BISCAYNE PARK, Fla. (AP) – A popular Miami priest nicknamed “Father Oprah” said Sunday that “church is about forgiveness” during his first sermon since leaving the Roman Catholic Church to become Episcopal amid an uproar over published photos of him kissing his girlfriend on the beach.

The Rev. Alberto Cutie gave the sermon at the Episcopal Church of The Resurrection in Miami. Episcopalian priests can marry, unlike their Catholic counterparts. It will take him at least a year to become a priest in his new church.

The cozy church was overflowing with supporters, most having to stand along the aisles or lean against the walls. Many in the crowd said they were not members but came to support Cutie.

“This little church has been neglected, and membership is not great,” said Jackie Fernandez, who attends another Episcopal church in the Miami area. She said within the year that will all change thanks to Cutie.

Cutie said in a TV interview in early May that he was in love with the woman in the photos and that they have been romantically involved for about two years after being friends for much longer. His girlfriend has been identified in local media as 35-year-old Ruhama Buni Canellis. He has not said if he plans to marry her, but noted in a statement this week that as he became an Episcopalian, he “has seen the ways that many of my brothers serve God as married men.”

“If love was his mistake, then I’ll still support him. Love makes the world go round,” said Ysset DeCarlo, 44. She brought along her 17-year-old daughter Stephanie, who made her confession to Cutie for her confirmation.

Cutie received a standing ovation and told several jokes, quipping that “my stuff is in storage.” He didn’t directly address his relationship with his girlfriend.

“The spirit of God has been with me,” he said. “And I’m going to tell you something: God is the only one we follow.”

He also said church was about seeking God, not people, and added: “Church is about forgiveness.”

The Cuban-American priest was born in Puerto Rico and previously hosted shows on Telemundo, the second-largest Spanish-language network in the U.S. and the Western Hemisphere. He is also a syndicated Spanish-language columnist and author of the book “Real Life, Real Love: 7 Paths to a Strong, Lasting Relationship.”

Ignacio Bolivar, 65, said he thought Cutie was intensely conflicted about his relationship with the woman and his views on marriage.

“I think he tried to tell the Catholic Church what he wanted to do. That he wanted to get married,” Bolivar said.

Bolivar also joked about Cutie’s talents as a speaker and good looks, in light of his switch: “The Catholic Church has to put ugly priests up there.”

AP-ES-05-31-09 1710EDT


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