Nevada priest reaches out to disaffiliated young adults
Father Jorge Herrera, 56, arrived at St. Francis of Assisi parish in Incline Village, Nevada, two years ago and quickly noticed the sadness many of his parishioners expressed over their grown children no longer practicing the Catholic faith.
So he got the idea to start an informal group of young adults that would meet somewhere that wasn’t the church building. It would be low-key, with no agenda and no pressure.
“We have wine, we have dinner and we can discuss whatever they want to discuss and just discuss it openly and with no fears and no schedule,” said Father Herrera, who participated in CRL’s Thrive Ministry retreat last June in Oregon.
The first few monthly meetings happened in the rectory, but now different members have stepped forward asking to host the evening. What first began as just two attendees, has now grown to 10. The group includes non-Catholics and people who believe in God, but believe there is no need for the church.
The priest said the format of the group has been set following the promptings of the Holy Spirit in the young people. They are the ones who suggested wine, they are the ones who suggested grace before meals, and they are the ones who bring up topics they are curious about or find confusing. Two of the more memorable topics, Father Herrera said, regarded what happens after a person dies and the problem of evil.
Most recently, the young adults asked Father Herrera if they could start a choir and now sing at one of the weekend Masses.
He said the monthly meetings have enriched his priesthood in that they have taught him it is okay to be unprepared.
“I don’t need to have a plan for them or say, ‘These are the things that you need to learn today,’” Father Herrera said. “I am able to be engaged in their conversation and give my point of view or tell them what the church teaches about this or that, but not with the idea of imposing what I’m saying, but just to clarify and to say, ‘This is what the church believes.’”
He said he often finds that the group is surprised in a good way by what the church teaches. He specifically remembers a time when the conversation drifted to homosexuality.
“I read to them the two little paragraphs from the Catechism of the Catholic Church about homosexuality and they were like, ‘Oh my goodness, I’ve never heard that before,’” Father Herrera said.
As a young adult, Father Herrera also had a lot of questions. His mother died before he was two, leaving his grandparents to raise him in a rural part of Mexico. Their home was not religious and so he had little exposure to Catholicism. One day, around the age of 18, Father Herrera walked into the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Rosary in Culiacan, the capital of his home state in Mexico, and attended Mass. Mesmerized by the paintings, the lives of the saints, and the general beauty of the place, he ended up staying three hours.
“In that very moment that I came in, I thought, ‘I think I want to be a priest. I wonder what I need to do or have so that I can be a priest?’” he recalled.
This desire was so strong that Father Herrera later approached the priest who had celebrated the Mass and asked him what he needed to do to become a priest. But the priest dissuaded him, telling Father Herrera that the priestly life was not for him. However, as the two became friends, the priest later relented, encouraging Father Herrera to apply to seminary.
Yet, before that could happen, Father Herrera received a different calling to move from Mexico to Los Angeles. There, even though he was still active in a parish youth group, he soon forgot about pursuing a religious vocation. It finally reemerged on his radar at the age of 25, when a woman he was dating entered a convent.
Struck with a love for teaching, Father Herrera spent the next five years discerning a vocation with the Piarist Fathers, an order of priests and brothers dedicated to education. Realizing he wasn’t called to that order, he left and after a couple of years made his way to Nevada to discern a vocation with the Diocese of Reno, per the invitation of one of its priests he had met.
Ordained for almost 20 years, Father Herrera’s assignments in the Diocese of Reno have been in mostly rural locations. His assignment before St. Francis of Assisi was in Yerrington, Nevada, where it wasn’t unusual for him to celebrate Mass under the trees for Hispanic field workers. He would put many miles on his vehicle, driving from his home base in Yerrington to one mission church 60 miles away and another one 25 miles away.
One of the greater challenges of being a rural priest, he said, was being isolated from his brother priests. Still, he was never lacking for company, as dinner invitations constantly poured in from parishioners that he could go to a different house for “dinner every night if I wanted to.”
“It was amazing to have all these families concerned about your well being,” Father Herrera said. “And because I also had to do a lot of driving, they would offer to go with me.”
While his current assignment in Incline Village is more touristy, it still contains rural elements, he said. The town of around 9,000 people sits on the shores of Lake Tahoe, surrounded by natural beauty. Almost every Monday Father Herrera uses his day off to hike a new portion of the Tahoe Rim Trail. Up to six parishioners usually join him and have set a goal for their pastor to finish the entire trail, all 170 miles around Lake Tahoe.
The experience has left him in awe of his surroundings.
“It inspires me to give thanks to God for the beauty of nature and the place that I am living in,” he said.
Thanks to CRL’s Thrive retreat, he also has a greater appreciation for rural ministry. Unfamiliar with CRL up until he received an invitation in the mail to attend the retreat, he said his first thought was “why didn’t I receive this when I was in Yerrington?”
Still, recognizing that his diocese is a rural one, he thought the retreat would be helpful.
“I’m sure that this is not my last parish, and I’m not planning to go back to the city again,” Father Herrera said. “I told myself, ‘You know, I’ll go to this and see what’s the whole deal about rural life ministry.’”
The priest said the retreat staff did a great job answering participants’ questions in a small group setting. He also learned about rural ministry resources he had no clue existed.
“I don’t have to invent the wheel again, but I can just reach out to [CRL] and perhaps get if they don’t have answers, at least that I can be oriented where to go and get the help that I need,” Father Herrera said.
“There’s also the support that they provide through the documents that are written about the farming communities, and about the food that they provide that we just don’t appreciate enough,” he said.
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