‘What you see is what you get’ – Catholic priest is a biker with a message

Father Lou Vallone, pastor of St. John of God Parish in McKees Rocks, Pa., says riding a motorcycle is who he is. “What you see is what you get,” he said.
Father Lou Vallone, pastor of St. John of God Parish in McKees Rocks, Pa., says riding a motorcycle is who he is. “What you see is what you get,” he said. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

A priest walks into a motorcycle club.

Don’t bother reading further if you’ve heard this one before.

Then again, those who know the Rev. Lou Vallone likely have seen it happen.

The pastor of two Pennsylvania churches – St. John of God in McKees Rocks and St. Catherine of Siena in Crescent – is a man of many gears. A master scuba diver, a self-proclaimed barbecue expert – and a man of God.

But above all else (under the heavens, that is), Father Vallone prefers to sit back, rev up his full-dress police edition 2003 Harley Davidson Electra Glide Standard, turn up the tunes and take on some two-lane blacktop. Two hours on the bike, he says, is better than a three-day vacation.

“Being a biker is who I am,” says the 67-year-old, who sports a short gray ponytail. “Who I am is who I put out there to my people. Who I am is who God chose to use as his instrument. So if anything positive’s coming from it, it’s because it’s an authentic thing and it’s not a gimmick.

“What you see is what you get.”

Father Vallone was 14 when he first rented a 50cc motorbike and rode it through a county park.

“That had me hooked,” he said.

Despite some disapproval from his parents and his superiors in the clergy, there was no making a U-turn by the time he was ordained by the Diocese of Pittsburgh in 1973.

“The diocese wasn’t overwhelmingly pleased with it,” he said. “I’m not sure of whether it was a perceptual issue or whether (the bishop) figured he invested 12 years of education in me and didn’t want to lose it too quick in a motorcycle accident. But the diocese has never been completely at ease with my being a biker.”

His parishioners, he says, believe otherwise. The pastor often cites his motorcycle experiences in his homilies, attempting to convey the Scriptures so that they will relate in the modern world.

“I tell them weather reports are very important to motorcycle riders,” he said. “If you’re going to be out for a couple of hours, you can’t just look out the window. What’s it going to be like two hours from now when I come back? There’s a 50 percent chance of rain, but if it rains, you get 100 percent wet.

“So the Lord tells you, ‘not the day nor the hour.’ You know, the odds may be 50 percent that you’re not going to get caught doing something wrong. But if you get caught doing something wrong, you’re 100 percent guilty.”

Mark Woods, 47, occasionally attends Mass at St. John of God and has had his Harley-Davidson 1200 Sportster Custom blessed by Father Vallone. Earlier this spring he had the chance to ride with a small group with Father Vallone as the road captain, or leader.

“He was telling us all the signals and my friend Dan Fleet says to me, ‘I know he’s ridden before,’” noting that the priest knew the biker signals for potholes, road kill and other hazards.

This would not be the first time or place Father Vallone has led. The Rev. John Boeckman, whom Father Vallone mentored in the 1980s, said the pastor was a life coach before that became a popular buzzword.

“Someone when they’re starting out has to have someone like that, that’s going to show you: ‘Here’s what the priesthood is like, and here’s what you need to do when this comes up,’” he said. “You need that go-to person, and that’s what he was always, on everything.”

Other bikers do a double-take when they see his priest’s collar.

“I have passed packs of outlaw bikers who ... quite unexpectedly would form up around me and ride with me for a while,” Father Vallone said. They say, “ ‘Hi, Padre. How are you, Preacher? What’s going on?’

“It’s kind of like an evangelizing moment in a way. Rather than totally rejecting them because of their reputation, I’m still seeing them as a priest. They’re the lost sheep, and so I find that a great chance to see the smiles on their faces and to see this interaction in their lives.”

For Father Vallone, it’s all about enriching the lives of others – and his own.

“I believe in God, but I also believe in having fun on my motorcycle. These two things are not incompatible.

“I’m not out after everything mystical, sanctifying. Gas fumes are more likely to be around me than incense, but that is the holy as far as I’m concerned.”