By Bro. Mateusz Garstecki, OMI with Mike Viola
My name is Mateusz Garstecki and I am a Missionary Oblate of Mary Immaculate seminarian. I am writing to you today from the Oblates’ Intenational Roman Scholasticate in Rome, Italy. Please let me tell you a little bit about myself.
God entered my ordinary life with an extraordinary invitation: “Come, follow Me.”
I grew up in a practicing Catholic family outside of Chicago. In the fifth grade we moved to San Antonio, Texas where the Missionary Oblates have numerous ministries. About every other year my family traveled to Poland to visit relatives, so I connected strongly with my Polish and Catholic heritage when I was young.
During my childhood I went to church regularly, and generally appreciated the faith, but having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ only became very real when I was 15 years old.
Up to that point, I was constantly busy with a variety of interesting things. My main goal in life was to be successful, whether it was in studies, on the soccer team or engaging in some creative hobbies. All of these were good in themselves, but because I let them dominate my life, they became “idols.” And they never really satisfied me. I ended up becoming restless, discontent and eventually somewhat depressed. Why was I so unhappy when everything seemed to be going so well?
These struggles forced me to realize my own weakness and just how much I needed God. So, thanks to the seed of faith my parents planted in us children, I began to pray. Now that God finally had my attention, He began to change my heart.
Over time I discovered many new things, and I realized that in our lives, the only thing that could possibly make sense, fundamentally, is to seek God’s will. He created us, after all, and He only desires what is good for us!
I started thinking about becoming a priest in high school. My aunt helped to inspire me to consider religious life. She is a sister in the Society of Divine Word and works with the poor in Paraguay. When my siblings and I were growing up, our mom would sometimes tell us about her and the wonderful experiences and challenges she had serving in Paraguay.
In my prayers at that time, I was asking God to help me know what path to take in my life. I met Sr. Yolanda Flores, S.S.C.J. at our parish and she asked my brothers and I if any one of us might consider a vocation to be a priest. I was open to the possibility of a priestly vocation, and she helped me to get in contact with Fr. Charlie Banks, OMI who was the Oblates’ Vocation Director in the area.
The first time I met with Fr. Charlie he mentioned the Oblates were missionaries. I felt that God was speaking to me through this because of my aunt’s work as a missionary sister in Paraguay. The fact that the Oblates are missionaries really struck a chord deep inside of me. I felt that God might be calling me to dedicate my life in service to the poor as a priest. Later, I attended an Oblate Come and See program. I was happy to explore this path that God was setting me on, and I applied to enter formation.
I joined the Oblate pre-novitiate program in Buffalo, New York. At the age of 18 I was the youngest member of the Oblate community. As a pre-novice I had the opportunity to spend a month ministering at our Oblate missions in Tijuana, B.C., Mexico. That experience truly opened my eyes to the needs of the poor and the big impact the Oblates can have through their ministries to people living in desperate circumstances.
The day I arrived in Tijuana, Fr. Jesse Esqueda, OMI took me to a discernment retreat. I met many young men who were there seeking out God’s will for their lives. In the following weeks I had many more encounters with them, and many other young men and women in the youth group.
It was great to see so many young people passionately involved in their faith, all in service of Christ and the community around them. The Oblates in Tijuana also provide scholarships for many of the young people to be able to get a good education, which allows them to avoid the trap of factory jobs which include long hours and little pay.
While I was at the mission, there were many occasions that we went out to visit families to bring them food and find out if they had any needs that the parish could meet (such as if they had medical needs or if they needed school uniforms for the children). I also taught some English classes. I was impressed by how hard the students were working and how quickly they were learning.
My time in Tijuana was very blessed, as I met many loving, faithful people, and I was able to witness the work of the Oblates in that part of the world. It was very fulfilling in terms of following God’s call in my life as I go through Oblate formation. Many of the youth at the Oblate parish wear shirts that say, “Transformados por Cristo” which means, “Transformed by Christ.” I think those words truly capture how God has touched the lives of the poor through the ministries of the Oblates.
