“My idea of heaven is sitting in the outfield bleachers at Wrigley Field, on a beautiful summer day, watching a baseball game that has gone into extra innings, and never ends,” Reverend Angelo Gambatese.
After 31 years, Maria, 76, and Kathy, 70, wedded earlier this month in front of many family and friends in New Jersey, outside of New York City. It took them years to get to this point, first planning the wedding of Maria’s daughter Joanne, the birth of Zachary, her grandchild and bearing losses of Kathy’s mom, and Maria’s son and brother.
“As you know, my brother was so special, and he was loved so much” Maria said. “We wanted him to somehow be a part of our ceremony. While going through his things, Kathy found a small box with his name on it which we used to put our rings in. It was so meaningful. I really miss Angelo.”
And so, do I.
There was a time in my life when, after early a.m. workouts, I would go to mass, sit in the back, never go to communion, and mostly just prayed to my dad, or asked God for things I needed — when I thought my priorities were God’s. I also didn’t participate in the mass because I felt God thought less of me as a gay man. And then, there were the lingering, confidence-busting issues about a priest’s abuse when I was younger.
One morning, a priest came back to my pew, tapped me on the shoulder, and I jumped and exclaimed, “You scared the shit out of me.” Quickly catching myself, I blurted out, “I’m sorry, I said shit in church, and damn I did it again!” The priest laughed it off, introduced himself as Father Angelo, said he’d seen me in there each morning for years, and wanted to say hi. “Come see me some time,” he said. At which point I chafed. Priests weren’t to be trusted.
“Angelo was the second person I came out to,” Maria recalled. “At first, he was surprised and worried about the effect this would have on my four children who were between four and 12 at the time. I think he thought, ‘my confused little sister, what is she thinking?’ Once he started to come around, I invited him to go to the dignity masses for the gay community with me, and he started to attend and became involved with the community. He was always there for Kathy and I. Always. He was always so trusting, open and so loving.”
That openness is what ultimately drew me to him one evening after a particularly rough day. I walked past the church offices, noticed the lights were on, and went in. Father Angelo came out to greet me, and thus began one of the most important friendships I’ve ever had in my life.
I have met presidents, celebrities, athletes — but never anyone as potent as Father Angelo. He deeply understood life, the love, the frailties, the triumphs, the struggles, the hopes. “Life is incredibly difficult, and it’s supposed to be,” he used to tell to me. “Once you realize that, and accept it, life becomes a little easier.”
I opened up to him about the difficulties and struggles I had with being gay, and the errant priest from my childhood. These revelations came up intrinsically after he asked me why I didn’t go to communion. To me, it was a risk admitting this to him. I was a grown man now, but still didn’t know if he either concealed ulterior motives, or if he harbored abhorrence? Would he hit on me? Or would he hit me?
“John, God doesn’t care if you’re gay. He only cares about how loving and caring you are, and that you are,” he empathized. “You should look at being gay as a gift, because it’s an opportunity to give and receive love.” When I made a crack about how tough it was to find a partner to share that love, he had a prophetic answer. “God will give you love when you’re ready for it, and when you get it, you will realize that it was worth all the wait and disappointments.”
Father Angelo knew what real love was all about, and mainly because he lived it, understood it, and saw it up close, during a long career as a Franciscan Friar. He never talked about himself, but once, when I asked him about what he thought love was, he surprised me. “God’s love is all around us. We just need to be aware of it, and take notice of it when we see it,” he started. “During the height of the AIDS crisis, and for a long time after, I was a counselor with an agency in New Jersey that helped people with the HIV virus. It was there, that I saw the essence of true love. Watching the partners of so many wonderful men who were dying of AIDS was life altering. Their love persevered and was resilient in the face of so much unconscionable sickness, death and tragedy. That was true love.”
“Angelo was a philosophy professor for years at St. Bonaventure College, then a high school principal in Syracuse for a long time after that,” Maria remembered. “And he was the pastor at St. Stephens of Hungary — which is where you met him — in Manhattan. But, it was his work as a counselor with Straight & Narrow that may have meant the most to him.”
In a lot of ways, besides my father and my partner, he’s meant the most to me in my life. Father Angelo was the person most responsible for me becoming comfortable as a gay man, which is quite an irony when a priest years before made me feel so uncomfortable and guilty about being one.
The night before he died, Maria went to see him in the hospital. His first question was, “Where’s Kathy?” “He loved her so much, and she loved him,” Maria recalled. “He told me that the doctor told him he could be discharged the next day, which wasn’t true. When I asked him where he wanted to go, he said that he wanted to come live with us and return to St. Bonaventure Church, which was our home parish. He died the next day, and I still can’t get over the loss of his kindness and love.”
And neither have I, but I’m a stronger and more loving gay man because of him. Maria and Kathy are relishing a well-deserved honeymoon in Provincetown. And, I’m heartened by the image of Father Angelo enjoying those Wrigley Field bleachers, the sunshine and that never-ending game.