Fr. Weber finds new ways to engage people in faith

‘Fit Shepherds’ workout group is one way Antigo priest promotes discipleship

ANTIGO — The word of God is eternal.

But the ways of sharing it are constantly evolving.

Fr. Zach Weber, who serves Antigo Area Catholic Churches, made up of St. John and SS. Mary and Hyacinth in Antigo and St. Wencelaus of Neva, is bringing a youthful enthusiasm to his work while remaining obedient to the Catholic dogma.

“There are so many beautiful resources out there to meet people and it is important to take advantage of them,” Fr. Weber says. “I may seem very active. I didn’t sacrifice the beauty of marriage and children to become a priest who does nothing.”

Fr. Zach Weber, right, parochial vicar at St. John Parish and SS. Mary and Hyacinth parishes in Antigo and St. Wenceslaus Parish in Neva, leads “Fit Shepherds” workout group on a recent Saturday. “I want to lead people to Jesus,” Fr. Weber said about the initiatives he has introduced. (Lisa Haefs | For The Compass)

It wasn’t always that way for the young pastor. Growing up in Howards Grove, he had a typical adolescence, mixing sports, studies and social activities, and frequently landing in the principal’s office. That changed when he was 20 years old, studying for a degree in psychology. He attended the inaugural Men of Christ Conference in Milwaukee.

“At first, I ran from the call. I was afraid,” he admits, “but eventually I couldn’t deny the reality of Jesus’ love for me in the Eucharist and the call to serve the Catholic Church in a radical way.”

He completed his studies at St. Meinrad Seminary and Mundelein Seminary, and was ordained to the priesthood and assigned to the Antigo tri-parishes in July 2017.

Modern, timeless methods

Since then, he has embraced a variety of methods — from the most modern to the timeless — to engage and grow the parishes.

“I want to lead people to Jesus,” says Fr. Weber, 33.

That can happen in unusual ways, such as sweating over push-ups and squats and running laps as part of “Fit Shepherds,” an early Saturday morning workout group for men, 13 and older.

“This is a great way to grow in fellowship to be the man, the brother, the husband, the shepherd who God created you to be,” Fr. Weber says. “We push the men to the breaking point, breaking them, and end each workout with a Gospel reading.”

Fit Shepherds started a year ago and was initially based at Gartzke Flowage, a year-round hiking and skiing trail just east of Antigo. It was an idyllic setting, Fr. Weber says, until the mosquitoes — one of God’s more unpleasant creations — made their appearance. Now Fit Shepherds is held in the St. John Church parking lot. It draws a dozen or better participants of all ages, including fathers and sons.

“It is a way to get people moving and be disciplined in physical life as well as spiritual life. A friend of mine, Fr. Mark Bernhard, came up with the idea and said I had to try it,” Fr. Weber says. “Our aim is to have every man in our community be in the best physical and spiritual shape of their lives.”

More than a workout

It is not, Fr. Weber stresses, a bunch of guys getting together for a workout with a nominal reading at the end. There are doctoral undertones as found in John 10:11-13, the idea that men often are reduced to feeling like hirelings, not actual shepherds.

“Fit Shepherds are men striving to model their lives after the Good Shepherd, rather than the hireling,” Fr. Zach says. “We are men who strive to lay down our lives in a sacrificial way for our families and community.”

Within weeks after arriving in Antigo, Fr. Weber was involved in another initiative, the Emmaus Adoration Chapel, named for the story from the Gospel of Luke, which tells of Jesus appearing to two disciples after his resurrection while they were walking on the road to Emmaus.

“We walk with people even when they are walking in the wrong direction,” Fr. Weber says. “We don’t abandon them. We accompany them with support and prayer.”

Since its inception in 2017, the chapel has grown to offer nearly around-the-clock prayer.

