Young Dennis Callan was having a bad day. "Dennis the Menace," as he now likes to call himself in his younger days, had just broken a valuable Chinese vase and his German-born grandmother was not pleased. She relegated him to her basement and ordered him to do some reading while serving his detention. The materials she pointed to were Divine Word Missionary magazines.
"That’s how it all started. I read those articles and figured, ‘Well, if those guys can do it, so can I,’" said Fr. Dennis Callan, SVD, a 1978 graduate of DWC and today, the SVD Region Superior for Korea. "It was intended as a punishment, but instead, it was an education and the source of a vocation."
Born in 1955, Fr. Dennis grew up in the Philadelphia area and later attended the Divine Word seminary in Bordentown, New Jersey where he graduated 1974. That summer, he enrolled for his first semester at Divine Word College. He graduated in 1978. He remembers the positive experience he had with the professors, priests and the brothers at DWC for the part they played in his formation and development as a man and missionary.
"Those experiences were extremely important, especially in terms of focusing my interest on a particular area of the world that I wanted to serve in," Fr. Dennis said. "Brother Pat Hogan taught us Asian cultural studies and through his influence, I became interested in Taiwan and things Chinese."
He didn’t go right to the novitiate. Fr. Dennis took a year off while deciding if he really wanted to be a priest. Then he got a call from an SVD asking him to teach in a school in Lafayette, Louisiana. He taught one class, a group of sophomores who were basically illiterate.
"I gave my all to them and they were just as loving and caring for me. That really was an experience of intercultural living and missionary experience for me, the first real missionary experience that I had," he said. "That was basically what cemented my vocation."
In 1979, he entered the novitiate and professed First Vows in 1980. Two years later he went to Taiwan for his Overseas Training Program (OTP). He took Final Vows and was ordained a deacon in Taiwan, but
returned home to Levittown, Pennsylvania to be ordained in 1987. He then returned to Taiwan where he worked in a parish in the southern part of the island. Then the provincial asked if he would transfer to a mountain parish.
"I was up there for three years. I loved it up there," he said. "We lived in huts. I hated to go down to the lowlands. It was like living in heaven, as far as I was concerned."
In 1991, he was asked to go to Taipei, the capital city of Taiwan, as Overseas Training Program director. Three years later he found himself in Korea for the first time to help out. Three months later, he was back in Taiwan for three years. In 1998, he went to Rome to join the retreat program at Nemi. While he was there, the Superior General of the SVD asked him if he would return to Korea. It was 1999 and he’s been there ever since. He became the director of an SVD center that helps migrant workers. But first, he needed to study the language.
"To be really effective in migrant ministry there, you need to be able to speak Korean because you have to deal with factory workers, the factory owners, as well as social service agencies," he said. "So I insisted in living in a Korean parish with a pastor who agreed that I could stay with him."
The experience was more than an emersion. It was intercultural, working with migrant workers while living with Koreans and learning their language. He was later appointed formation director for the Korean Region and later regional Treasurer. In 2008, he was appointed Regional Superior for Korea.
The SVD Korean Region is primarily involved in social welfare work especially among the migrant populations, including Filipinos, people from Thailand, Indonesians, Vietnamese, and East Timor. Sometimes his work involves mediating labor disputes made worse by language barriers, or making sure they have access to human services required under Korean law. It also means working with people of other faith traditions—Muslims, Buddhists and other—reaching out to them as a person of faith.
"To be a true disciple of the Lord, the priority has to be serving the people of God, and that will entail pain, sorrow and many challenges," he said. "In the most challenging moments, that’s when you are challenged to love most. Those are the true moments of love."
Dennis the Menace has come a long way.