Priest, Holy Angels National Catholic Church
By Andy Armano
This series focuses on individuals who give to our community and make a positive impact on the lives of others. Often it is through our personal adversities that we discover who we are and transform the challenges into strength.
Fr. Richard Vitale is a priest with the National Catholic Church of North America and he serves at Holy Angels National Catholic Church. He credits the love of his husband, family, parishioners, and God with giving him the strength to keep up with a challenging schedule of selfless service. Richard is also the new Vice-President of Impulse Group South Florida, an AHF affinity group, where he and other volunteers promote its mission to foster “sexual health education, advocacy, and breaking the stigma for gay men, both positive and negative.”
Andy Armano: Thank you for taking the time to talk with us. I’m sure you have your hands full responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. How has your church responded?
Fr. Richard Vitale: Yes, it’s a time of great stress and great need. The crucial question is how do we help keep our community and connections alive when we have to keep social distancing. The ministry has been shifting its focus to digital content and online resources. In my work with Impulse Group, we have also been focusing on digital platforms to advance advocacy and we are working closely with AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF) on that.
AA: Tell me a bit about what led you into the priesthood.
RV: I grew up on Long Island, New York with a typical upper-middle-class suburban upbringing. We weren’t a particularly religious family. So, it was a shock to everyone when I decided to become a priest. I always felt drawn to a life of service. Even from a young age. I volunteered as a catechism teacher and I was in Boy Scouts. Serving the community has been a part of the fabric of who I am for as long as I can remember. In college, I ended up getting super involved in campus ministry and absolutely fell in love with the mass. I absolutely fell in love with the community, the spirituality. I felt such an incredible calling that I applied for the seminary and I was accepted.
AA: With such devotion to God and service, how did you reconcile your sexuality with religion?
RV: I had been openly gay before I applied to the seminary and at the time when I applied, there was an unspoken ”don’t ask, don’t tell” type of policy. Things started to change when an Archbishop decided that he was going to basically blame the entirety of the sexual abuse of minors scandal on gay clergy. So, he issued an edict that said that they were going to do an apostolic visitation to every seminary in the country to look for evidence of homosexuality. It was at that moment that I realized that I wasn’t going to be able to make the changes from the inside that I wanted to.
I just had this vision in my head of a young gay, lesbian, [and/or] trans person coming to my office saying, “Father, I’m struggling with this.” I feared I would not be allowed to say to them, “It’s okay. God made you the way he made you. You are perfect. Don’t lose your spark.” I just knew that I couldn’t teach that. I didn’t believe it was God’s way, and didn’t believe it was fair or just or moral or anything. So, I took my leave. I just went back to secular life. I pretty much left the church entirely and didn’t worship anywhere for a long time.
AA: What was the transition back to secular life like for you? I can imagine it was difficult.
RV: It felt a lot like having a non-mutual breakup. If you’ve ever been left by a partner or have left a partner and still had strong feelings for them, that’s the feeling. There is love, but also sadness. When you are a priest, you consider yourself married to the church and so this isn’t just a pithy statement. It plays at the exact same emotional heartstrings.
AA: How did you come to terms with questioning the teachings you had been so immersed in?
RV: My experience wasn’t that different from many people. What happens when you snip the bottom of a tapestry or a sweater? It just starts to unravel, and the whole thing comes undone. It’s like that when you decide the teaching that homosexuality is a sin, an “inherent, intrinsic disorder” doesn’t check out. You question everything.
AA: So, what kept you believing in God?
RV: My experience of God’s love brought me back and enabled me to put it back together. I realized the church itself is human, fallible, defective people trying to do the best they can in a structure that they were handed. At that point, I realized that the mysticism of the church is in every single person. It isn’t contained in the hierarchy. That’s when I started to stitch it back together and when my faith came back.
AA: How did that process lead you back into the priesthood?
RV: By complete happenstance, I found a pathway to ordination. I became aware of this group called the Old Catholic Church in the United States, which is in many ways a Catholic Church with progressive moral teachings. It’s a home for a lot of people who feel that strong faith, but either can’t abide or have been injured by what I consider erroneous teachings of the Roman Church.
There was this Bishop on Facebook® who frequently commented on my friends’ posts and things like that. We began talking about my experience. He found my experience was relevant and applicable enough for ordination in the Old Catholic Church. And so, I was ordained as a deacon and priest. The ordination day was absolutely beautiful in this gorgeous church surrounded by family and friends, and it was just one of the most absolutely incredible days of my life. Just so incredibly overwhelming, and your life has changed forever. Sometimes scary, but usually the most profound and incredible ways because you then become truly a servant. It is on you to serve the people of God as best you can for as long as you can, as much as you can.
