When I was a sophomore at Belen, my theology teacher was a Jesuit priest by the name of Enrique San Pedro, S.J. A Belen alumnus from the class of 1941, he entered the Society of Jesus when he was just 15 years old. After his ordination to the priesthood in 1957, he furthered his studies at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome and then eventually received a doctorate in scriptural theology from the University of Innsbruck in Austria.
Of his many talents, it was his ability to speak many languages that caught his superior’s attention. He was eventually sent to Manila to study Mandarin, Tagalog, and Vietnamese, taught social sciences at the Jesuit school in the Philippines and taught theology at the Pius X Pontifical College in Da Lat in Vietnam, where he was eventually expelled in 1975 by the communist government. He settled in Miami and became pastor of St. Raymond Catholic Church while teaching theology to tenth graders at Belen.
This is where I met him. I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but it impressed me that such an extraordinary mind and such a talented individual would be assigned to teach sophomores theology at a small school in west Miami. What I did notice right off the bat though, was that he was a very humble and holy man. He spoke of God with such passion that you could tell he had a very close relationship with Him. When he mentioned Jesus in his classes, he did so with the same ease the apostles must have shown when they went throughout the world preaching the gospel. I often remember when I was at a Mass he would celebrate, I would catch myself thinking that when I grew up, I wanted to be just like him. Little did I know back then, when I was a sophomore, that he was helping me draw closer to discovering my own vocation.
Shortly after that sophomore year, Fr. San Pedro was ordained a bishop by St. Pope John Paul II. At first, he turned down the offer insisting his life as a Jesuit did not permit him to take on such a responsibility, but Pope John Paul II insisted and he humbly accepted his new role in the Church and served as auxiliary bishop in Galveston-Houston and then bishop of Brownsville, Texas. As bishop, he took on the motto Libentissime impendam et super impendar (Most gladly I will spend myself and be spent for your sake).
Years later, when I was in my third year as a Jesuit seminarian, Bishop Enrique San Pedro was diagnosed with a brain tumor. I remember the day I was in Miami and was able to visit him. I walked into the hospital room and as soon as he saw me, he asked all the other people who were there to leave us alone. I closed the door and stood by his bedside. He grabbed my hand and said to me that the pain and suffering he was going through at that time he was offering up to God for my vocation. Then he looked at me and said, “tienes que ser un buen cura” (“you have to be a good priest”). Wow, not a day goes by that I don't think of San Pedro. How he lived his life and exhausted it for God and the Church has always been a strong motivation for me and my priesthood.
When you went to Mass last Sunday, you heard the gospel story from St. Luke about Zacchaeus, the short tax collector (19:1-10). Jesus was passing through the town of Jericho and a large crowd began to form. Because Zacchaeus was small in stature, he had to climb up a sycamore tree in order to see him. I love that story. But, do you know who my favorite character is? It’s not Zacchaeus and not even Jesus, it’s the sycamore tree. Rooted firmly in the ground and standing strong, it was the tree that gave a little man the opportunity to encounter Jesus and it changed his life. Bishop Enrique San Pedro was my sycamore. Rooted in his faith and standing strong as a Jesuit priest, he provided for me, a little man, the opportunity to see above the crowds and encounter Jesus and it changed my life.