I received word this afternoon that an old friend of my wife’s family has entered eternal life: the Rev. Msgr. Vincent Gatto died early this morning at the age of 90.
I served with him only once, when I assisted and preached at my in-laws’ 50th wedding anniversary Mass in 2008. But he was a beloved figure, a tireless and devoted priest who never lacked for a kind word or a friendly smile. At an age when most men would prefer to spend their days fishing or gardening or traveling, Msgr. Gatto continued to live the life of a parish priest, occupying a room in a rectory and rising every morning to celebrate Mass or hear confessions. My father-in-law used to see him almost every morning at daily Mass at St. Raphael’s Catholic Church in Potomac, Maryland, and often talked about how much Msgr. Gatto loved celebrating Mass for the schoolchildren.
This was a man who loved being a priest. When Msgr. Gatto marked the 50th anniversary of ordination a dozen years ago, a local paper picked it up:
The 78-year-old pastor at Holy Cross Church in Garrett Park said he’s been taking piano lessons for 20 years, but deprecates his ability. He is currently trying to master a piece by Mozart — 12 Variations on “Ah, vous dirai je, maman” — and plays only for himself.
His faith goes back a bit further and is more publicly declared. He is celebrating the 50th anniversary of his ordination — the equivalent of a married couple’s 50th — and, the ongoing upheavals and uncertainties in the church notwithstanding, declares his vocation “time well spent.”
“I am a happy priest,” he said, sitting in the large, wood-paneled office at Holy Cross, his parish for the past 22 years.
“Happy” is a word Gatto used often to describe a life built on unquestioning belief in church teachings. Born in Troy, N.Y., in 1926, Gatto grew up the only son and the youngest of three in an observant Catholic family. He went to Catholic schools in Troy and Norfolk, Va., where his family moved when he was 15, he said.
He went from high school into the U.S. Army, working in an office in the Philippines at the end of World War II. It was there, he said, he found his vocation, unexpectedly, in a Catholic USO reading room. Gatto recalled going in one day, “not looking for anything,” and picking up a pamphlet on the priesthood.
“As I was reading through the pamphlet,” he said, “I felt very much the Lord was speaking to me. …It was easy for me to say yes.”
From the Army, Gatto went to Catholic University for a philosophy degree and from there, to study for the priesthood at the university’s Theological College. At the time, the late 1940s, he said, he had no intentions of staying in Washington, D.C. — he wanted to return to Virginia to be near his family. But the Archdioceses of Washington had just been formed and was looking for priests.
Again, Gatto said, God spoke — “why not Washington?” — he applied and he has been here ever since. Ordained in 1955, he has had only three parishes: the Shrine of the Sacred Heart in Washington, D.C.; Our Lady of Mercy in Potomac, and since 1983, Holy Cross.
The Garrett Park parish is small — about 800 families from the surrounding area — but parishioners say it is one of the prettiest and best maintained in the area.
Bert Keys, 70, of Bethesda, admires both the monsignor’s good taste and his piety.
“Without a lot of show, he’s a very holy person,” he said. “My wife and I try to go to Mass daily. We see the monsignor with young [altar boys and girls], and you can just see the virtue there. …He treats them with the utmost respect.”
He was still plugging along and saying Mass until a few months ago, when a fall sent him to the hospital and his health began to decline.
Let us pray…
O God, Thou didst raise Thy servant, Vincent,
to the sacred priesthood of Jesus Christ,
according to the Order of Melchisedech,
giving him the sublime power
to offer the Eternal Sacrifice,
to bring the Body and Blood of Thy Son Jesus Christ down upon the altar,
and to absolve the sins of men in Thine own Holy Name.
We beseech Thee to reward his faithfulness
and to forget his faults,
admitting him speedily into Thy Holy Presence,
there to enjoy forever the recompense of his labours.
This we ask through Jesus Christ Thy Son, our Lord.
Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him…