by Gordon Nary
Gordon: Please share with our readers some background on your early life.
Father Dennis: To begin, I’m a son of two Czech immigrants. My mother’s family came to the United States in the late 1940s in good part because my maternal grandfather was actually Russian and as World War II was coming to an end, it was becoming clear that the ethnic Russians that the Soviet Army was meeting as they were “liberating” Eastern and Central Europe were being either deported back to Russia or shot out-right. So he didn’t want to wait for what his fate would be. He knew that he had to flee. My maternal grandmother, Czech, and my mother chose to join him. At the time it was a choice. My maternal grandmother was from a relatively wealthy family.
She could have stayed in Czechoslovakia with my mother. Instead, she chose to keep her vows “for better or for worse” and chose exile when she still didn’t have to and she chose spectacularly well. The Communists took over Czechoslovakia in 1948, her family lost everything it had anyway and she would have lived a life of regret for having abandoned her husband in his hour of greatest need. She did not and though living for four years in refugee camps before my mom’s family finally made it to the States in 1949 and then never really “making it” on the same level in the U.S. as they had lived in Czechoslovakia, where they had been upper middle class, she again had chosen really, really well, with her soul intact.
My father came to this country in the late 1950s. Indeed, he made it to Chicago the same week that the Chicago White Sox had made the World Series. That was important because Mayer Daily, Sr, in honor of the White Sox have won the Pennant had the air raid sirens blow, and the first thought in his head was “OMG the Communists had been right. War’s starting” and his cousin my Aunt Martha, who had fled to the West some years before had to assure him that there was this uniquely American game called baseball, as popular in the States as soccer had been in the old country, and that one of Chicago’s teams (Prague also had two rival soccer teams) just made the finals. And that was why the air raid sirens had gone off.
In contrast to my mother’s family, my dad’s family had been quite simple. My grandmother had still been born in the countryside, though her family had moved to the then outskirts of Prague when she was 8-10. My dad became the first person in his family to make it to college. Since he was good in math and science he was told by the Communists running the country to study Chemistry. So he came to this country with a degree in that.
This is why I came to study Chemical Engineering. My first love was actually astronomy. I had wanted to be an astrophysicist. In my senior year in high school, I was convinced by my parents that there were no jobs in astrophysics and so I should pick something more practical. My dad wanted me to study medicine. I told him I could not stand the blood. We worked down to what we both kinda understood – Chemistry, my dad suggested that if I was going to be a Chemist, then I might as well become a Chemical Engineer because that was more practical.
I have a tendency of not giving up on projects once I start them. So even though I found Chemical Engineering nearly impossible to explain to others, I studied it to the absolute end, got a doctorate in it before finally telling my dad that I honestly found little point in it – I again could not explain what I was doing to others before they got bored with my explanation – and had decided instead to turn to God. I had become active over the years of my graduate study at the University of Southern California in its Catholic Center and had decided to enter into the Seminary with the Servites (who ran the USC Catholic Center back then) instead.
Gordon: What interested you in becoming a Servite?
Father Dennis: Well, again I had become very frustrated in being a Chemical Engineer. I simply could not explain quickly enough what I was doing to people at a party. I actually think that if I had been studying Electrical Engineering or Computer Science it would have been different – I could have pointed to a television set or a radio antenna or to a computer and people would immediately kinda understand. Instead with Chemical engineering, I was modeling the behavior of polymer materials (plastics). It was really hard to even actually practical – I immediately understood why the space shuttle Challenger blew-up – the o-rings on one of its rubber seal had been too cold that day, so they acted as a glass (tearing/shattering) rather than as a rubber (flexible) and so they broke and the whole rocket shattered and then exploded – but aside for explaining the cause of this terrible tragedy I could not explain to people around me what I was doing and why and so I honestly found my faith – honestly when you’re Czech with lots of sad stories, God is quite close – far more interesting and meaningful.
Gordon: Where did you attend seminary and what was your favorite course?
Father Dennis: I did my postulancy year with the Servites at the Franciscan School of Theology in Berkeley, CA. Then I did my novitiate down at Servite High School in Anaheim. Then the Servites sent me to our Order’s International College of Sant’Alessio at the Marianum in Rome.
