Fr. John LoCoco reading stories to children during “Cocoa with LoCoco” at Holy Family Parish in Fond du Lac. (Submitted photo)

Fr. John LoCoco was, of all places, on a date when he first got the call from Fr. Luke Strand back in 2011.

Of course, he wasn’t Fr. LoCoco then — he was a college student at the University of St. Thomas in the Twin Cities, and though thoughts of the priesthood had certainly entered his mind, he had no immediate plans to discern.

But Fr. Strand and Fr. John Burns, who was with Fr. Strand at the time in Washington, D.C., for the March for Life, felt a sudden inspiration to call LoCoco and discuss his vocation — right then and there.

“He and I used to talk about our friends, or others we would meet in the young adult community who might have a vocation. We were in a hotel room and Fr. Luke just said, ‘John LoCoco — that guy, he’s got to have a vocation,’” recalled Fr. Burns. “And we were like, ‘You know what, let’s just call him.’ Fr. Luke picked up his phone and called LoCoco and just said, ‘Hey, we think you should be discerning your vocation.’”

“I was like, ‘I’m literally on a date right now,’” Fr. LoCoco remembered. “She’s like, ‘Who called you?’ I was honest — I told her it was some priests who thought I should be a priest.”

It was a humorous moment that turned out to foreshadow what was to come — not only Fr. LoCoco’s eventual ordination in 2018, but his assignment to succeed Fr. Strand in the role of vocation director for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.

“I’m Fr. Luke’s first official ‘catch,’” said Fr. LoCoco. “We both joke he should throw me back.”

Over the next year, Fr. Strand will mentor Fr. LoCoco as he transitions into his new position. But the fundamentals of the vocation office and its mission are already near and dear to Fr. LoCoco’s heart.

Fr. Burns, who works as a vocation promoter in the office, calls Fr. LoCoco “the perfect guy to step in” and someone who will bring “continuity and fraternity” to the role.

“Fr. John comes into the office as a friend of ours, but also as someone who shares the vision,” said Fr. Burns. “It’s a really wise move on the part of the archbishop to keep the good energy, the momentum, the fidelity and the fruitfulness of the vocation office under Fr. Luke’s leadership.”

For his part, Fr. LoCoco was familiar with vocations recruitment long before Fr. Strand interrupted his date back in 2011. “If you’re a kid in high school who helps out with retreats and likes going to Mass, you get a thousand people who say you should be a priest,” he said. “But it really wasn’t on my mind.”

But, his experience studying abroad in Rome at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas was a turning point for him in his discernment. Upon arriving home that summer, he moved into the brand-new John Paul II House of Discernment in Shorewood with Fr. Strand and a few others, working over the summer to prepare it for residents.

Following that summer, Fr. LoCoco entered college seminary in the fall of 2012 and eventually returned to Rome to complete his formation at the Pontifical North American College. When he returned to Wisconsin in 2019, his first assignment as a priest was to join the team of clergy serving the community of Holy Family Parish in Fond du Lac.

His time at the parish, which has about 15,000 members, was invaluable in preparing him for the future, he said.

“In a big way, Holy Family is like a sacramental machine,” he said. “We’re six sites united as one parish for over 20 years, so we’re one of the archetypal parishes when it comes to combining sites. There used to be 10 priests in Fond du Lac, and now there are four. The needs are plentiful.”

Fr. LoCoco hit the ground running, presiding at more than a dozen weddings in the first four months of his ministry. The priests of Fond du Lac are also called on to preside over funerals nearly every week, to say weekly Mass at St. Mary’s Springs Academy (where Fr. LoCoco also teaches weekly), minister to patients in the Agnesian Healthcare system and in 17 hospices and assisted living facilities, as well as at Taycheedah Women’s Prison.

“That’s what you want as an associate — to totally pour yourself into these moments of encounter,” said Fr. LoCoco.

“Most people, when they describe Fr. Luke, say that he has a lot of energy,” said Fr. Edward Sanchez, who joined Fr. LoCoco on the Holy Family priest team in 2020. “Of all the people in my life that I have met, Fr. LoCoco is one of the few who I can say has as much or more energy as Fr. Luke.”

Fr. LoCoco acknowledges that taking on the task of vocation director is “intimidating” but that he wants to persist in the same pastoral model of his predecessor — “working in the vineyard,” he said.

“When it comes down to it, it’s all about that encounter with the person,” said Fr. LoCoco, who will also pursue studies in canon law over the next few years. “I want to help bring the Lord to people. You’ve got to spread the Gospel — that, fundamentally, is what we’re tasked with doing, and that flows into every vocation, whether it’s within our marriages, within our priesthood, within our lives.”

After his time at Holy Family concludes this summer, Fr. LoCoco will move back into the John Paul II House of Discernment, where his priestly vocation took its first figurative steps back in 2012.

“People are already asking me what the quota is,” he said, referring to how many of his own “catches” he will rack up when it comes to priestly vocations. “I give the Fr. Luke answer: as much as the Lord wants.”