Fr Sylvester David OMI has been appointed to lead the Oblate School of Theology in the USA. He will be the first African to hold the top post at the US institution. Matthew Charlesworth SJ spoke to him ahead of his move to the USA to take up this important work.

Fr Sylvester David OMI has been appointed President of the Oblate School of Theology (OST) in San Antonio, Texas, USA. David, at present the Vicar General of the Archdiocese of Durban, will replace the world-renowned and well-loved Fr Ron Rolheiser OMI. The announcement was made by the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate (OMI) in South Africa and the USA.

The first African to hold such a post will bring a wealth of experience to the new job. He served as the head of St Joseph’s Theological Institute (SJTI), Cedara, KwaZulu-Natal for eight years, leaving there in September 2015.

While most associate the OMIs with parishes they have a tradition of running higher education institutions. These were for the training of their own men have developed into degree-granting institutions open to laity and clergy alike. Both SJTI and OST are members of the Association of Oblate Institutes of Higher Learning.

Through this association, SJTI has reciprocal links with OST where David spent a very happy sabbatical. Some of his own formators at SJTI were professors at OST such as the much-respected theologian Fr Ken Hannon OMI who taught him Sacramental Theology. The OMI like most religious orders are becoming increasingly international and multi-cultural and it is becoming common to bring talent from all over the world.

The appointment process for a new president at OST began in 2016.

When initially approached David said to them “I am a man under obedience, talk to my provincial… The appointment could only have come about from our provincial authorities. There was a dialogue between [the] USA and SA.”

A few years of negotiation followed before the US and South African provincials decided to mission David to the new role. He has been appointed for five years beginning in 2019 but this is renewable.

Born in Durban, South Africa in 1953 he studied psychology at UNISA and did a postgraduate specialisation in Community Psychology at the Jesuits’ Creighton University in the USA.

His initial priestly studies were at SJTI. Later he studied scripture in Rome and holds a doctorate in Biblical Theology where he completed his thesis on the prologue in the Gospel of John.

After ordination in 1991 he worked in formation, as a scripture lecturer and in parishes in Cedara, Estcourt and Durban. He also made a 30-day retreat in the Ignatian tradition during a period of sabbatical in 2016. He is well qualified to run an institution of higher learning specialising in theology and spirituality.

When asked what challenges await him in his new job, David said: “If you ask any private educational head, the two most stressing demands are staff and finances.” Nonetheless, he is looking forward to this challenge and is excited to the be the first African appointed to this position.

The OST offers several masters and doctoral qualifications in theology, spirituality and ministry and has an internationally acclaimed faculty. Perhaps the most well-known there is outgoing president Fr Ron Rolheiser who has led the institution for 13 years and will remain in residence at OST.

Reflecting on what it means to be missioned to another culture and country, David said he would miss his family. I know that “my family would miss me” but even now living in South Africa, “I could not attend some family functions because of work demands”. He adds that with social media being missioned globally is no longer the barrier it once was to maintaining relationships.

David is known for his love of cricket, his persistence in golf and his sense of humour, which he admits can get him into trouble at times. Even though he is a scripture scholar with a special interest in the prophets, it is not uncommon to hear him reciting the lyrics of Bob Dylan and the poems of WB Yeats.

He will move to the USA in January 2019 and will shadow Fr Ron Rolheiser before formally taking over as president at OST.

This article is archived here from my work for the online publication, Spotlight.Africa which I wrote whilst working for the Jesuit Institute South Africa. Spotlight.Africa was a work of the Society of Jesus in South Africa from 2017-2021.

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