Rev. Jack Dennis, S.J.
A twisting path led to campus ministry
November 16, 2011
Rev. Jack Dennis, S.J., often ends his ministry each day with an early evening visit to the FAC. More than a workout, the gym gives Fr. Dennis an opportunity to connect with students comfortably and casually on their own turf.
That high-energy ministry propels him across campus throughout the day and into conversations with coaches about spiritual programs for sports teams, unabashed questions to sophomores about attending retreats, and trips to inner-city Baltimore to connect Loyola students and people who are homeless together in conversation and prayer.
“He is a live wire,” said Rev. Charles Frederico, S.J., Tri-Province vocation director for the Society of Jesus, and former assistant director of Campus Ministry at Loyola.
Noting that the Campus Ministry office is regularly filled with a stream of students looking for “Fr. Jack,” Fr. Frederico added, “He is everywhere and he knows everybody. He has brought a whole new face to Campus Ministry because he attracts students who might not have set foot into Campus Ministry otherwise.”
Fr. Dennis’ exuberance for helping students discover “what God dreams for you” has been building for decades.
As a student at Baltimore’s Loyola High School (now Loyola Blakefield) and the Augustinian Villanova University, Fr. Dennis grew deeply impressed by his priest teachers, particularly the Jesuits.
“They were young and fun and involved with the students. They were joyful people,” he said.
Smart, principled, and dynamic, the Jesuits struck Dennis as charismatic figures leading a desirable lifestyle.
By junior year at Villanova, Fr. Dennis decided that he wanted to spend his life working within the Society of Jesus and submitted his application.
The Society asked him to wait for a year or two. “They said, ‘We like you, but not that much right now.’ They probably wanted me to grow up a little,” said Fr. Dennis.
Fr. Dennis overcame that initial setback and went on to become a passionate educator and priest, serving in multiple roles including president of Loyola Blakefield, development director at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, and now, director of Campus Ministry at Loyola University Maryland.
His path, however, led him through some tough and surprising twists.
After the Jesuits delayed his first application, Fr. Dennis joined the Jesuit Volunteer Corps and began working as a community organizer in Philadelphia to restore residents’ power and water, fight unfair lending practices, and tackle other issues facing low-income residents.
Accustomed to an upper-middle class home and the comforts of Catholic schools, Fr. Dennis had to adjust to a radically different lifestyle. He lived on $50 a month in a communal home with rodent issues.
“But it was a great year for me. It was transformational,” he said. “It opened my eyes to community and simplicity of lifestyle and fundamental options for the poor. It opened my eyes to whole worlds that I didn’t know before.”
Breaking outside of his comfort zone and plunging into unexpected work has regularly been an effective way for Fr. Dennis to gain better understanding of the world and of faith. That belief has taken him into urban classrooms and on a walking pilgrimage to the Shrine of North American Martyrs. Although he had limited fluency in Spanish, Fr. Dennis embarked on a solo trip to El Salvador where he lived in a tiny, impoverished village and taught in a grade school where the principal was working desperately to teach children and protect them from gangs on a government budget of two cents per child per day. Upon returning to Baltimore, he received a $100,000 gift from friends to help sustain the school.
Today, Fr. Dennis continues to take himself and others outside their comfort zones through “Homeless Hookups.” Every Tuesday evening, Fr. Dennis and a small group of students drive into Baltimore to bring food, toiletries, and fellowship to people living on the streets.
“Really, it’s all about the conversation,” he said, and treating overlooked members of society with respect. “At the end, we often circle up and pray with the men and women on the streets who might be going to a shelter for the night or might not. And they pray, thanking God for getting them through the day and into the next. It is amazing how they teach and reteach me about faith.”
Fr. Dennis, whose clear passion is being a teacher and priest to secondary and post-secondary students, said those kinds of service efforts are “the heart of Jesuit education.” Loyola, he argues, does a very good job at delivering far more than excellent academic training.
“Kids can get trapped in ‘myself, my family, my friends.’ To get out of their comfort zone is tough for some of them,” Fr. Dennis said.
“We don’t try to be evangelical here. But when students leave here, there know right from wrong. They understand what we mean by finding God in the sacredness of life and the people around you, and about prayerfully discerning who you are supposed to be, who God dreams for you to be, and how you reach the fullness of that potential.”
Editor’s Note: After the December 2011 issue went to press, Rev. Jack Dennis, S.J., announced that he will leave Loyola at the end of the academic year to become president of Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School in Indianapolis, Ind.