By Jesse López, Oblate Pre-novice
Oblate formators and Pre-novice, Jesse Lopez, Attend Intellectually-Elevating, Spiritually-Grounding Wonder Conference, Presented by the Word on Fire Institute
The communities of the Henri Tempier Pre-Novitiate and the Immaculate Heart of Mary Novitiate came together to kick off their second half of the formation year on a high intellectual note! Fr. Juan Gaspar, O.M.I., and I, of the Pre-Novitiate community, were accompanied by Bro. George Litiya, O.M.I., of the Novitiate community, as we attended and participated in the inaugural conference entitled Wonder, presented by Winona-Rochester Bishop Robert Barron’s Word on Fire Institute through the support of the John Templeton Foundation, from January 13th to 14th, 2023. Held at the Gaylord Texan Resort & Convention Center, in Grapevine, Texas, just outside of Dallas, the conference in its inaugural edition focused on the theme of faith and science.
The conference featured a jam-packed schedule of breakout sessions and keynote addresses by some of the most eminent Catholic scientists and philosophers/theologians today, including priests, researchers, physicians, physicists, astronomers, and chemists. To kick off the conference, on Friday afternoon, the Oblate team had an opportunity to listen to Fr. Robert J. Spitzer, S.J., Ph.D., whose opening keynote address focused on the evidence for God from science; then, participating in a breakout session, we heard from Daniel Kuebler, Ph.D., who focused on themes surrounding evolution and Catholic theology; following this breakout session, the team returned to the ballroom to hear a keynote address by Karin I. Öberg, Ph.D., on the wonder and limits of science; next, we continued onto another breakout session – this time, a presentation by Christopher Kaczor, Ph.D., on themes surrounding science, faith, and happiness.
The following day, after the team delighted in a hearty breakfast, we were treated to a hardy and heady keynote address by Bishop Robert Barron, focusing on faith, science, and evangelization – an address that served as rocket fuel to launch us energetically into another journey of talks; lifting off from here, the Oblate crew broke off into a methodically thought-out capsule of instruction commandeered by Stephen Bullivant, Ph.D., on science, atheism, and the unaffiliated; we concluded the conference landing back in the ballroom for a closing keynote address by Jennifer Wiseman, Ph.D., who invited us to embark on one final mission of exploration and explanation that spanned what she appropriately described as the “Universe of Wonder,” encompassing galaxies, black holes, planets, and life. Altogether, the conference turned out to be an enriching, fruitful, productive, compelling, motivating, and awe-inspiring momentous event that pushed the lay faithful, ordained ministers, and religious alike to the limits of their intellect; it made sense, then, that the event’s organizers allowed for some relief by the end of the first night by treating attendees to a comedy show, featuring Catholic comedian Jennifer Fulwiler.
The conference was indeed aptly named Wonder, in no coincidental way largely because we walked out of it not with an accomplished sense of resolution – a suitable if not sudden sense that all of our questions regarding issues at the intersection of faith and science had been answered to our satisfaction – but, rather, with a more profound sense of awe and inspiration, motivated by an even deeper urge for understanding, by an awareness of our need for knowledge, and by an insatiable thirst for recognizing all that unravels the great mysteries of our faith through our faculty for philosophy, theology, and science. In this sense, then, Wonder was not only a conference in which we, along with hundreds of other Catholics, participated, but also one that we collectively lived. We are all now left with the hope and consolation that we will be enabled to gather what we were able to grasp and gain in knowledge while we lived Wonder, complemented by all that we will later comprehend as recognizably late-blooming fruits of the ever-growing impulse of living in wonder, “and use it in an effective, evangelical way,” as Bishop Barron expressed was his hope and prayer for all attendees of this conference.
Matthew Bevis, a scholar and professor of English Literature at Oxford University, describes the human sense of wonder as follows: “When experiencing wonder, it feels as though we know something without quite being sure of what we know.” For those of us of whom wonder has now taken hold, the journey – a missionary path of faith and reason – is just beginning. In this regard, then, the quote by St. Ambrose of Milan, printed on the back of the custom-made Wonder hotel keycards provided to conference attendees, is perhaps most instructive here for us: “Let your door stand open to receive Him, unlock your soul to Him, offer Him a welcome in your mind, and then you will see the riches of simplicity, the treasures of peace, the joy of grace.”