This is the third in a series of stories highlighting ministries that benefit from Catholic Stewardship Appeal funding. Significant support from the appeal enables the John Paul II Center to minister to families, engaged couples and young adults in the archdiocese. For information about the CSA, visit www.catholicappeal.org.
Lydia LoCoco oversees the archdiocesan office that serves families, but she’s sometimes hesitant to talk about her own family. A proud mother and wife, LoCoco admitted that many are amazed that she and her husband, Frank, have eight children and each was anticipated and wanted.
LoCoco, director of the Nazareth Project for Marriage and Family Formation for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, said, “We have a lot of work to do to change a culture that doesn’t value children.
“I am blessed to have a true helpmate in my husband. He loves Jesus Christ and his church. He is an attorney, but ever since I met him, he’s been busy in his own endeavors growing the Body of Christ; I think that’s one reason I married him 26 years ago. And he has always shown me respect, whether I was doing graduate work in theology or staying home with small children. He is a true feminist.”
LoCoco, whose office receives funding from the Catholic Stewardship Appeal, is trying to change hearts through guest appearances on Relevant Radio’s national program, “On Call with Wendy,” referring to the show’s host, Wendy Weise. Approximately every six weeks, LoCoco spends an hour educating listeners and taking calls on often emotionally charged topics, such as artificial contraception, infertility and the reasons for Natural Family Planning. She also hears from those who are coming to understand and embrace the church’s teachings.
“We get calls from couples who have used artificial contraception, and then as they grew in their faith and went deeper into the church’s teachings, they come to understand how all of these things are connected and make sense,” she explained. “Then they are on fire, and they want to share their experiences using Natural Family Planning with everyone. I think that they really feel like their lives are changed. Many times, they are so sorrowful that they had never heard the teachings of the church before.”
Interest in NFP spreading
Bringing the seemingly personal topic of Natural Family Planning to the public airways developed after a phone call from Relevant Radio operations manager Dave Zelzer to LoCoco vowing the station’s commitment to spreading the word about NFP. Technology allows Zelzer to connect with LoCoco from his Relevant Radio Green Bay office to her office at the John Paul II Center in Milwaukee to Wiese’s Relevant Radio office in St. Louis.
“I think we all need to really thank Relevant Radio,” LoCoco said. “You know, some of these topics might not be the most interesting initially, but I think interest in NFP is like wildfire, especially among couples in their 20s and 30s, and Relevant Radio is part of the reason why.”
Her natural compassion and understanding gives callers a sense that they are talking to a close friend, rather than to a professional preparing to graduate with a master’s degree in theological studies in December. That reason, according to Wiese, is why it works.
“I really believe the key to Lydia’s success on the air is her enthusiasm and accessibility,” explained Wiese. “When she’s on, she sounds more like an enthusiastic, faith-filled friend, than the expert that she clearly is. When discussing something this personal, experts are intimidating – friends are not.”
Spirit is catching
After researching articles and attending conferences featuring LoCoco and the Nazareth Project, Relevant Radio officials were impressed with her passion for her faith and NFP and sought to share her contagious spirit with listeners. Not surprisingly, the response has been extraordinary.
“We always have a great response,” said Wiese. “The callers really cover a very broad spectrum from those just learning about NFP and wanting to know more – all the way to women who are concerned about a lack of interest in NFP on the part of their husbands and their desire to change that. We do have calls from men also who want to share their stories with NFP and how it has strengthened their marriages.”
LoCoco agreed, and added that conversely, the most difficult comments come from those who question using NFP to space children.
“If you can believe that!” she stated, adding, “They are usually very generous people, but ones perhaps that don’t understand grave issues like serious health issues, etc.”
Mission of Nazareth Project is counter-cultural
The radio program is another means for LoCoco to continue the mission of the Nazareth Project to “serve the people of God by promoting a counter-cultural transformation which recognizes and celebrates the presence and teachings of Christ as the cornerstone of the individual, marital and family life.”
“We provide information, resources, teachings and enthusiastic support in all areas of the church’s life-affirming teachings on human sexuality, such as natural family planning, theology of the body, bioethics, etc.,” said LoCoco. “Radio comes into play when we ask ourselves, ‘How are we going to do this? How do you evangelize in the 21st century?’ The answer is, any way we can, and that means everything from radio to Facebook. Communication is how you do evangelization, and it is always changing. We have to change with it, and that means talking about Natural Family Planning on the radio.”
