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Monday, 14 April 2014 14:44

Prayer, priesthood and pedal power

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Fra Oscar Aguilera osmThe priestly ministry and cycling passion of Fra Oscar Aguilera osm complement each other and goes beyond this Servite priest's fitness and health goals, writes Matthew Biddle.

If the Catholic Church held an international cycling competition between members of the clergy, Fra Oscar Aguilera osm would probably win.

The 40-year-old priest is a well-regarded cyclist in Perth, who has competed in a number of large scale races, and even has several sponsors.

But winning races isn’t why Fra Oscar cycles.

He says his priestly ministry and his passion for cycling go hand-in-hand, perfectly complementing each other.

“I’ve done a lot of counselling on the bike, done a few unofficial reconciliations, done a lot of marriage counselling on the bike, I’ve arranged baptisms, I’ve done just about everything on the bike,” Fra Oscar says.

Although his fellow cyclists may not be Catholics, nor even believers in God, the Servite priest says he learns a lot from their company.

“I’ve got friends that come from very different walks of life, which is really cool for me, because it helps me to understand where people are at,” he says.

“That helps me also when I preach because I don’t preach to the converted only, I also try to engage those people… that only come [to church] once in a blue moon, so I’m able to engage them as well, so I love that aspect.”

The Chilean-born priest has always had a passion for cycling, ever since the days of his childhood growing up with seven siblings.

“We used to have one bicycle for all the children, so we used to take turns,” he recalls. “I was too little so I had to put my legs between the bars to cycle.”

His love for cycling continued through his teenage years and his family’s migration to Australia, and even during his studies for the priesthood when he was in his 20s.

In 2005, Fra Oscar became the first Servite to be ordained for the Perth Archdiocese in more than two decades.

Fellow Servite Fr Leo Spicer OSM, who was one of Fra Oscar’s high school teachers, says his confrere’s passion for cycling was always evident.

“He’s been into cycling for a long time,” Fr Leo says. “He’s very passionate about it and he’s out on the road most days of the week before starting school.”

“When he came to the Order everyone knew he liked [cycling], it’s certainly one of his characteristics.”

Although he still lives at the Tuart Hill friary, Fra Oscar is kept busy these days as the chaplain to Trinity College in Perth, and as an assistant priest at Sacred Heart Parish in Highgate.

But his duties don’t stop him from getting on his bike almost every day. He says he rides up to 500km every week.

In fact, according to his statistics on the cyclists’ tracking website, Strava, Fra Oscar cycled an average of 509km and more than 19 hours each week in January.

Most of his rides aren’t competitive any more, but Fra Oscar has taken part in numerous rides for charity from Mandurah to Perth.

“I’ve been asked to do a lot of stuff, but because a lot of the races here in Perth are on a Sunday morning, that counts me out,” he says. “If it fits with my Mass schedule I’ll do it.”

On one occasion Fra Oscar finished a race just in time to say Mass, leaving his legs “feeling a bit like jelly” after minimal recovery time.

“We finished in the city, and then I cycled over to Highgate, had a quick shower and then got vested and stated celebrating Mass,” he says. “That was very close.”

Last month Fra Oscar travelled to Adelaide, as he has done for each of the past five years, for the annual ‘Santos Tour Down Under’, Australia’s biggest cycling event.

The six-day event is a world-class international cycling event, in which 140 riders from around the world cycle through South Australia.

Although he didn’t take part in the race, Fra Oscar rode more than 1,000km during the week – more than the length of the race itself.

“We were sort of the groupies of the tour, we’d ride to the start of the race, the half way point, and to the finishing line,” he explains. “To get there we’d do a loop of about 130km, so it was quite exciting.

“Last year there was only about four of us, but this year there were about 30 of us.”

Now that he’s back in Perth, Fra Oscar has resumed his routine of going for an early morning ride, before joining fellow Trinity staff for another ride before school starts.

He says there are several things about cycling he enjoys.

“It’s the mateship that you build up and the relationships that can be created,” he says. “It’s also healthy and keeps me active.”

Additionally, cycling provides the Servite friar with a chance to forget about any pressing tasks and to simply relax.

“Because of the times that I go cycling, which is mainly very early in the morning, it’s a very spiritual time for me,” he says. “I can actually meditate as well and it’s also my prayer time.

“It’s a time when I think and mould my homilies. Every pedal stroke becomes a prayer. My pedals are equal to a bead, a full rotation is one Hail Mary.”

Fra Oscar says he enjoys the solitude and peace of riding on his own, but he also thrives on the chance to assist fellow cyclists.

“When I cycle with friends it can be a time of ministry, so I have to be attentive to what’s happening, not just on the road, but to being present to the people next to me,” he says. “Many people seek me out, they come and ride next to me and start asking me questions, which is great. I love that they feel free to do that.

“For some of them it is their only contact with somebody of faith.”

A passion for cycling necessitates a passion for bikes too, and Fra Oscar owns several of them, including his present vehicle of choice, a Cannondale.

“Every bike that I’ve got has a history,” he says. “My sister, who passed away two years ago, she used to go and see me race or compete in different events around Perth. So I brought a bike in honour of her and she loved tulips, so I’m going to get a tulip printed into the bike.

“Whenever I go on holidays I always take my bike. It’s always the first thing I pack.”

A regular at bicycle stores, Fra Oscar is well liked by staff, and has even initiated a new ministry at one store.

“One of the shops that I go to, TBE in Osborne Park, we’ve got a group we call the COP, which is short for the Church of Pain,” he explains.

“It’s basically kids that are kicking the habit of drugs but we’re trying to keep them active, so we go riding with them.”

Fra Oscar says he can’t see himself hanging up the helmet anytime soon.

“A man I know who still rides is 55, and he’s in good shape, so I’ll be happy if I can do that,” he says.

“At my recent annual health check-up the doctor said my cholesterol and heart were better than average.”

The Servite priest also encourages others, whether lay or religious, to find a healthy balance between work, family and exercise.

He says, quoting Albert Einstein, that: “Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance you must keep moving.”

This article, text and photo from Matthew Biddle, was first published in the 7 April 2014 edition of The Record, the publication of the Catholic Church in Western Australia.