AA: Tell me about your service work these days.
RV: I am a priest at Holy Angels and I perform mass there. I was just recently named the new Vice-President of Impulse Group with AHF. We are working on issues in our community like HIV prevention, helping people get into HIV care if they need it, regardless of their ability to pay, gay men’s mental health, suicide prevention, and substance abuse.
AA: Do you find that when people find out you are a priest you find they open up to you?
RV: Yes. There is an epidemic of people just struggling to be heard and acknowledged and appreciated. It’s the counter. It’s the part of that same loneliness that is just pervasive throughout the community. We’ve never been more connected, and somehow we are more lonely.
AA: Social media and apps have made it worse, if you ask me.
RV: I do think online life has made us less connected in real life.
AA: All this service work is volunteer, right?
RV: Yes, I have full time employment as well. So I have to manage my full-time job, my parish life, and there is also volunteer work with Impulse Group.
AA: How do you do it all?
RV: My dedication doesn’t come without its own set of problems, right? Especially since I am married. Because if I come last, well then, sometimes he comes last along with me, and that can be hard. But beyond that, it is just so tremendously rewarding in the ways that you get to connect with other people.
AA: Your church, Holy Angels, does quite a bit of community outreach. Tell us about that.
RV: We take care of the poor. We welcome the homeless into our midst. We clothe them. We feed them. We provide bus passes. We have a mission church in Sierra Leone, West Africa, where we send monies and supplies. We built a school over there that has about a hundred students. It’s very rewarding. I hope to make it out there someday and actually see it all.
AA: How is service expressed in your life today? You mentioned that you’ve always had a calling for service.
RV: I had always really kind of envisioned myself as a priest in a great big parish with families and nativity pageants and all of that stuff. I wasn’t trained for some of the harder stuff that would come. Working with the poor, working with the addicted, working with people who have just experienced the most awful tragedies. Working with people who have just been broken by the institutional church.
AA: How do you sustain your own spirituality, your own spiritual connection with God?
RV: My spirituality is very liturgical, which means sort of practicing the ritual of the church. It’s very important to me that I celebrate mass each day. I celebrate it here at home. I set up my little altar in the guest room and I have mass each day.
We have this beautiful tradition in the church of offering the mass for a specific intention. I constantly am soliciting intentions from the community. “What is it that you’d like me to pray for? Give me something to do.” It’s worked out into being literally a global ministry where people will send me things to offer mass for, I write out a little card and I send it to them, and it says that the mass has been said for you. That is among the most important ways that I nurture my relationship with God.
If being gay has done anything for me, and it has done everything for me, it has given me empathy. Because once you aren’t the ruling power, now you can have this incredible connection, and everybody has something. So, that’s what I do now. The rewards associated with it have been so much more than anything I would have imagined. So that’s how I’ve been changed in a great many ways. It’s the constant reminder that I always put others first.
AA: To come full circle, tell me a little about your spiritual perspective on this pandemic we are living through. There’s no aspect of our lives that isn’t affected. I know I personally feel the impact of the loss of my self-maintenance routine and of my connection with close friends. I’m a bit of a loner by nature, so if this is affecting me, it has to be affecting everyone. It’s forcing me to look inward more, yet at the same time to reach out to the people for whom I’m responsible and to whom I am close.
RV: There are always trials in the world. In parts of the world, these kinds of challenges are part of everyday life. Here, we are blessed, even in the midst of this pandemic, we have more than so many people in the world. This is a time to practice gratitude. I also view this as a time for us to show our best nature. It’s a time for each of us to be a helper, to be a giver, and a caretaker of our fellows. It’s a time to focus less on what we lost and more on what we can do right here and right now. And, in giving to others in the spirit of service and compassion, we can actually deepen our connections with others and strengthen our sense of purpose. From trials and tribulations comes a renewal.
AA: That is really beautiful and so powerfully stated. If we choose, this can be a wake-up call, personally and as a people.
RV: Yes, I do think this is a knock on our collective door of consciousness. Let’s use the pause as a time of reflection. We haven’t treated the earth and its creatures with respect and compassion. We’re seeing how much we don’t like it when nature is out of balance. I believe we need to double our efforts to care for the earth and our environment. We’re responsible for this glorious creation we call earth and all the life on it.