by Gordon Nary
Gordon: You are a native Chicagoan. Where did you attend high school?
Father Dave: I graduated from St. Philip High School on Chicago’s west side in 1941. While my vocation developed and matured there it did not begin there. My parents were faithful Catholics who held all religions in high esteem. I recall that on all major celebrations, there was always something extra for “the sisters.” While still in elementary school I served the early Mass each Sunday and continued through high school. My vocation had multiple support of home, parish, and high school.
Gordon: When did you realize that you had a vocation to the Priesthood and with whom did you discuss this vocation?
Father Dave: One time a missionary came to the school to talk about vocations. Only after that talk did I resolve to become a priest and a missionary. The missionary part never worked out but not for want of trying. It is simple to say God had other plans for me but it likewise a mystery of God’s grace. I wear a beard to remind myself that once I was very romantic.
This experience was early in high school and I didn’t talk to anyone except my parents. I was a member of the sodality and it was engaged in various works of the Church’s social doctrine. I still remember passing out The Catholic Worker at a Mayday Celebration. At the time I had no idea of just how radical an action that was. Still, it impressed me. Nor did I understand that it was in perfect harmony with the Church’s teaching on social justice.
In senior year when plans were being made for college, I approached the Servite Principal of St. Philip’s, Fr. Terence Seery. He put me in touch with his own novice master, Fr. John Giambastiani, and in the fall of 1941 I entered the Servite Seminary of St. Joseph located just south of Elgin, Illinois
Gordon: What are some of your favorite memories of your time at the seminary?
Father Dave: Seminaries in those days were depicted as “closed,” which is the closest equivalent was a jail! There were no bars and no cruelty but there was little liberty. There was no regular access to newspapers or radio but we could hear “Charlie McCarthy” on Sunday nights and “Bishop Sheen.” That first year I recall that we were allowed home for Thanksgiving and Christmas. The next summer there were two weeks at home and we returned to begin a “novitiate.” After that, there were no vacations at home for seven years. The schedule was five class periods a day for five days a week. (Later when trying to transfer credits, registrars could not believe it.)
Was it hard? Yes. Were there doubts? At times. Much later I heard an expression which summed it up. “I am what I have dreamed of.” I was where I had dreamed of.
Shortly after getting to the seminary, World War II broke out, and that complicated matters as well.
The seminary was located in the midst of a 40-acre working farm which was sown and reaped by a local farmer. But we took care of a few pigs and a large flock of chickens. Care of the chickens became my specialty even to sleeping overnight with the chicks to be sure the brooder did not shut off. This ranks as one of my favorite exotic memories. I suspect, however, that your questions had a more academic or theological goal. There is one semester where for five days a week we studied the Sixth Chapter of St. John’s Gospel where Jesus promises the Eucharist. I do not remember it each time I say Mass but I remember it often with delight.
Gordon: What were the aspects of the Servite order that inspired you to become a Servite?
Father Dave: For me, the desire to become a priest was my primary motivation and the Servite Community offered me that opportunity. Once I was a part of the Order, my appreciation of its essential thrust grew and grew in me. Mary, the mother of Jesus, stood by his cross. There she suffered his suffering and death. There Jesus gave her to us as our mother. In a phrase I learned later, I was among those who were invited to stand with her at the foot of those countless cross where the Son of Man is still being crucified.
Gordon: Where and by whom were you ordained?
Father Dave: I was ordained on May 8, 1948, by the Most Reverend John J. Boylan, D.D. Ph.D. in St. Mary’s Church, Aurora Illinois Two diocesan priests from Rockford diocese were ordained with me along with one priest from Benedictine Marmion Abbey. One of the diocesan priests was from St. Mary Church.
Gordon: Could you provide an overview of your responsibilities when you were assigned to establish a novitiate and seminary of Our Lady in Riverside California?