I mostly liked my Biblical Classes. At the beginning of the first New Testament class back in Berkeley, the Professor told us (Waco was going on at the time): “Folks, this class is important because if you find yourselves one day holed-up in a compound surrounded by Abrams tanks with the FBI calling to you with a bullhorn that ‘resistance is futile’ and to ‘come out with your hands up’ then chances are that you’ve misinterpreted the Scriptures that we’re going to be studying this semester”
Then in Rome I had some wonderful classes, one taught by a lovely Servite friar, who actually had no formal degree in Scripture just had read AN ENORMOUS amount of books over the years – the other Professors were ALL all very well educated with all kinds of prestigious degrees and with all kinds of prestigious consulting positions at the Vatican, etc – who told us even back then: “Brothers remember that in our day (then still the 1990s) words are cheap. Any fool can write anything on a word processor today and think himself to be important. But back at the time when the Scriptures were written, words were expensive. They had to be first remembered and written down by hand and then finally if they touched people, copied, many many times by hand. As a result, EVERY WORD HAD TO MEAN SOMETHING. There could be no idle chatter in the Word of God.” I never forgot that.
Then honestly, the best way to perhaps understand me is to simply read Gustavo Gutierrez’ book “The God of Life” a beautiful, thoroughly Biblically supported reflection about God’s concern for common, regular people, for us.
After the Seminary, I chose Parish ministry. I love it, wouldn’t change it for the world. I’ve learned so much from common regular people trying to live out their faith.
Gordon: What can parishes do to encourage more vocations?
Father Dennis: Make God real to the young. Rather than spend an inordinate amount of time trying to instruct young people as to what they should do or not do, just help them to appreciate that God cares … about them and about all the people around them. One does have to have an experience of God, not just of the rules, but of God.
In this regard, I’m a huge fan of Quinceañeras (the Anglos had this tradition as well as “sweet sixteens” before these got conflated with prom-high school graduation and God was pulled out of the mix). Quinceañeras celebrate being young at the threshold of adulthood and we _can_ be reminded there of how many of the biblical figures – so many of the Prophets, then also David, Solomon, and Mary – were actually called by God, blessed by God when they were young.
God saw 14-15-year-old David, the only one brave (and perhaps stupid enough) to take on the giant Goliath and just LOVED HIM for that. God saw Mary, again only about 14-15 year old at the time of the Annunciation and saw someone capable still of saying “yes” to what to others would have seemed “impossible” and yet necessary to save the whole world. God loves and trusts young people.
Gordon: What languages do you speak?
Father Dennis: I grew up speaking Czech as well as English. Then in the seminary (in Italy) I learned to speak more or less fluent Italian and afterward since it was far more practical than Italian (lovely language though it is, and I’m so happy that I was able to learn it) Spanish. I did take German in High School and for one year in college. So I still kinda know how to read it, or can make sense of translations as I run a text through google translate but I don’t really speak German. Indeed, I probably know Russian (again my mother was half Russian) as well as I know German today. And I know bits and pieces of other languages – Polish, French, Slovak of course.
Gordon: When were you appointed pastor at St. Phillip Benzi parish and where did you serve prior to this appointment?
Father Dennis: I was appointed to St. Philip Benizi Parish two years ago. Previous to that I served as an Associate at Annunciata Parish/ (heavily Polish-American and Mexican-American) on the South East Side of Chicago and previous to that at St. Catherine of Siena Parish a primarily Puerto Rican/Colombian parish with a significant Haitian Community. I loved all of these assignments.
Gordon: Who was St. Phillip Benzi?
Father Dennis: He was a second generation Servite, born by tradition in the same year as the Servite Order was created by the Seven Holy Founders of the Servite Order in Florence, Italy, in 1233. St. Philip Benizi could perhaps be compared to St. Bonaventure of the Franciscan Order, as St. Philip was the one who in fact “regularized” the Order and got it approved by the Holy See. Indeed, getting the Servite Order approved had not been a particularly easy affair. The Holy See wanted a lot of the various mendicant groups to either come together as the Augustinians (following the Rule of St. Augustine) or to simply disband. St. Philip defended his group, the Servites (the Servants of Mary) as being dedicated in a special way to Mary (and that Mary deserved her own Order) and eventually won out. Still, it was a long slog to get approval.
