Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Feast of the Presentation of the Lord: my friend and mentor Gerry Mannato

Mentor, Teacher, Friend in the Spirit of God: Gennaro Mannato

     As high school junior, my first job was working as a desk sitter at St Philip Neri Parish in Northport for the illustrious wage of $1.25 an hour. I wasn’t prepared for a major crisis; I was merely told how to answer the phone, and never to leave my post at the rectory. Nothing serious had happened in four months, until one Friday evening, a call caught me unaware. The caller, a woman, was very agitated, and demanded that I go up the hill to the Charismatic Prayer Meeting and tell Gerry Mannato some bad news. “Tell him his wife is dying, and he needs to come home right away.”                               Reluctantly, against orders, I ran up the hill and arrived breathless in the school cafeteria, wondering how I was going to give a man I barely knew the worst news of his life. Thirty people were singing a hymn of praise, faces aglow, hands uplifted, while I hesitated in the back of the room, wondering how to reach Gerry without breaking up the meeting. The crowd parted, and he came to me, with a look of concern on his face, and asked me, “What’s the matter?” I blurted out, “I work at the Rectory, and a woman just called, saying you have to go home right now, your wife is dying”.
     If someone had told me this news, it is likely that the only reaction they would elicit would be a brief “thanks” as I flew out the door. Gerry’s reaction was completely different. He put his arm around me with deep compassion in his eyes, saying, “I’m so sorry that you had to be the one to tell me this”. Tears sprang to my eyes, and a friendship which would endure three decades, was born.
     Soon afterwards, I was praying after Mass in the rear of the church, when Gerry tapped me on the shoulder. “I noticed the way you pray, and I think you might want to join our prayer group”, he suggested. He couldn’t have chosen a more grateful young woman. I was searching for a way to deepen my faith, in the 1970’s, when the Church was in the Post Vatican II whirlwind. At that time, a teen interested in spiritual growth was sent to RAP groups, which offered little spiritual nourishment. There was no Catholic TV or radio, few books, and no purity programs for teens.  This “I’m OK, you’re OK approach”, failed to feed the great spiritual hunger which reading “The Story of a Soul” had awakened in me at age 15. I wanted more of Jesus, and though I knew He was at Mass, thanks to my mother’s teaching, I needed guidance to build a mature spiritual life. Gerry filled that gap, unbidden, but so welcome.  
     In time, I became a regular at his prayer group, and attended a” Life in the Spirit Seminar”. I began to read Scripture, and learn to listen to the ‘still, small voice’ of Our Lord as I made important decisions about my future. I wanted to be a journalist and chose a Catholic college where I would deepen my knowledge of the faith. When I returned home and entered the working world, I started attending Gerry’s prayer support for the Renew Program in his home. Each week, I looked forward to his prayerful discussions, where his eyes shone with joy as he described how God was working in his life.
One night was particularly memorable; it was a dreary February evening and  the Feast of the Presentation of the Child Jesus in the Temple. Gerry played a song from Michael Card called, “Now that I have held you in my Arms” a reflection on the Nunc Dimitis of Simeon. Suddenly, the joy of beholding the infant Jesus in person illuminated the gloom of that winter night. I drove home singing, and Candlemas, became one of my favorite feast days.
     As part of Gerry’s prayer group, I attended Forty Hours Adoration for the first time, and discovered the joy of meeting Jesus in Exposition of the Holy Eucharist. Gerry was there as an example and a mentor, gently encouraging me to live fully for Christ as he offered prayers for our pastor, Fr Tom Colgan, and the entire parish to embrace their faith more fully. He shared details of his day to day life, which included gardening, Italian cooking and regular exercise, and taught me how to life a truly integrated life, caring for body, mind and soul. If he experienced moments of loneliness, he never showed it, despite retirement and widowhood, his calendar was full. He enjoyed being a Grandpa, giving us updates on his twin grandsons, attended charismatic events, and intellectual pursuits. Soon I followed his lead, and ran two Renew groups, one for teens and the other for young adults.
      In later years, Gerry moved to East Patchogue, and became active in the parish community of St Joseph the Worker. He lived three decades as a widow, and despite statistics of widowers living short lives, his was a long and happy life, never marrying until he was called home last month at the ripe old age of 86.
I was saddened by the news, until I recalled one of the last times I saw Gerry. It was February 2, 2000. He had come to our new church St John’s in Center Moriches as part of a millennial celebration of the Feast of the Presentation. The church was aglow with hundreds of candles, reflecting the light in Gerry’s eyes as he praised the Lord with his whole heart and soul. I can see him now embracing his wife and his best friend, Jesus, singing;
“Now that I’ve held Him in my arms,
My life can come to an end,
I’ve seen your salvation: a light to the Gentiles,
 And the glory of His people Israel”.

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