Father Dave: After the end of World War II there was an increase of vocations throughout the Church. We needed more room because God was blessing his Church. We Servites were expanding. A decision was made to go west; property was purchased in Riverside, Riverside County, California. There was a large structure already built which had room for a lovely chapel. There were a commercial kitchen and room for a refectory. It lacked dormitories and classroom space. An architect and builder were engaged in building these. Construction in California was simple but earthquake strong. Work began about February with the expectation of having students arrive late the following summer. I had nothing to do with the construction but we had to prepare for about 20 students. They would need beds and bedding; they needed tables and chairs and desks to study. It was after the war and there was much “surplus property” to be had. The community would eat off dishes from “The Green Spot” (a defunct restaurant) for the next 15 years.
At the same time, we needed to be legal in California and this required a trip to Sacramento where, in passing, I shook hands with the governor “Pat” Brown. By August we were ready.
Sometimes I look back at that year and think that it was a waste. I had wanted to be a priest, to minister, but all I was doing was housework. Yet it was service.
I remained in Riverside for about nine years as a novice master. Seminaries at that time were still “closed” systems. We prayed together four times a day with five classes every day. While it could be very, very hot during the summer, the setting was idyllic. Just outside the doors were orange, lemon, grapefruit, and lime trees. The roads were lined with palm trees and we had fresh figs on the vine. We had a view of snow-capped mountains within driving distance. Idyllic!
After almost ten years in southern California, I was asked to come to Chicago to be pastor of St. Philip Benizi parish in the midst of the Cabrini-Green housing project. The years there were the most critical of my life. As idyllic as California had been, Cabrini-Green was chaotic. I told a friend at the time that nothing I had learned and certainly nothing I had taught had prepared me for this assignment. It was a pivotal assignment for me.
Gordon: There has been a significant drop in people entering the seminary. What, in your opinion are some of the factors that have adversely affected vocations and what can we do to help interest more young people in religious life as a career?
Father Dave: C. S. Lewis has a novel entitled The Screwtape Letters. It tells of a novice devil on earth being mentored by a senior devil about the niceties of temptation. He points out that one should not so much “tempt” the client but to make him comfortable, to make him oblivious, and to try to make him forget. So one important reason for the decrease of vocations is that we may have become too comfortable and tend to forget the more important values in our lives.
There may be a more positive reason in that in the Church today there are so many ways to serve. Lectors and Eucharistic ministers are obvious. People are part of Parish Councils, service internet sites for parishes and religious institutions. There are ways to volunteer in serving the poor and tutoring children. In the past, the priest was expected to do everything. Now the priest is free to be what he was ordained to be: to offer sacrifice.
Gordon: When and where did you revived your master’s degree in Religious Education?
Father Dave: After three years at Cabrini-Green I was again assigned to our seminary system. The assignment was to the campus of St. Louis University, St. Louis Missouri. The Second Vatican Council had concluded and this seminary was an “open” program. Our students attended class at the University, but we worshiped together each day in our own chapel. Later other religious orders would share this worship space as well as some graduate students who lived in the same building, a former hotel. Twice before in this interview, I had occasion to refer to the seminary as a “closed system” but now it was indeed “open.” My responsibilities were that of being an “older” priest contributing some stability to the system. The assignment allowed me to review my own seminary studies in light of the new openness in theology and scripture studies. I did this in following the religious education curriculum.
Gordon: When you were assigned as an associate at St. Joseph, a Servite parish in Carteret, New Jersey, you were asked to help establish the Office for Black Catholics for the Metuchen Diocese. What were the responsibilities of that office?
Father Dave: My assignment to St. Joseph came after a year sabbatical in catechetics. This included studies at the Catholic University in Washington with courses at Howard University and a practicum at the Mexican-American Cultural Institute in San Antonio and at the Jesuit mission station on a Native American Reservation in Wyoming. Much of this cross-cultural experience was on the curriculum vitae which was submitted to the bishop on the occasion of my assignment to the Metuchen Diocese. Coincidentally Bishop Theodore McCarrick had been assigned as the first bishop of the new diocese. He had been active in Black Catholic affairs while in New York City and moved quickly to establish an Office for Black Catholics.
