More and more, the desire grows in me simply to walk around, greet people, enter their homes, sit on their doorsteps, play ball, throw water, and be known as someone who wants to live with them. It is a privilege to have the time to practice this simple ministry of presence.
– Henri Nouwen (1932-1996)
I was greeted with heartbreaking news the morning of October 17, 2020: Fr. Matthew Gamber, S.J. had died suddenly the previous day at the age of 61.
I first met Fr. Matt when I was two years old. I don’t remember much from those early days, but I do recall that on quiet Saturday afternoons in the late 1990s, when he was teaching at Xavier University and I was in primary school, Fr. Matt often stopped by our house just to say hello. He usually arrived unannounced, and he always brought gifts: a sweet treat for the kids, sometimes flowers for my mom or a re-gifted sweater for my dad.
With a smile and plenty of hearty laughs, Fr. Matt would greet each member of the family in turn, and he made it a point to receive a full update on how everyone was doing. His memory always impressed me; in more than two decades he never seemed to forget what all seven of my siblings and I were up to—where we were in school, what our majors were, which jobs we were starting. His distinctive way of saying the word “Oh-kay” while sipping his wine or nibbling on a cookie as he listened to our life updates still rings in my ears.
Fr. Matt was part of the family. Since our extended family lived hours away, he took on the role of Uncle Matt. When he came over, he simply relaxed with us. We ate, drank, chatted, prayed together. Before everyone had smartphones, Fr. Matt would use my dad’s computer to check his email. In the summer he came to the pool with us to swim laps. Occasionally, I even found him taking a nap on the living room couch.
Like any good Jesuit, Fr. Matt’s ministry as a priest took him all over the world—Chicago, Tampa, Spokane, Rome—and yet he found a way to be with us for important family events: a vacation to the Outer Banks in 1999, my sister’s baptism in 2001, my brother’s wedding in 2011, grandma’s funeral in 2018. Despite his wanderings, his priestly friendship never wavered.
In the Formula of the Institute, the founding document of the Society of Jesus, St. Ignatius exhorts his Jesuit sons to work for “the spiritual consolation of Christ’s faithful.” In difficult moments of discernment, Fr. Matt did precisely this for my family. When my parents were trying to decide whether to move the family to a new house, Fr. Matt pronounced a confident, “Of course you should!” We moved shortly thereafter. When I was agonizing with a decision to leave the diocesan seminary, Fr. Matt sat me down at an Italian bistro and calmed me down. I joined the Jesuits a year later.
Like many of his Jesuit predecessors who were famous letter-writers, Fr. Matt stayed in touch better than almost anyone I know. He always sent a note, a postcard, a job update. Most recently, in August he wrote to congratulate me on my first vows as a Jesuit. As I opened his note, memories rushed back from early childhood; he had included a gift card for (what else?) but a delicious dessert: Ted Drewes Frozen Custard, a St. Louis specialty. I made a mental note to send a thank-you, but I hesitated. Now it’s too late.
Fr. Matt was, of course, a spiritual father to more than just my family. He had a deep devotion to Pope St. John Paul II, and he emulated the late pontiff in his ministry to young people, leading trips to several World Youth Days. In just the last few years, he had become one of the most relied-upon confessors in Cincinnati. At every youth retreat, conference, or event, Fr. Matt was there, bringing reconciliation to God’s people.
Only recently, since following Fr. Matt into the Society of Jesus, have I come to realize how unique it was to have had such a terrific mentor in my youth. He was a good priest who was simply there; he brought the presence of Christ right into our home. I never knew him in any formal capacity—he was neither my teacher nor my parish priest—yet his example sowed the seeds of a religious vocation in me. In his love for the Lord and for my family, his infectious laugh and unshakeable joy, and, perhaps most importantly, in his sheer presence, he gave me a model of how I too might care for the people of God.
Fr. Matt was truly a friend in the Lord. I often ask myself, “What would Fr. Matt do?” and it has not led me astray. I pray for his repose and that one day he will intercede for us as well.
Photo provided by the author.