Archbishop George J. Lucas opens the third annual Pastoral Conference Oct. 1 as emcee Calvin Mueller looks on. MIKE MAY/STAFF


Stepping outside the comfort zone is helping lead others to life in Christ

The power of a one-on-one, personal invitation.

Presenters at the archdiocese’s third annual Pastoral Conference, Oct. 1., proposed that as one way to address the current trends affecting the Catholic Church in Northeast Nebraska.

Livestreamed from the Relevant Center in Elkhorn to parishes around the archdiocese, the conference featured comments by Archbishop George J. Lucas and testimonies by members of several parishes who shared how personal invitations are changing lives and helping their parishes reach out to others with the Gospel message.

Helping all parishes become missional communities by 2026 was set forth two years ago as the archdiocese’s “big goal” to bring to full bloom the pastoral vision of “one Church: encountering Jesus, equipping disciples and living mercy.”

And to provide the foundation to make this possible, the archdiocese is engaged in a “Journey of Faith,” a planning process that involves realigning parishes into groupings, or families, of parishes that collaborate and share resources to help them and their priests to flourish while addressing the declining numbers of priests and practicing Catholics, and shifting population trends in both rural and urban areas.

To open the conference and speaking of the challenges and opportunities ahead, the archbishop reflected on the day of Pentecost when the apostles received the power of the Holy Spirit and then boldly went out to spread the Good News of Jesus.

“That’s the Holy Spirit that has animated and guided the Church from the very beginning – the same spirit that guides us still,” he said.

“It’s the Lord’s plan that we be his instruments, and that we allow ourselves to be used to have an effect on the neighborhoods and communities in which we live.”

And the testimonies shared by members of several parishes where this mission is taking hold point to the power of personal invitations.


For Bernardo Vazquez, a member of St. Peter Parish in Omaha, persistent invitations from a coworker who wouldn’t take no for an answer about attending a retreat together helped him turn his life around.

Bernardo Vazquez of St. Peter Parish in Omaha speaks about how he found new life through Jesus. MIKE MAY/STAFF

Vazquez, who had previously been full of anger and wanting nothing to do with God, said his friend began talking to him about God and inviting him to go on a retreat.

Eventually agreeing to go but not feeling well on the day it was to begin, Vazquez described resting in bed, then receiving a phone call from his friend, who said, “brother, are you coming?”

“No, no, I’m good,” Vazquez told his friend, who said, “I’m one minute away from your house.” So, getting out of bed, Vazquez relented.

By responding to an invitation, that retreat experience changed his life, and he is now on fire for the Lord and has set things straight with those in his life who he had hurt.

“Today is the day, says the Lord. He is waiting for you. He is waiting for me,” Vazquez said. “He wants to give you new life.”


In 2015, when Father Damian Zuerlein became pastor of St. Frances Cabrini Parish in Omaha, its congregation was dwindling.

Speaking along with parishioner Ann Lenz and Alysia Radicia, they described how personal invitations began to rebuild the parish community.

Alysia Radicia describes how a personal invitation from a coworker led her to the Alpha program at St. Frances Cabrini Parish in Omaha as parishioner Ann Lenz and pastor, Father Damian Zuerlein listen. MIKE MAY/STAFF

“We began to think about how we could minister to our neighborhood and our community around us and get others to join us,” Father Zuerlein said. “Little by little, it started happening.”

The Alpha program, an 11-week faith formation program, proved an effective vehicle for drawing people in, they said.

“For the past five years, we’ve run Alpha every single season,” Lenz said. “This (current) one’s so full that we had to take a storage room and ask parishioners to please clean it out so we could have small faith sharing groups in there.”

For Radicia, it was a coworker’s invitation that led her to Alpha.

Although a non-Catholic and somewhat skeptical, she agreed to attend and found the authentic sharing among participants inspiring.

“This really beautiful thing started to happen,” she said. “Everyone was so accepting and gracious and open to all of the vulnerabilities we were sharing. My mind was blown.”

“If you want to experience the joy of the Gospel, of the Good News of Jesus Christ, get out of your comfort zone and you’ll meet people that are total gifts to you,” she said.


Speakers Sheila Lange and Erick Derickson, members of Holy Family Parish in Cedar County, were both ripe for an opportunity to deepen their relationship with God.

Sheila Lange of Holy Family Parish in Cedar County describes why she felt called to form a Bible study group as fellow parishioner Erick Derickson, left, and emcee Calvin Mueller, right, listen. MIKE MAY/STAFF

Lange noted her growing concerns about the current secular culture her young children would face once they started school and the need to be better prepared to counter the culture’s influence and share the faith more effectively.

“I started to ask, ‘How can I help develop a culture for my children, to give them an opportunity to have friends that share their faith, or just share good moral values?’” she said. “How can I provide that for my children?”

So, she took the initiative to start a Bible study group with other like-minded mothers, to prepare themselves for the challenge.

Derickson added that awareness of such initiatives can attract others, but they may be awaiting an invitation. He described being attracted to a parish men’s Bible study but feeling like an outsider, wondering why he had not been asked to participate.

“I had to seek that, and it took a bit of action myself, but once I took the step, there were people from the parish who were already doing the work,” he said. “People may be looking on and saying, ‘That could be attractive and could be something I could participate in.’”


During the conference, Deacon Tim McNeil, chancellor of the archdiocese, spoke of the widespread spiritual hunger in our world and our communities and the opportunities that await Catholics who reach out to others with the Gospel message.

“You alone cannot bring back all the number of people in your life who are spiritually starving,” he said. “But you can go and search out the one and feed them the bread of life. And then, after you have fed the one, you go forth and feed another one.”

Attendees had opportunities to reflect on and discuss the messages they heard during the conference. MIKE MAY/STAFF

Conference attendees who spoke with the Catholic Voice after the conference said they are ready to do just that.

“It’s our mission as Catholics – we have to do something,” said Elizabeth Roll of St. Stephen the Martyr Parish in Omaha, also representing the city’s Hispanic community.

“Our mission is to be an example, and this will bring people,” she said. “We have to renew, … we are the ones who have to lead our Church. It’s our responsibility, not just the priests.”

Jenni Owens, who attended the livestreamed conference at her parish, St. Robert Bellarmine Parish in Omaha said: “Many people answer the bulletin and pulpit announcements, but it is the personal invitation that inspires people to try something new, deepen their faith and, in turn, are able to spread the Gospel message.”

“Personal invitations are what prompted my husband (Dan) and me to join many activities in which we are involved,” she said. “We, in turn, invite. However, there is much room for improvement. Involved parishioners need to continue to personally invite others to engage in faith building activities. The mission field is ripe.”

“We face the future with a clear sense that Jesus is inviting us to something,” Archbishop Lucas said. “He’s not asking us to lose something so much as he is asking us to receive and to share something new, something very hopeful.”


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