OMAHA, Neb. (CNS) — Seminarian Juan Jose Gonzalez Lara spent the summer observing what priests do in the hope of fulfilling a boyhood dream.
“I follow the priest so I can learn from him,” said Gonzalez, who is entering his fourth year at Conception Seminary College in Conception, Missouri, and spent the summer at Divine Mercy Parish in Schuyler, Nebraska. “I go to meetings, I go to Mass, to the different sacraments to learn what a priest does.”
Born in Mexico, Gonzalez grew up in South Omaha and has wanted to be a priest since childhood. He is one of three seminarians of Latino heritage studying to be priests in the Archdiocese of Omaha.
The other two are Mexico natives. Luis Contreras worked at Catholic Cemeteries during the summer and spent time at Assumption-Guadalupe Parish in Omaha. Mauricio Tovar served at St. Thomas More Parish, also in Omaha.
Father Andrew Roza, director of vocations, said the archdiocese is reaching out to a growing Latino community, including having priests study Spanish in Mexico, where they can be immersed in the language for several months.
“We strive to make the Lord lovable to everyone,” Father Roza told the Catholic Voice, Omaha’s archdiocesan newspaper. “Certainly we desire very much and pray with great zeal for Hispanic candidates for the priesthood who will go on to be ordained and to serve their community, and to serve all the communities of the archdiocese.”
Still, vocations are a “mysterious thing,” Father Roza said. “So there’s a certain amount where you say, ‘It came from this or that, it’s the fruit of this or that,’ but a lot of times it’s a kid who had a great family and was in a good parish, and the Lord’s just got his number.”
Gonzalez said he attended seminary for two and a half years beginning at age 11 in Mexico before his family moved to South Omaha and Assumption-Guadalupe Parish, which has a large Latino population.
“We have more Spanish Masses than English,” Gonzalez said. “But then, when I started discovering the wider diocese, I thought, we don’t fully have enough Hispanic priests for all the Hispanic parishioners we have in the archdiocese.”
Stressing that he’s “open to the will of God,” Gonzalez said he was interested in serving not only Hispanics, but “all the people of God.” But he still would like to serve Hispanics in any congregation in his native language.
“I really like Schuyler, it’s a great community,” he said. “Having the experience of two priests, Father Gerry (Gonderinger, pastor of Divine Mercy Parish) and (Benedictine) Father Gregory (Congote, associate pastor), I have learned a lot from them. And being close to people is very nice, because it’s helped me a lot with discernment — when I’m close to people, I feel like I’m closer to God.”
Like Gonzalez, Contreras is a student at Conception Seminary. And he, too, found the Omaha Archdiocese welcoming to the Latino community, saying it was “kind, helpful and hospitable.”
He also pointed to Father Carl Zoucha, pastor of Assumption-Guadalupe, as one priest who has had a big impact on the South Omaha Hispanic community.
“He was actually in Schuyler, and they brought him back to Assumption-Guadalupe,” Contreras said. “He’s so enthusiastic and spends time with everybody, and so kind with the Hispanic community, just very engaged with them. And he speaks Spanish very well.”
Father Zoucha also helped Contreras as the seminarian began to discern his own call, and he serves as a model for the kind of leader he would like to be, Contreras said.
“I would be very comfortable just spending time with people, not just celebrating Mass,” Contreras said. “Going to our parish festival that’s coming up in August, being visible and being out there, being accessible. I think that’s the main thing, being able to be approachable.
“I love Jesus, and I love our Hispanic community in Omaha.”
Father Roza said vocations are born in parishes and schools, communities and cultures that encourage the faith, and in particular priest mentors who invite men into a deeper life with God.
The church also strives to bring everyone closer to God, he said.
“There is certainly a desire on the part of the archdiocese to minister to everybody who is part of our life right now,” Father Roza explained. “We try to minister to everyone who is in the church, and we try to do that in a variety of ways. Whether that’s through local programming, certainly our parishes, we have a number of priests who have really done well in learning Spanish.
“So we’re really happy and excited about anyone from that community who comes forward, because there’s so much need.”
Keenan writes for the Catholic Voice, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Omaha.