Fr. Zach Weber poses for a “selfie” photo with participants in the “Fit Shepherd” workout group. The priest combines new ways to engage people in the faith, including the use of podcasts and social media. (Submitted Photo | For The Compass)

Other initiatives include Exodus 90, which focuses on 90 days of prayer, self-discipline and fraternity for men, and the companion Nineveh 90 for women and men, which also includes 90 days of exercise and self-discipline along with prayer and fasting. A new round of both programs started last week and will conclude on Christmas Eve.

Fr. Weber is also focused on Alpha, a series of sessions exploring the Christian faith in a friendly, open and informal environment. It is for anyone — men and women — who wishes to explore the basics of Christian faith. Every session includes food, then a talk followed by discussion.

“Alpha is a proclamation of the good news,” Fr. Weber says. “It is designed to introduce people to the person of Jesus.”

Embracing social media

The Fit Shepherds, Exodus and Nineveh, and Alpha are all hands-on programs, but Fr. Weber says he also understands that many people are using social media in their search for more. He is embracing that ministry as well.

“Until recently, two of our three parishes didn’t have a website,” he says, noting that Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI stressed that the church “use the new media as much as possible.”

The websites are now robust, listing opportunity after opportunity for involvement by everyone, from the very dedicated Catholic, to the nominal Christian, to those seeking a faith home.

The website and Facebook pages contain the readings for the week, Mass and confession schedules, ideas to encourage encounters with the work of Jesus and opportunities to discover, follow, worship and share Jesus.

“It is a newer way for people to stay connected through the week,” Fr. Weber says.

He especially enjoys posting his weekly podcast called Growing in the Gospel in advance of Mass, allowing time for study and reflection prior to entering the church every weekend.

“The people of Antigo have become family and most are hungry to become missionary disciples. Some people come to Mass with notebooks to take discipleship to the next level,” he says. “Over the years a lot of people have said Mass is boring or hard to understand, but they never ask why or were seemingly not allowed to ask why.

Mysteries of the Mass

“My hope is to offer the necessary tools to go deeper into the mysteries of the Mass,” adds Fr. Weber. “The things we do all week ought to lead to Sunday Mass being the mountaintop experience of worshipping Jesus.”

Fr. Weber also has his own Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages: @FatherZachWeber, where he regularly posts encouraging quotes and links to his Sunday homily. His goal, he says, is to empower people to respond to the Gospel.

“I want to make sure I am pointing people to Jesus, not to me,” he says. “One of the most freeing aspects of being a priest is knowing in my heart that Jesus doesn’t need me. It is his gift to allow me to lead people to him. Every once in a while I need to pinch myself and say, ‘Dude, you are a Catholic priest of Jesus Christ.’”

The tri-parishes operate All Saints Catholic School, and Fr. Weber, who works with Fr. Matthew Simonar, embraces the students and their parochial education.

“A lot of young people are struggling, searching for more,” he says. “I see younger people who are hungry for substance, authenticity and challenges. It takes time to build trust, but little by little people are becoming more open to the beauty of the Catholic faith.”

He also enjoys family visits, when invited, and home blessings.

“I try to remind every parent that they are the primary teachers of faith and (Satan) does not want the faith in the family,” he says. “Faith must be practiced at home. Some people have yet to do that, and I try to encourage them by starting with simple prayers. … The days of Sunday morning-only Christianity are over.”

Fr. Weber rejects ideological labels such as “conservative” and “liberal,” because he says Christianity is bigger than those polarizing terms.

Promoting truth

“When you believe in something to the very core of your being, you act differently. It is my job to promote what is good, true and beautiful.”

As he has embraced his congregations and his vocation, he admits there will always be challenges.

“It’s a culture change to promote a culture of invitation while remaining authentically Catholic,” he says. “I was blessed to be brought up by a family that was always encouraging us to give back. What has been given to you, you have to give back. That’s the necessary response of a Christian. I am hoping and trying to plant some seeds that will ensure that the presence of Jesus Christ and his bride, the church, are known and experienced.”