Father David Garcia, officially speaking, will tell you he is retired after 46 years as a Catholic priest. That, I will tell you, is highly misleading. The publication this month of his book Pandemic Preaching: The Pulpit in a Year Like No Other is the latest testimony to the continuing work of one of the most influential clerics in contemporary San Antonio history.
Garcia’s reputation extends well beyond the city, the result of his global work for Catholic Relief Services, fellowships at Harvard and Notre Dame, and theological studies in Europe and Mexico. Locally, he is best known for leading the $21 million restoration of San Fernando Cathedral, completed in 2003, and then the $16 million restoration of the churches in the four Spanish Missions. Without Garcia’s work, San Antonio would not have earned UNESCO World Heritage recognition.
I’ve listened to Garcia’s homilies at San Fernando Cathedral and, years later, in the small, spiritual confines of Mission Concepción where he served as parish administrator while also serving as director of the Old Spanish Missions of San Antonio.
His talent for weaving current news events, human interest stories, and lessons from the Scriptures makes him one of the most relevant and engaging preachers I’ve known. He doesn’t hesitate to infuse Sunday Mass with a bit of humor from the pulpit, or to use the promise of free breakfast tacos as a parish draw.
Pandemic Preaching is now available on Amazon, and copies will become available later this month after Mass at San Fernando Cathedral and Mission Concepción, and at The Twig Book Shop at the Pearl. Proceeds from sales will benefit Catholic Charities, Refugee Resettlement, Assumption Seminary, and Las Misiones. As the title suggests, the book is the collected homilies delivered virtually by Garcia from March 2020 to April 2021 over 52 Sundays and eight feast days. His email list of friends grew steadily throughout the long pandemic as each week more people asked to receive the homilies.
Influencers on Garcia’s list like state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer shared the homilies with their own email lists and networks of social media followers, expanding the audience by thousands.
“I sent out Father David’s homily to about 10,000 people in San Antonio and around the state,” Martinez Fischer said. “They say in politics you always have to be careful about discussing religion, but the feedback I received from people of all faiths all over was very affirming. The pandemic was a dark place, and being able to read his homilies at the family dinner table on Sundays was very spiritual, especially knowing the impact he was having far beyond our home.”
Martha Martinez Flores, creative director at MM Creative, and her husband Mike Flores, chancellor of the Alamo Colleges, also were among Garcia’s many devoted followers.
“Not being able to attend Mass at Mission Concepción as a family during the pandemic was very difficult, but Father David’s homilies gave us hope and strength during a difficult time,” said Martinez Flores. “We would read them as a family every week to feel connected to the outside world and our faith,” she said.
Garcia’s messages marrying the contemporary experience of the pandemic with trials recorded in the Gospels gave people of faith comfort that this time, too, shall pass. Where others found themselves in conflict with family, friends, neighbors, and co-workers over the politics of the pandemic, several people who read the weekly homilies told me they grew more resilient, more forgiving, more understanding of others, despite significant differences.
“I would always try to start with a contemporary human story, many of which acknowledged heroes of the pandemic, and I always referenced the Scriptures, drawing on them to ask what we can learn to help each other out, to be a better community and country,” Garcia said in a conversation earlier this week. “I saw the pandemic as a moment to engage in deep reflection on who we are and how we become a better society.”
My friendship with “Father David” began shortly after my arrival in San Antonio as an editor at the San Antonio Light in 1989. Garcia, then on the faculty of the Assumption Seminary, was a member of the newspaper’s citizen advisory board. In 1995, he became rector at the historic San Fernando Cathedral, the oldest Catholic cathedral sanctuary in the United States, a position he held until 2008.
The cathedral was historic, but it also was in poor repair. Garcia proved to be a very persuasive fundraiser. The $21 million he raised not only funded the cathedral restoration, but also construction of a new Cathedral Centre Hall and the AT&T San Fernando Community Center.
One memorable moment came in 2001 or 2002 when Garcia convinced me to join him in a spontaneous ascent of the scaffolding that extended from one end of the cathedral interior to the other, like some giant Spider Man web. I do not search out opportunities to scale artificial heights, but Garcia was determined to show me architectural details not visible from the ground, including 19th century graffiti tucked into the upper reaches of the bell tower where workers had left their initials.
In the end, Garcia’s extraordinary vision, energy, and ability to raise funds from Catholics and non-Catholics alike led to the full restoration of San Fernando Cathedral as both an architectural jewel appreciated by people of all faiths as well as an active parish with Spanish language and bilingual Masses broadcast throughout the Americas.
Fast forward from his work at the cathedral and the Spanish Missions, and his time serving as pastor of Mission Concepción, and he has found his place in the digital age, sending out homilies from his virtual pulpit, ministering to a congregation that knows no boundaries.
So much for retirement.