the doors, attendees wore shirts with additional Catholic Guy catch-phrases, tweeted from Twitter accounts named after on-air gags, and called on Rulli to play favorite sound bytes from the show.

“Wow, I feel like I’m the leader of my own cult,” joked Tyler Veghte, the show’s quirky but beloved atheist producer, after attendees sang along by heart to the musical introduction of the popular “What’s on Tyler’s Mind?” segment. 

Catholic Guy origins

But while Veghte and co-hosts Father Chern and Mark Hart have their own unique following among fans, make no mistake about it: The Catholic Guy show begins and ends with the Catholic Guy himself — Lino Rulli. 

The show is infused with Rulli’s personality, from the sarcastic, self-deprecating sense of humor that targets his big nose and his co-hosts alike, to the soundtrack provided by the Foo Fighters, his favorite band. 

The Catholic Guy show’s approach to Catholicism is also Rulli’s own. He believes being Catholic shouldn’t be “compartmentalized,” and mixes faith freely on air with humor and discussions on everything from sports to what he’s watching on Netflix. It’s this playful and occasionally irreverent style that makes The Catholic Guy show “your home for pure Catholic pleasure,” as its tagline states.

But the show isn’t all laughs. For Rulli, who’s won three Emmy awards for his previous media work as a television host and producer, it’s also a craft he takes seriously. As his co-hosts noted at Catholic Guy Con, Rulli’s goal is first and foremost to make a great radio show, one that normal people will want to listen to.

“The bottom line is I host a funny Catholic radio show,” said Rulli. “That’s what I get paid to do and people seem to enjoy it.”

Rulli began honing the skills he’d use on The Catholic Guy show during his upbringing and early adult years in Minnesota, from his days in theater at Hill-Murray, to the campus radio program he hosted at St. John’s University in Collegeville, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in communications and a master’s in theology. 

Rulli also got his professional media start in the Twin Cities, working for WCCO-TV and KMSP-TV before launching Generation Cross, a Catholic television show that combined fun and faith, and even included an episode of rock climbing with the future Bishop Andrew Cozzens.

Though Rulli now resides in New York City, where he also serves as media advisor to Cardinal Timothy Dolan, he still considers himself a Midwesterner, and says his Minnesota upbringing shapes the way he sees the world and the Church. As he put it, “If it wasn’t for my time on TV here [in Minnesota], there wouldn’t be The Catholic Guy show anywhere.” 

So when a listener called in last year and joked that the show should sponsor a “Lino pilgrimage,” it only made sense to host what would become Catholic Guy Con in Rulli’s home state. The location also allowed for the appearance of two guests especially loved by Rulli’s radio family: his real-life parents.

Authentic and relatable

It was Rulli’s mother, Gina, who bemusedly asked Catholic Guy Con attendees, many of whom had paid several hundred dollars in travel expenses to come, a simple question on the event’s opening night: “Why are you here?”

But to ask that question is really to ask why The Catholic Guy show has been so successful at creating a family-like devotion among its listeners, a group that includes both men and women, the middle-aged and millennials, liberals and conservatives, and even Protestants and non-Christians.

“I don’t think we have a secret recipe or a master plan,” said co-host Father Jim Chern, a priest of the Archdiocese of Newark who serves as chaplain at Montclair State University. “It’s just that what listeners are finding on the show is that people are authentic. We’re not pretending to be someone we’re not.”

Attendees echoed Father Chern’s sentiments. Many said they appreciated Rulli’s example of a Catholic who is aware of and forthright about his sins and struggles, but is still committed to his faith. Rulli has even served as confirmation sponsor for several listeners.

Denise Bourque, 49, said she was falling away from the Church before she encountered The Catholic Guy show six years ago.

“Lino’s not flawless and neither am I,” said Bourque, who traveled from Nova Scotia to attend the fan fest. “It makes me realize that it’s OK that I’m not perfect. I’m going to mess up, but at the end of the day, Christ still loves me.”

Many also agreed with Hart, executive vice president of LifeTeen, who said during his presentation that most Catholic media caters to the “1 percent” of Catholics, not the normal people in the pews. Others described typical Catholic media as “boring” or difficult to relate to. 

Melissa Phinney, 36, a Catholic Guy fan who is a catechist and parishioner of Transfiguration in Oakdale, watches and appreciates Catholic TV network EWTN, but sometimes finds the programming to be “too serious” and difficult to follow.

“I like The Catholic Guy show because they use humor and make it easy to understand what they’re talking about,” she said.

For many Catholic Guy followers, the show provides the type of community they don’t find at their parish, where some don’t feel welcome, or in their normal daily circles, where it can be difficult to talk about faith. When they listen to The Catholic Guy show, they’re plugged into a relatable community of Catholics, and are encouraged in their Catholic faith.

Rulli acknowledged that this might be especially important now, in the midst of the unfolding crisis of cover-ups of clerical sex abuse. He briefly addressed the controversy on-air recently, but also recognizes that his program has a different role to play than news analysis.

“I think people need a respite from the bad news,” he said. “So, without saying it explicitly, every day I go on the air and say — in as entertaining a way as possible — ‘Here’s why I’m Catholic. Here’s why I love it. In spite of it all, here’s what’s beautiful and true about the faith.’”

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