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The call to ministry for Fr. Dennis "Denny" Ahern, SJ, can be traced to his days at St. Xavier High School in Cincinnati. “I could not help but notice that the Jesuits, who worked very hard, also laughed a lot and enjoyed so much about their lives – like playing basketball on gym nights,” he recalls, adding that the seeds for his vocation were also sown at home in a faithful Catholic family.
Yet by the end of high school, when several in his class entered the Jesuits, he did not feel ready to begin religious life. But he did attend a Jesuit college – Georgetown University – and that was where his calling to the Jesuits truly took root.
Fr. Ahern explains, “I began thinking about lifetime plans, asking myself, ‘What is life all about, anyway? Is there anything more to it? Am I not seeing something that I should be paying attention to? Where is God in all of this?’ And I thought about my high school years – the classes, the gym nights, and all the peace-filled, talented and happy Jesuits, men who experienced positive directions in and through their lives.”
He sought guidance from a director of vocations, who believed God was calling him to the Society of Jesus. “As our conversations went on, I grew much more at peace with this conclusion, and began discerning the particular path I might need to follow,” Fr. Ahern says.
That path has been “marked greatly by many graces,” he declares. “I especially loved studying Scripture courses, the development of doctrine, and the historical and cultural growth in the understanding of the Church and the sacraments.”
Fr. Ahern’s early work as a Jesuit included teaching Latin and French, and serving in several other roles (such as manager of the theater stage crew) at St. Ignatius College Prep in Chicago. Then, shortly after ordination, he returned to St. Xavier High in 1971, teaching French and religious education, updating freshman and sophomore religion courses, teaching theological reflection in a new “community service” course, and serving as a department chair.
For several years, Fr. Ahern also accompanied St. Xavier High students (and later, Xavier University and Loyola University Chicago students) on service trips to help poor, elderly and disabled people in the Appalachian region to improve and repair their homes.
In 1981, Fr. Ahern moved to Xavier University as a campus minister and associate pastor at Bellarmine Chapel, helping with liturgies, reconciliation, and infant baptisms. He was also put in charge of the Marriage Preparation Program, and formalized the way of proceeding in that area. Over six years (with help from a team of happy mature couples), more than 150 couples were prepared and married – with Fr. Ahern witnessing most of the weddings. “I subsequently found that over 70 percent of these couples are still married and living happily together,” he says with joy. “Several still keep in touch with me.”
Joining the staff at Loyola University Chicago in 1989 as a university chaplain, Fr. Ahern chaired the some 200 students and graduates into the Catholic Church.
The RCIA program also played a role while Fr. Ahern served as chaplain at the Loyola Rome Center from 1997 to 1998. “In addition to Sunday liturgies, opportunities for reconciliation, and attendance at a Papal audience each semester, we set up and completed the RCIA for a young man who had begun the program at John Carroll University; he was baptized while in Rome,” he recalls.
“Finally, I returned to St. Xavier High in 2001, as alumni chaplain,” says Fr. Ahern. “As a local, a grad, a former faculty member, and someone who knew many alums in the Greater Cincinnati area, I felt very confident I was the right man for the job. I relished the ability to be present with alums and parents of current students in good times and bad – at liturgies, reunions, athletic events, hospitals, wakes and much more.”
Fr. Ahern also began a monthly luncheon for his own class (1956) that continues to this day. And he started a five-year project he calls the Living Walls, a display of yearbook photos with historical notes of the school, the city, and the world. Additionally, he wrote The Beginnings of the Long Blue Line, a paper chronicling the Jesuits, Cincinnati and St. Xavier College from 1840 to 1865.
In February 2015, Fr. Ahern moved to the Colombiere Center near Detroit, where elder Jesuits live in community, serve in ministries as they are able, and pray for the Church and the Society. “In addition, I continue to pray for all the wonderful people and their families with whom I have come in contact during my many years in this amazing vocation as a Jesuit,” he says.
“Around the time of my ordination in 1970, much was happening in the Church and in theology,” says Fr. Denny Ahern, SJ. “I strongly felt the Holy Spirit was bringing new life and vitality to the Church. Ecumenical movements and liturgical improvements began to grow. The fruit of the work of 100 years of Scripture scholars was also revitalizing our approaches to and understanding of the Word of God.”
“This heightened my own awareness,” he adds, “that a priest is to be a bridge builder and a reconciler, in line with Jesus’ words at the Last Supper in St. John’s Gospel: ‘that they all may be one, even as we are one.’ These and other insights helped revitalize the meaning of Christian marriage, reconciliation, mercy, and respect for others. Such thoughts continue to mean a great deal in our world today.”