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Religious Life

From Texas to the world

San Antonio

Fifteen decades have passed since the Oblates arrived in south Texas. Known as the “the Cavalry of Christ,” these early missionaries from France rode hundreds of miles across the Lower Rio Grande Valley, their saddlebags heavy with catechisms, scriptures and altar vessels.

True to their charism of taking the Good News to those least touched by the church, they preached in the countryside and among the urban poor. Oblates evangelized cowpokes, field hands and ranchers in the brush country, as well as fishermen and marketers along the Rio Grande. They galloped with the gospel to Corpus Christi and Brownsville and across the border into Mexico.

Hurricanes, heat, humidity, drought, bugs, bandits, snakes and yellow fever all made life inhospitable in South Texas of the mid-19th century. But whether caught in an inclement climate or having to conduct their ministry while civil wars and other conflicts raged on both sides of the Rio Grande, the Oblates persisted.

Today a small band of Oblates continues a wide range of apostolic work -- much of it headquartered in San Antonio where the order, known as the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, have had a presence since 1884. Today the busy street outside the Oblate compound is called Oblate Drive. Instead of riding the range, Oblate priests, brothers, their associates and colleagues bring the Good News into classrooms, parishes, retreat and renewal centers. They are planning to bring “distance learning” via the Internet to Catholics 200 miles from San Antonio in Del Rio and Eagle Pass.

“Over 150 years, the Oblate presence has developed into a strong presence that is felt in many institutions,” said Oblate Fr. Robert Wright, associate professor of systematic theology at the Oblate School of Theology here. The Oblates have maintained a special commitment to the San Antonio diocese and surrounding areas.

Next year the School of Theology marks its centenary. The school prepares seminarians, priests, religious and laity to serve the needs of the church in the modern world. Several of its 124 students come from Mexican and Latin American backgrounds and are enrolled in the school’s Hispanic ministry programs. Others come from Asia, Africa and Europe as well as from dioceses and parishes across Texas and the Southwest.

The bilingual and multicultural nature of the school as well as of the city of San Antonio attract a diverse student body. The school is regarded as a leader in the field of supervised ministry and offers field training, internships and practice that allow students to blend academic theology with ministerial practice under the guidance of an experienced minister.

Charism for collaboration

Collaborative ministry is the hallmark of the school, said its academic dean, Maryknoll Sr. Marcella Hoesl. She cited collaboration with 10 religious communities and houses of formation, including Assumption Seminary here, which counts students from some 20 U.S. dioceses. In all, 26 different religious orders are represented on campus.

Students in the School of Theology are a blend of ordained and laity, women and men, Catholic and non-Catholic. The student body is a reflection of the fact that in today’s church, pastors and their associates must work as a team, in the church and the community, Hoesl said.

A new avenue of collaboration began last year when the U.S. Army chose the school for 20 of its chaplains because of the Oblates’ supervised ministry programs. What attracted the Army was the school’s Clinical Pastoral Education program, which works with 11 hospitals and medical centers in five Texas cities.

Three of the Army chaplains are Catholic. The group also includes two Seventh Day Adventists, a member of the Full Gospel church, one from the Assemblies of God, a Southern Baptist and several from mainline Protestant denominations, as well as chaplains from Ireland, the Netherlands and Nigeria.

Hoesl, who is a professor of systematic theology, also runs the popular Evening of World Faiths program. On March 21 students can hear the wife of a Jewish cantor and the wife of a Muslim imam discuss the role of women in Judaism and Islam. The events of Sept. 11 have raised a greater awareness of world religions and the need to know more about their creeds and practices, she noted.

This year’s fourth annual summer school session will focus on scripture and spirituality within the Jewish, Islamic and Christian faiths. Last year 72 attended the two-week summer session held in mid-June. The school’s large outdoor swimming pool can prove as popular as the air-conditioned library in San Antonio’s summer.

One of the proudest moments for Hoesl and Wright is graduation day each May when candidates in the school’s Lay Ministry Institute and its Instituto de Formación Pastoral don cap and gown and march with students receiving their master’s and doctoral degrees.

Students in the two lay programs receive a Certificate in Pastoral Lay Ministry following two years of study.

