Seminarians and priests reflect archdiocese’s Latino population
Juan José González Lara is serving this summer at Divine Mercy Parish in Schuyler. And the seminarian, who just finished his third year at Conception Seminary College in Conception, Mo., said he has learned a great deal.
"I follow the priest so I can learn from him," Lara said. "I go to meetings, I go to Mass, to the different sacraments to learn what a priest does."
Born in Mexico, Lara grew up in south Omaha and has wanted to be a priest since he was a young boy. He is one of three seminarians with Latino heritage studying to be priests in the Archdiocese of Omaha.
The other two are Mexico natives Luis Contreras, who is working at Catholic Cemeteries this summer and spending time at Assumption-Guadalupe Parish, both in Omaha, and Mauricio Tovar, serving this summer 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 said. "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."
Lara 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," Lara 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," Lara said he was interested in serving not only Hispanics, but "all the people of God." But it would be nice to serve Hispanics in any congregation in his native language, he said.
"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 Lara, Contreras is a student at Conception Seminary. And he, too, found the Omaha archdiocese welcoming to the Latino community.
"I think the archdiocese has been kind, helpful and hospitable to the Hispanic community," said Contreras.
And he pointed to Father Carl Zoucha, pastor of Assumption-Guadalupe, as one priest who has had a big impact on the south Omaha Hispanic community.
Making an impact
"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 the Lord. Father Zoucha is a good example of one such mentor, Father Roza said.
And the church strives to have everyone draw close to the Lord, Father Roza said.
"There is certainly a desire on the part of the archdiocese to minister to everybody who is part of our life right now – 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."