San Antonio, Texas – When experiencing conflict between friends, colleagues, or even internal conflict within one’s self, help can sometimes feel hard to come by. It is not often that there is a designated person to turn to for support or even a space to explore the emotions involved. This can lead individuals and communities to feel disconnected from themselves and each other. At its worst, people can go their entire lives without developing genuine empathy for, and connection with, others in their community.
But at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, Texas, that couldn’t be farther from the case.
“In any organization or institution, personal problems within or between community members don’t always get voiced right away. When they don’t get voiced, they tend to get worse, and most people haven’t been trained to deal with conflict in a healthy way,” said Dr. Bob O’Connor, University Ombuds and Project Director of The Saint John’s Bible Project at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, Texas. “My goal as Ombuds is to be available is to meet people where they are and aim for fairness in the treatment of everyone – supervisors, supervisees, administrators, faculty, and students. I serve everybody.”
By “everybody,” Dr. O’Connor (known as Dr. Bob at the University) truly does mean everybody. The Ombuds Office is a place where all administrators, faculty, staff, students, and alumni can go for an entirely confidential, informal, optional visit to talk with someone who isn’t involved in a conflict, and has the skill set and emotional intelligence to help people work through it. According to the International Ombuds Association, “Ombuds are trusted advisors leading the way toward more just, engaged, and inclusive organizations.” This can involve conflict resolution for two colleagues in a disagreement, advocating for the desires of the community at an administrative level, or even helping members of the University community cope with fractures in their personal lives, such as divorce or the loss of a loved one.
A beloved and well-known figure at the University, O’Connor wears many hats at St. Mary’s. In addition to his role as Ombuds, O’Connor is also the Director of The Saint John’s Bible Heritage Edition Project at St. Mary’s, which the University acquired in 2013 as a generous gift from John and Sue Morrison from Minneapolis, Minnesota. Responding to that gift, former Board of Trustees Chairman and alumnus Rubén Escobedo and his wife Veronica Escobedo established a lecture series for supporting biblical scholars from each semester.
As Project Director, O’Connor is tasked with directing how the Heritage Edition lives at the University. While the work’s permanent residence is housed in a special hand-crafted display case in Sarita Kenedy East Law Library’s rare book room, the work has visited classroom after classroom to aid students in their academic development. It also serves as academic inspiration and support for the University’s biannual Escobedo Lecture Series, that supports O’Connor’s travel to 15 and 30 institutions across the United States each year, where O’Connor presents the work. To date, St. Mary’s University’s Heritage Edition has touched ground on Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Missouri, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, Hawaii, and more.
More Than Art: Fostering True Connection in an Isolated Age
Though O’Connor’s roles may seem conceptually discrete, they share more similarities than one might initially presume. In both roles, O’Connor uses his gifts in conflict resolution and spiritual counseling to facilitate healthy movement through high-intensity emotions that might arise during someone’s experience with the Bible. Due to the profound nature of seekers’ reactions to the work, this skill is a necessary asset to have.
“It’s amazing how often emotions swell up during a presentation. It’s not rare at all,” said O’Connor. “The smaller the presentation, the more likely they are to come up.” According to O’Connor, this is true regardless of the kind of institution to which he is presenting the Heritage Edition. From parishes, universities of various religious affiliations, affinity groups, hospitals, and more, people invariably meet the work with awe, curiosity, and inspiration.
O’Connor typically begins an institution’s experience with the Heritage Edition with an introductory presentation to the work. When possible, he returns to the institution a few weeks later and dives into a theme, which he uses the Heritage Edition to illustrate. Previous themes have included suffering, joy, Lent, and more.
“I see the effect on people in their eyes,” said O’Connor. “I often begin by showing the genealogy of Jesus. I don’t remember a single presentation where it hasn’t happened that all I hear immediately is whispers…from there, they just want more and more.”
“The presentation gives the context for what seekers are going to experience with the Bible. When they have context for the work and then see it, they are deeply affected,” said O’Connor. “When the reaction is heavy, it can be unbelievably heavy, but, when it’s good, it can be unbelievably so. Many people are just afraid to jump one way or the other. It’s my job to create a healthy space for seekers to have the emotional reaction that feels right to them so that they can learn something from their experience.”
After his presentations, it’s not uncommon for participants to open up to O’Connor about how the work has made them view a difficult situation in a new light or inspired them in a way they haven’t felt before. These interactions allow for deeper understanding between everyone in the room, inspiring conversations that might not have happened in the absence of this sacred piece of art.
So, what is it about The Saint John’s Bible that inspires such profound reactions? O’Connor believes it’s the visceral power of the art – especially art of this caliber – to connect us with our deepest selves and to each other.
“Art doesn’t go primarily through the head. It hits what we often describe as the heart. It addresses us at kind of a visceral level, and we’re moved by it,” said O’Connor. “I often talk about the relationship between art, religion, music, et cetera, that they have this power. That’s why famous artworks make an imprint on history. That’s why they are still relevant. They have this power to just grab us – and The Saint John’s Bible is a great contemporary example of that power.”
The Heritage Edition in the Classroom: Illuminating Knowledge
When the Heritage Edition isn’t traveling around the nation, leaving its unique mark on varying cultures, climates, and institutions, O’Connor uses the work to facilitate deeper learning for students from within the walls of the University.
In addition to theology classes, you’ll also find the work used in environmental science courses to analyze the presence of energy, populations, and food in the Heritage Edition; a graphic novel course where students draw inspiration from the illuminations to inform their own work as budding artists and writers; and even for the school’s Upward Bound program, where juniors in high school get to experience what it would be like for them to attend the University.
“The Saint John’s Bible is unlike anything else,” said Dr. O’Connor. “It really is unique, and unique things tend to shock people. They tend to bring out the awe in people because they’ve never seen anything like this before. And when they see something so large and so beautiful, and they have the opportunity to dive into what this illumination means, or what that symbolism means. They’re just overwhelmed.”
10 Years Down, Centuries to Come
With more than 10 years of sharing the Heritage Edition with the University community and the nation at large under his belt, O’Connor looks forward to the time ahead, not ready to slow down his important work any time soon.
“I’ve been here a real long time, so I know most of the people or might’ve had some of them as students. What it really does is keep me coming back to the office. I should have retired a number of years ago, but I feel like I haven’t gone to work in 55 years,” said O’Connor. “Why would I want to retire? What I’ve come to conclude through feedback I receive is that what I’m doing through my Ombuds work and my work with the Heritage Edition is useful to people. If that’s the case, I would rather wear out than rust out. Being noticed by people is nice, but being there for people is even better.”