Do not, repeat do not, read between the lines.

As far as Gov. John Baldacci is concerned, there’s no hidden message behind his announcement last week that on Wednesday evening, he’ll don his apron and put on a spaghetti feed to benefit Preble Street – the Portland-based social services agency that recently had a financial rug pulled out from under it by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Maine.

“I think the statement is we’ve got a lot of food,” Baldacci said with a chuckle Friday. “And we’re hoping we can get a lot of people to show up.”

Fair enough. Still, thanks to Baldacci and numerous others who have rallied in recent weeks around Preble Street’s Homeless Voices for Justice program, a story that broke last month on a decidedly sour note has blossomed into a tale of sweet irony.

“Twenty-four hours after the word (of the spaghetti fundraiser) went out, we already have 200 RSVPs,” said Mark Swann, executive director of Preble Street. “It’s been incredibly overwhelming to see this response.”

To recap: Within weeks of last November’s repeal of Maine’s same-sex marriage law, Catholic Charities of Maine and the national Catholic Campaign for Human Justice notified Preble Street that they were yanking their annual funding for Homeless Voices for Justice.

At the same time, the two organizations demanded the return of any unspent money.

The move cost the program $17,400 this year and $33,000 next year.

The reason for the church’s about-face: Preble Street’s board of directors last year endorsed the same-sex marriage law – the same law Bishop Richard Malone spent much of his time in 2009  (not to mention his flock’s money) successfully overturning.

The board’s decision violated the terms of Homeless Voices for Justice’s grant application, the diocese declared. Hence, it said, the program was no longer entitled to Roman Catholic funding.

Which brings us to the irony.

Since last month, lo and behold, the church’s decision has touched off a tsunami of support the likes of which Preble Street has never seen.

As of Friday, Swann said, some $40,000 in donations had already poured in for Homeless Voices for Justice, which advocates for the needs of the homeless statewide. That includes a $17,000 check – roughly matching the amount lost this year – from Donald Sussman, a New York City hedge fund manager who lives in Maine.

“It’s been from all over the country, from Canada and England, from practicing Catholics, former Catholics, current as well as former priests, activists, politicians, business people, other faith communities, Preble Street volunteers,” said Swann.

And now, ladle in hand, the governor.

It would be easy to interpret Baldacci’s well-publicized gesture – news releases announcing the supper went out simultaneously last week from his office, Preble Street and the Maine Democratic Party – as a secular shot across the diocese’s bow by a Roman Catholic governor who hasn’t always toed the liturgical line in the dispatch of his public duties.

Six years ago, after a Vatican official said Roman Catholic politicians who support abortion rights should be denied Holy Communion, Baldacci (an abortion rights supporter) countered that politicizing the sacrament was “unfortunate and disappointing.”

And last year, despite Malone’s rigorous, one-on-one lobbying of Roman Catholics in Augusta during the debate over the same-sex marriage bill, it was Baldacci who ultimately signed the bill into law.

“This new law does not force any religion to recognize a marriage that falls outside of its beliefs. It does not require the church to perform any ceremony with which it disagrees,” Baldacci said moments after putting down his pen. “Instead, it reaffirms the separation of church and state.”

History notwithstanding, Baldacci insists (at least publicly) that he’s breaking out the spaghetti and meatballs not to rebuke the bishop, but rather to rally behind Preble Street.

The diocese had every right to cancel its funding for Homeless Voices for Justice, he noted, “because that’s the way the contract is.”

That said, it was Baldacci who picked up the phone when he first read about the diocese playing hardball and told Swann and others at Preble Street that he stood ready, willing and able to help.

“It’s our way of just providing some community support and a way to come together,” Baldacci said. “You couldn’t help but have felt the pain when you saw the story and you knew the good work they do.”

As for the publicity blitz, Baldacci said he was simply concerned that, with so little time before the dinner, enough people hear about it to make it worthwhile.

“I think we’ve got enough food to feed an army,” he said.

Including, perhaps, a bishop?

“There’s more than enough spaghetti for everybody,” Baldacci said, again laughing. “And tell him the governor would love to deliver takeout orders, too.”

(Sue Bernard, spokeswoman for the diocese, could not be reached Friday for comment on whether Malone might consider attending the dinner.)

Swann agreed that if Malone were to stop by, “we would be happy to serve him and we’d welcome him with open arms like we do everybody.”

The dinner will be held at the Italian Heritage Center behind Portland’s Westgate Shopping Center from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday.

Donations are $5 per person (or whatever you can afford) and reservations can be e-mailed to [email protected] or by calling 775-0026, ext. 230.

In addition to an unforgettable plate of spaghetti and meatballs (Momma Baldacci would have loved this), Swann promises an evening of “great spirit and energy.”

He added, “We feel very blessed.”

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

[email protected]

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