January 9, 2009

Religious Vocations Supplement

Seminarian from El Salvador inspired by Archbishop Romero

Seminarian Oscar Vasquez laughs during a class on Dec. 4 at Saint Meinrad School of Theology in St. Meinrad. Vasquez, a first-year theology student at Saint Meinrad, is a member of St. Mary Parish in Indianapolis. (Photo by Sean Gallagher)

Seminarian Oscar Vasquez laughs during a class on Dec. 4 at Saint Meinrad School of Theology in St. Meinrad. Vasquez, a first-year theology student at Saint Meinrad, is a member of St. Mary Parish in Indianapolis. (Photo by Sean Gallagher)

By John Shaughnessy

As he walks the halls of Saint Meinrad School of Theology in St. Meinrad, seminarian Oscar Vasquez carries a book bag that reminds him of the hero who serves as an inspiration for his life—and his desire to become a priest.

The image on the book bag depicts Archbishop Oscar Romero, the bespectacled, balding Church leader in El Salvador whose vocal support of the poor and human rights caused him to be assassinated in 1980 as he celebrated Mass.

“My vocation became stronger when I read about his life and his work,” says the 30-year-old Vasquez, who was a toddler in El Salvador when Archbishop Romero was shot and killed during that country’s civil war.

“He’s not only a model of my faith, but a model of my life in all ways. I also lived during the civil war in El Salvador. My family had to flee from one city to another city because it was attacked. Archbishop Romero inspired hope, to give yourself for others. He did it with his life. He always was for the poor people.”

In Archbishop Romero, Vasquez sees a man who “gave himself to the Church, who gave himself to God.”

It’s an approach that Vasquez has adopted, an approach that helps to explain the unusual journey that has led him from El Salvador to a seminary in southern Indiana.

“I can see the hand of God in my life,” Vasquez says. “I really can’t explain why I came here. I just really want to serve the Catholic Church. Whether it’s in my country or another country, it doesn’t matter to me. God is moving me where he wants me to be.”

His faith journey began as a teenager when he was part of a youth group at his parish in San Salvador. As the years passed, he led the youth group and also directed several mission trips.

During those years, Vasquez met Father Kenneth Davis, a member of the Conventual Franciscan Province of Our Lady of Consolation based at Mount St. Francis in the New Albany Deanery, who was serving in El Salvador. Father Kenneth asked him if he had thought about becoming a priest, but Vasquez didn’t feel called at that point in his life. Instead, he went to college then worked as a supervisor in a company for more than three years.

“After that, I was talking to Father Ken,” Vasquez recalls. “He was still talking to me about becoming a priest. He said, ‘I will leave you with one idea. Ask God in your prayers if he wants you to be a priest.’ ”

Vasquez prayed. This time, he heard God’s call.

“I asked if he would consider serving in the United States,” says Father Kenneth, who now teaches at Saint Meinrad School of Theology and resides at Mount St. Francis Friary. “When he agreed, I began to look for a place where he would be welcome, and found the then-vocation director of the archdiocese—Father Joseph Moriarty—very open and supportive. Oscar went through the same process for acceptance as any other seminarian.”

Vasquez came to the United States in 2005, finding a spiritual home at St. Mary Parish in Indianapolis.

“My parish in El Salvador was the Immaculate Conception,” Vasquez says. “When I came here, I was happy my parish was St. Mary’s. I dedicated myself to the Virgin Mary. St. Mary’s is my home parish. I feel I belong to that place. I see their needs. I see their fruits, too.”

Vasquez has been a blessing for St. Mary Parish, says its pastor, Father Michael O’Mara.

“It’s a good place for him because we’re a bilingual parish,” Father O’Mara says. “He’s done so much ministry for us. He’s been a catechist with children and adults. He’s done vocation programs. He has worked with the poor. On the anniversary of the death of Archbishop Romero, he led us in prayer. You can see the sincerity of his prayer. He has worked hard to learn English, too.”

Father O’Mara pauses and then says, “Both of his parents are deceased. I have a very special bond with him. I feel like he’s a brother or a son to me. Here at St. Mary’s, we are his family.”

Since August, Vasquez has been trying to make a new home at Saint Meinrad School of Theology.

“The beginning was a little hard,” he says. “Now, I feel comfortable. I feel much better. I really like the spiritual life.”

He talks again about his life “being in the hands of God.” Then he adds a twist to that phrase, a twist that gives a hint of the future he sees for himself.

“We are the hands of God,” he says. “If we do something, it has to be for God. I would like to help the poor people. If we are open to serve God, the work will be easy for us.”

(For more information on archdiocesan seminarians, log on to www.heargodscall.com.)

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