As I saw it, my most important responsibility was to work myself out of the job and install a Black Catholic. In the meantime, it was necessary to introduce Black Catholics to one another. There was not a single “Black Catholic Parish” in the diocese. There were groups of Black Catholics around Rutgers University, and around the Bell Laboratories. Many of them came from other places and were located in different parishes throughout central New Jersey. The young man we recruited to head the office was from the South Side of Chicago.
Before that happened we encouraged all the Catholic schools to supplement their religious texts with material for and about Black Catholics; in the diocesan offices, an effort was made to include Black Catholic concerns when planning and not just as an afterthought. Early on we organized a study day for all the Black Catholics of the diocese and later invited a Black Catholic bishop to speak at the cathedral one Sunday of Martin Luther King’s Day. In a word, we attempted to develop a bond among the Black Catholics of central New Jersey.
Gordon: In 1990, you were assigned associate pastor of Our Lady of Sorrows Basilica which is one of the most beautiful churches in the United States, What are some of your favorite memories of your service there?
Father Dave: In the previous question I spoke about trying to develop a bond among the Black Catholics of Central New Jersey. Here, at Our Lady of Sorrows, I found just that sort of bond. It may have been confined to the parish but there was a closeness, a love among us that was, and is, memorable. It wasn’t the building; it was the people. I felt at home.
Gordon: I remember when you were assigned to Assumption in 1998 and I miss your homilies since you retired, which I didn't realize at the time were often reflected in your book Preaching the Scriptures of the Masses of the Blessed Virgin Mary. What did you enjoy most during were residency at Assumption?
Father Dave: It is hard to believe that I was at Assumption for about 17 years.
There are two-part to your question. First about the homilies and the book: both were developed the same way. I asked a series of questions: 1) What does this passage say? 2) What does this passage mean? 3) What does this passage mean to me? 4) How can I best share this meaning with others?
What I enjoyed most was working with the candidates for our Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults program. The lessons had real content certainly but more than that it was making that content part of ourselves, making the content the expression of our deeply held faith. These exchanges even when they became somewhat abstract were always shared as an expression of grace and faith. The years spent in studying Scripture and theology, in theory, were given tangible expression with real people in the real world. It was simulating and hope-filled.
Gordon: Pope Francis has had a profound impact on the perception of the Roman Catholic Church by non-Catholics with some of the issues that he has recently addressed such as poverty, climate change, reviving Liberation Theology, church reform including the need for more ethics in finance. And even divorce. Any thoughts on the leadership of Pope Francis?
Father Dave: To address these questions, Pope Francis held a two-year-long Synod. For myself, I suspect that it is going back to the previous answer about my experience at Assumption and extending it to the whole Church. When Pope Francis speaks about how it is our faith, God’s grace, that guides our lives, when he speaks on this deeper level of our soul, his sharing is contagious.
As the saying goes, faith is not taught, it is caught. The content of the faith is moved from the abstract to the personal. In other words, when Pope Francis speaks, and in his actions, he reflects a more personal exercise of faith and leadership. Once in California, a shepherd lead a flock of some 3000 sheep through the seminary. He literally walked in front of the sheep to lead them. They followed him. He did have three dogs to help. That is, Pope Francis doesn't point the way, he walked the way and invites us to follow
Finally, thank you for the opportunity to reminisce and to reflect a bit on the blessed life with which I have been graced.
Gordon: I thought that it would be appropriate to conclude this interview with a prayer for vocations. O loving and gracious God, Father of all, you bless your people in every time and season and provide for their needs through your providential care. Your Church is continually in need of priests, sisters, and brothers to offer themselves in the service of the gospel by the lives of dedicated love. Open the hearts of your sons and daughters to listen to your call in their lives. Give them the gift of understanding to discern your invitation to serve you and your Church. Give them the gift of courage to follow your call. May they have the spirit of young Samuel who found fulfillment in his life when he said to you, "Speak Lord, for your servant is listening." We ask this through Jesus Christ, our Lord, and Redeemer. Amen.