Indeed, during those many years in which St. Philip was lobbying the Holy See to approve the Order, he was actually offered the Papacy. The Papacy was in a great deal of crisis at the time, with Popes not having particularly long life expectancies at the time because of the rivalries between various prominent Roman families whom each wanted “one of their own” to become the Pope. So by legend, St. Philip himself was offered the Papacy as something of a compromise. Again, he chose wisely … to decline and instead sought to work on behalf of his Order. That’s what he’s most remembered for in the Order, as one who sacrificed prestige for the sake of his brothers.
Gordon: The US policy of separating children from their parents has profound moral implications. What are they and what are our individual responsibilities to address this challenge
Father Dennis: I think by now you’d understand why this policy would so upset me, and why I really do see the need to STOP the direction that this policy would lead our country in NOW. My family lived under both the Nazis and the Communists, two arrogant regimes that presumed to push and even dispose of “little people” as they saw fit.
Jesus, the Son of God, who could have spent his time on earth among people of any kind, CHOSE to spend his life with common regular people like us. He could have “hob-knobbed” with the powerful. He CHOSE not to. Instead, he CHOSE TO SPEND HIS TIME curing widows, and lepers, raising little girls and only sons of widows from the dead.
I have absolutely no doubt that those little kids separated from their shocked and crushed/lowly parents mean more to God than any project or monument that Donald Trump would want to build for himself.
If we believe, if we presume to be “pro-Life” / “pro-Family” we have to reject root and branch any policy that rips little kids from their already poor and confused parents and then sends them nearly impenetrable maze of agencies to the far ends of country in a thinly disguised attempt to simply disappear them.
It is an offense against God and an offense against humanity to treat kids and their poor/stunned parents in this way. Both the Nazis and the Communists did similar atrocities. There is simply NO WAY that I’m going to stand by and watch this happen again in front of my eyes.
Gordon: One of the lessons that we learned in pre-Nazi Germany was the failure of many people to speak out on moral challenges. How does this relate to the child separation policy of the United States?
Father Dennis: Yes, A LOT of ordinary Germans could have stood up during the Nazi Era to stop it. On the other hand, NAZIISM WAS STILL SOMETHING “NEW” TO THE WORLD. We honestly DON’T HAVE THAT EXCUSE ANYMORE. Ripping kids from their parents, jailing them all, and then searching for excuses for having done so after the fact is simply APPALLING and SCREAMS OUT TO GOD for JUSTICE.
Perhaps there are some random “bad people” among those arrested and ripped from their families, BUT EVERY ONE OF THE PARENTS AND THEIR CHILDREN THAT I’VE SEEN IN THIS CRISIS TO DATE COULD HAVE BEEN PARISHIONERS OF MINE. I simply can’t let this go by and I don’t think our country can let this go by. This policy will be condemned by history in the same terms as the Japanese Internment Camps of WWII or worse. It has to come to an end and we have to make sure it simply never happens again.
You have proposed the building of a monument to the Niños Heroes Separados. Please share with our readers an overview of the project. the reasons for this monument, and how you are proceeding to create support for this initiative
Father Dennis: Again, I believe that it’s important for our country to take stock and realize what has happened here. Thousands of kids, hundreds of them under the age of five, many of them TODDLERS were ripped from their parents and sent across 17 states and divided among dozens of agencies to try to make a point “don’t come here.” Why? The vast majority of those parents came here for the sake of those kids, to try to give them a better life. Why insult them, humiliate them, beat them down for trying to be what we’d all like to be good, loving people who just wanted the best for their little ones?
We need a monument, in stone, in some prominent place, ideally somewhere on the National Mall or at least in Washington D.C.
We need to see the list, the kid's names, perhaps redacted a bit to protect their privacy “Araceli H.” instead of “Araceli Hernandez” the kid's ages and where they came from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador.
We need to see the list, contemplate the kids’ ages, contemplate the situations that they running from and ask ourselves: Why? Why did we CHOOSE to be so evil to them? Why did we not choose to see them as us as our kids?
And we have to make sure that we NEVER do this to anyone again
Gordon: Thank you for a beautiful and inspiring interview!