I live in a city named after one of the great Franciscan saints, Saint Anthony. San Antonio was named after Saint Anthony over 300 years ago when the Franciscans made their way to South Texas in the 1700s. San Antonio is a diverse city that attempts to honor the beauty, goodness, and influence of every culture that has settled in this area, including the influence of Saint Anthony.
I am not from San Antonio, but my husband and I have lived here for over 30 years, and our first encounter with a Franciscan friar was in 2013. We were introduced to this friar by one of the friar’s classmates from The Oblate School of Theology. Both were doing their theological field education at San Antonio AIDS Foundation, where we (ACTS HOPE) offered spiritual service and companionship to its residents. San Antonio AIDS Foundation is a place where men and women reside who have been abandoned by their families because of their HIV status and/or who cannot be taken care of physically and medically in their homes. To our surprise, it was at this place, where at times little hope seemed to exist, we encountered two men who were in the formation process of becoming priests.
The Franciscan friar and his classmate, an OMI (Oblate Mary Immaculate) accepted the invitation to attend and be part of our ACTS (Adoration, Community, Theology, and Service) retreat scheduled in 2014. Once ordained and relocating from San Antonio, Texas, Fr. Ray Cook, OMI, suggested that Mario Serrano might be a good fit for our ministry of ACTS HOPE. The acronym HOPE stands for Healing One-body through Peace and Empathy. An ACTS HOPE retreat is a Catholic-based weekend retreat where team members host around 30 members of the community to help revive, regain, and receive faith, hope, and unconditional love once again.
Fr. Ray believed that Mario would be an excellent spiritual companion. He praised Mario for being passionate, compassionate, and unconditional. Our ACTS HOPE retreats require non-judgmental and unconditional members to wholly invite and wholly welcome everyone as children of God.
What a blessing and gift our friendship and relationship has been with friar Mario, whom we also witnessed on the edge of a community like many of our ACTS HOPE community members. We witnessed Mario accompany us as a lay person, who was not allowed to use the title friar or identify himself as part of the brotherhood, due to his request for this period of exclaustration. We had the honor of his unconditional presence. We were honored to accept his invitation to the sacred table, and he welcomed us as children of God within the Church.
In proclaiming that we are indeed all of God’s children, we witnessed Mario reclaim his own vocation as a friar and then he invited us to be present when he was ordained a transitional deacon and then to the priesthood. Friar Mario has enabled us and invited us to witness to the community of friars in San Antonio and other places. Several of us have been present at the ordinations and professions of the friars. We have become friends with several of the friars.
Not only have we been welcomed as members of the Church, but the Franciscans have given us a warm welcome. We have prayed with them and prayed for them. We have grieved with them and have broken bread with them. Friar Mario has allowed us and encouraged us to be a part of his community, which gives him hope.
Friar Mario and all the friars have shared their humility and compassion for the community they serve with us. I can imagine, and I assume, that an encounter with the Franciscans almost 300 years ago was also one which enabled people to reclaim their identity as children of God, unconditionally and non-judgmentally.