April 25 is World Day of Prayer for Vocations. For more information about priestly vocations in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, visit thinkpriest.org.

In early February, the Archdiocese of Milwaukee announced a transition would be taking place in the Vocation Office. After almost a decade as Vocation Director, Fr. Luke Strand will be succeeded by Fr. John LoCoco on Aug. 1. Over the course of the coming year, Fr. Strand will continue to mentor Fr. LoCoco as he assumes the responsibilities of his new role as Vocation Director for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.

Going forward, Fr. Strand will continue in his role as Vice-Rector of Saint Francis de Sales Seminary, a full-time job that he assumed in 2016 in addition to his vocation work.

Ahead of this changing of the guard, local priests are reflecting on the unique brand of accompaniment and encouragement that has marked Fr. Strand’s tenure as Vocation Director.

“He’s had a profound, profound impact on the future of the priesthood in Milwaukee and throughout the state and, with rector of St. Francis de Sales Seminary Fr. John Hemsing, a profound impact on the health of the seminary,” said Fr. John Burns, Vocations Promoter for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and a longtime friend and collaborator of Fr. Strand. “It’s grown — it’s overflowing now, literally.”

Explaining his approach to vocations work, Fr. Strand said he takes “a personal and relational approach” to walking with young people who are discerning a religious calling.

“One’s vocation is sacred,” said Fr. Strand. “Patiently remaining present with men and women who are seeking God’s will in their lives has been an inspiring mission.”

On average, he said, the Vocation Office is in contact with a young man for two-and-a-half years before he receives a seminary application.

“Fr. Luke will put in years of time with a young man who first presents himself as a potential candidate,” said Fr. Burns. “He’s able to carry a man’s story for years. He understands the details of the man’s journey; he gets to know his biography, his circumstances and his family. He gets right into walking with the man at the ground level.”

“I like to say that Fr. Luke was my priest before he was my vocations director,” said Fr. Jordan Berghouse, who first met Fr. Strand at Cor Jesu in 2012.

“While I was there, this priest came up to me and introduced himself. After talking with him for a few minutes, he gave me his card and told me to call him if I ever wanted to chat,” recalled Fr. Berghouse, who had just graduated from college and was headed to Washington, D.C., for his first big job.

In the months to come, as Fr. Berghouse grappled with “fears about the future, the messiness of my life, uncertainties about what God wanted from me,” he turned to Fr. Strand as a confidant.

“It was so hard for me to talk honestly about my life with someone, and he received it with such grace. He has a father’s heart in every sense of the word: a heart full of passion and love,” said Fr. Berghouse, who was ordained as a priest in 2019. “He can handle the mess. He doesn’t stand on the outside or from a distance. He knows how to draw close, like a good father, and to enter in and to accompany in the midst of it.”

Fr. Patrick Magnor first met Fr. Strand at a discernment retreat at Saint Francis de Sales Seminary in 2013.

“Fr. Luke made it clear to me that discerning God’s will was not simply about figuring something out and arriving at the ‘right answer,’” said Fr. Magnor, who was ordained in 2020. “The heart of discernment is drawing closer to the Heart of Jesus. Fr. Luke made it clear to me that I simply had to take the next step in taking my relationship with Jesus seriously and the question of my vocation would be discovered in that process.”

Fr. Edward Sanchez met Fr. Strand in the summer of 2013, as Fr. Sanchez, then about to enter graduate school, was trying to decide whether or not to pursue his vocation for the priesthood. They met up for coffee at a park in Shorewood and “we just talked about discernment and how to respond to God’s call and what it means to be a Christian,” said Fr. Sanchez, who was ordained in 2020. “He listens really attentively, really deeply. As he’s talking to you, he’s also praying, so what he says he speaks from what he’s hearing from the Holy Spirit. People love him, and they feel loved by him.”

Fr. Strand came to the role of Vocation Director in July 2012, just three years after his own ordination, and said he was “humbled” to do so. One of the first big projects he tackled was the opening of the Saint John Paul II House of Discernment in 2012. Located in the former rectory building at St. Robert Parish in Shorewood, the house provides community living for young men seeking to grow deeper in their faith.

More than half of Milwaukee’s seminarians have lived at the house at one point, said Fr. Strand, and the model has been replicated in dioceses throughout the country.

Fr. LoCoco was one of the first residents of the house, and helped Fr. Strand and others renovate it.

“We all slept on cots in the living room. Living with Fr. Luke was like — the guy’s work ethic is insane,” said Fr. LoCoco. “It would be like 10 at night and Fr. Luke would be like, ‘Great, we’ve got a half hour, let’s rip the carpet off the stairwell.’ He totally pours himself into acts of service and communicates the goodness of work done well and work done for the Lord.”

For his part, Fr. Strand accepts no credit for what some call the “vocations boom” the archdiocese is currently experiencing, as the seminary is now home to 60 men discerning the will of God in their lives. All he has done, he said — and all he will continue to do for the next year — is “invite men into a deeper life of prayer where they could hear the call of the Lord Jesus.”

“Jesus Christ is the true vocation director,” said Fr. Strand. “It has been important to stay out of the way and let him take the lead.”

Fr. Luke Strand has been a huge influence on the young priests in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. (Submitted photo)