After my time as a pre-novice, I spent a year as a novice at our Immaculate Heart of Mary Novitiate in Godfrey, Illinois. The novitiate year is a time away from family and friends to examine more deeply if I was being called to religious life and specifically as a Missionary Oblate. The year gave me many opportunities to grow on a human and spiritual level in the context of the community. In August 2020, I professed my first vows as an Oblate and enrolled at Oblate School of Theology (OST) in San Antonio, just a half an hour away from my family home.
As a student at OST, I was part of the Blessed Mario Borzaga Formation Community, a group of Oblate seminarians from around the world who are studying at the school. During my first year as a scholastic, the community included Oblate students from the United States, Zambia, Lesotho, Botswana, Nigeria, India, Bangladesh, Kenya and Mexico. Even two of the brothers from the U.S. Province were born in other countries – Burma and Haiti.
My year as part of the international community in San Antonio prepared me well for the biggest surprise of my life. I was selected to study at the Oblates’ International Roman Scholasticate in Rome, Italy. I am the first seminarian from the U.S. Province to study in Rome since 2010.
The International Roman Scholastic is currently home to 22 students representing 15 countries around the world. When I arrived in Rome, I became even more convinced that my future is as an Oblate and as a vessel of the Good News.
I have been very blessed to experience life in the community here. I am encouraged in my vocational journey as I continue to meet other Oblates and scholastics who share very richly from their own cultural experiences and their vocational call to serve as missionaries throughout the world.
For example, I have been impressed by the faith and courage of a couple of my brother scholastics, Noman and Babar. They are from Pakistan, a country where Catholics face many challenges of potential religious persecution, although they have also told me that slowly their country is becoming more religiously tolerant. I find their commitment to serve as Oblates to be a strong witness of trust in God.
I am also impressed by my brother scholastic, Sviatoslav, who is from Ukraine. He has shared how in his country, the Oblates are not many, but they are slowly starting to get more and more vocations. His country also faces many challenges on account of past communist oppression and ongoing political difficulties. He says that many people in Ukraine are poor, and the Oblates are serving in this context, helping people walk the path of faith and meeting the material needs of the poor.
Besides that, our Scholastic community is also next to the General Administration of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate. So, many Missionary Oblates from various parts of the world pass through here for programs that will help them in their ministries. I am fortunate in this way to meet many of them, and I truly feel a sense of the wider ‘Oblate world.’
I also appreciate the opportunity to visit various places in Rome. It truly is a rich experience of getting to see places that have a lot of significance for our faith. For example, the church from which St. Philip Neri served many people, particularly the poor of Rome, is just fifteen minutes away by bus. St. Peter’s Basilica is close enough to walk to in half an hour. The site of the martyrdom of St. Paul is a bit farther, but also within reach. With my fellow scholastics, I have had many opportunities to visit these and other places. It is always a special opportunity to pray in these places, and I am thankful to God for this experience. I feel connected to the Church of the past, and it gives me hope for the Church of the present. I feel encouraged that we can also follow God’s path to share the Good News today, to the people of our time.
Finally, I am also fortunate to study at the Gregorian University with my brother scholastics. I find the studies very enriching as I continue my vocational journey. I also have the opportunity to meet many seminarians, religious sisters and brothers, laypersons and student priests at the university, which is also a meaningful experience.
I hope that through my time in Rome, I will be able to share from the examples of faith, commitment and service that I have witnessed in the people I have met. I pray to God that I will be able to serve Him faithfully wherever I may be sent. For me, this is a time of preparation for Oblate ministry, and I am very blessed to be in formation. At the same time, it is already a step into Oblate life as we are already living community life together in vows, praying together each day and participating in some ministry opportunities on a weekly basis.
Thank you for taking the time to learn about my Oblate life. Please know that I do not take this journey alone. You are with me every step of the way. Through your prayers and support you enrich my life in countless ways. I pray for you every day. I also offer a prayer of thanks for the generosity you have shown me and my brother Oblates who are pursuing our calling to religious life.
My journey continues, because of you! Thanks be to God.
Bro. Mateusz Garstecki, OMI.