While talk shows are not LoCoco’s area of expertise, her background as a mother, wife and theologian and belief in the Catholic faith often has others wondering if she was in sales at some point in her career.
‘Church is prophetic voice’
“But I think that what people don’t understand is that I fully embrace the church’s teachings on sexuality, and I have ‘walked the walk’ and lived out the teachings in my own marriage,” she explained. “I find the church to truly be a prophetic voice, and I think all people are seeing the ravages of living in a society that doesn’t always value the dignity of the person. I also feel that much of the damage we see in our society happens to women, so in some way on a secular level, I see many of these issues as truly women’s issues.”
The journey to becoming the director of the Nazareth Project and working with couples using NFP stemmed from her educational, personal and faith background. She and Frank joined St. Mary Parish in Elm Grove as a young married couple when the late Fr. Dan Pakenham was pastor. His vision for living the Catholic life changed their lives.
“We really grew up with him and through the years there is no position in the parish that either my husband or myself has not held,” she said. “It was Fr. Dan who taught us the importance of parish life, and why it is so important to work in the world for renewal of the church. He gave a talk one time as the new pastor and urged us all to stay on the tour, by which he meant, commit to the parish. We took it to heart and it changed our lives. We are very blessed now to have Fr. Laurin Wenig who is literally heaven sent. My parish is everything to me.”
Bishops were ‘ahead of the game’
When the John Paul II Center opened, LoCoco was working in a secular job, but she was curious about the ministry of the new center.
“I think that Archbishop Dolan knew that bishops of this country were working on a new letter on marriage – ‘The National Pastoral Initiative on Marriage’ just came out recently, and was ahead of the game,” she said. “Now, much effort by the USCCB and others is being directed at becoming a marriage building church.”
In its inception, Fr. Javier Bustos, who LoCoco knew years before when he served as a deacon in her parish, was named director of the John Paul II Center. Later, when funds became available for an associate director in the office, he approached LoCoco and asked if she might be interested in the position.
Not long after serving as the associate director, the position of director opened. LoCoco applied, and was offered the job.
“I can’t give enough credit to Randy Nohl for his help and support though,” she said of the coordinator of the John Paul II Center. “The Nazareth Project was a totally new office in the archdiocese and just an empty room with some boxes, and while I feel that I am a great match for the office, it is Randy who has the institutional memory of working in the archdiocese for so many years. He has really been a great mentor, and I continue to learn so much from him.”
Thanks to a generous donor who supports the promotion of NFP, the Nazareth Project hired Jenni Oliva to serve as the associate director for Engaged Enrichment. This grant has allowed LoCoco to promote the work of the department in a variety of ways.
“Without Jenni doing the work that she does with the engaged, this office would only have a director whose time would almost fully go into running the formation for the engaged couples,” she said. “The grant we receive each year literally makes our NFP and Respect Life work possible. I give thanks everyday for this donor, and I think that people need to know what great things are going on here in the archdiocese, but that it only happens with their support.”
Looking for new way of evangelizing
Each time LoCoco receives a call from Zelzer to appear on Relevant Radio, she is eager to connect with listeners from across the country, but most surprised by the number of Milwaukee listeners.
“I was amazed to find out how many listen in the Milwaukee area,” she said. “I never tell people when I am on, but I always get tons of phone calls from people who have heard me. That says a lot about the extent of influence of Relevant Radio, as well as our need to find new ways to catechize and evangelize.”
In addition to reaching out through Relevant Radio, the John Paul II Center provides faith formation in the archdiocese and includes enrichment for those in the pews and training and formation for parish leaders.
“Much of what we do is unseen sometimes,” admitted LoCoco, adding, “But here at the Nazareth Project, we are beginning the important work of looking at ways to implement the new pastoral on marriage from the bishops, and that includes working with others to update the Wisconsin pastoral guidelines on marriage. But it also means looking at curriculums at the grade school level, as well as high school curriculums and the formation of the catechists.”
By better educating all Catholics from early on, LoCoco believes that couples will be prepared for their engaged formation day.
“We are also publishing our own booklet on available resources for Natural Family Planning and will soon be unveiling something modeled on Theology on Tap, but aimed at married couples, called, ‘Destination Marriage,’” she said. “There is always lots going on.”