In the first year they attend an evening class once a week with instructors who treat a host of topics important for those wanting to enter church ministry or to upgrade their ministry skills. The second year has candidates engaged in a practicum of their choosing. Sacramental preparation, advocacy for the emotionally and mentally ill, door-to-door evangelization and outreach and visitation to the sick, the elderly and the imprisoned have been among recent picks.

While the Institute meets at the School of Theology, the Instituto convenes weekly in a number of parishes -- some of them outside San Antonio -- where candidates from neighboring parishes also attend. Instructors from the School of Theology staff both programs. The Instituto conducts classes in Spanish and English. Although most candidates are lay Catholics sent by their pastors, in recent years members of religious congregations who are working in the field of lay ministry are also enrolling, as are non-Catholics interested in lay ministry.

Candidates begin their training with a four-day retreat. Their insecurities are evident when they arrive, said Oblate Fr. Warren Brown, coordinator of the program. Some immediately classify themselves or feel stereotyped by their address or skin tone. They are from the good or the poor parts of town. They are Anglo, Latino, black or Asian. Some are doctors and college teachers; others lack a high school diploma.

But after a few days of sharing their faith journey, prayer and reflection, “the barriers fade,” Brown said. “It’s very rewarding to hear people talking about their faith, to watch their insecurities lessen and see them become more self-confident.”

Hoesl likened the 2,000 candidates who’ve processed through the lay institutes over the past 22 years, to “seeds planted here.”

She said, “They are owning their church. They’re collaborating with priests. They’re affirming: ‘We can do it.’ Our job is to accept people where they are and work with them, ” she said.

A missionary congregation

A grotto to Our Lady of Lourdes and a shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe sit like a tiara in the center of the 41-acre campus, separating the School of Theology from the Oblate Renewal Center. At any time of the day or evening students at the school and guests at the Renewal Center can see an array of people coming to attend the outdoor Masses at the grotto or to pray, meditate, light candles and leave petitions at the shrine atop the grotto.

Thousands of people have flocked to the sanctuary since Sept. 11. Oblate Br. Pat McGee sees a natural link between the native San Antonians, the Mexican-Americans and the tourists who frequent the grotto and those who make retreats or attend meetings at the Renewal Center. These include members of religious orders, engaged couples, members of national Catholic organizations and committees of the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ Conference.

“The key thing we have to do in our ministry as Oblates is to make links between those at Sunday liturgy and those at the Renewal Center. As a missionary congregation we also have to connect with those in other parts of the world,” he said, adding that such links become a way of living the Oblate charism to reach the most marginalized peoples. “In telling people about mission, we can explore issues of social justice.”

McGee, who spent the 1990s as a missionary in Recife, Brazil, has been associate director of the Renewal Center for two years. He exudes enthusiasm for his job of welcoming and hosting a wide range of groups, and notes that the 6-year-old, state-of-the-art conference center with its 60 double bedrooms has bookings three years in advance.

A place of spiritual reflection and refreshment is also a place of spiritual direction, he said. “We never want to make this place a comfortable oasis from the world.”

McGee is trying to find space on the calendar to “plug in” an Oblate ministry of spirituality and preaching. “In our rules, we’re concerned about those who are left out. The point of our Oblate style is to make people aware of mission in the global sense.”

One of the ways he stays in touch with Oblate missions is through the congregation’s Web sites. He has bookmarked missions in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil and Zambia. “The recent crisis in Argentina shapes my morning prayers. I think of our people there and I say, ‘You are in my prayers.’ ” he said.

Holy Spirit Sr. Theresa O’Toole serves as spiritual director at the center. The Irish nun who worked in Zambia and throughout impoverished areas in the Southwest said that her order shares the charism of the Oblates. “My ministry is mostly that of listening” to those who come to the center for retreats. “They need someone to hear their stories of loss, of pain, of divorce,” she said.

O’Toole, who could easily have retired, said that God has called her to this new life on the Oblate campus. “The call comes. You hear the echo in your heart,” she said. “I am blessed to work with so many beautiful people. It’s like a new life.”

Patricia Lefevere is an NCR special report writer.

National Catholic Reporter, February 22, 2002