By Renée K. Gadoua
Soon after arriving at Syracuse University in 1982, Dave Dwyer visited the Newman Center and asked the popular Catholic chaplain, Father Charles Borgognoni, about retreats. The center did not have a retreat program, so with a characteristic football analogy, Father Charles encouraged Dwyer to “run with it.” That exchange became a turning point in his faith in Dwyer’s life. As an eager undergraduate, he had thrown himself into campus radio, SU’s evangelical Christian programs like Campus Crusade for Christ and Catholic activities. (Classwork often came in fourth, he confessed.) Overburdened, he eventually chose the Catholic center. Years later, after a successful New York City career in television, he chose the priesthood.
Father Dwyer, a Paulist priest, addressed that theme of choosing Catholicism during a three-day parish mission at Immaculate Conception Church in Fayetteville. “Who is Jesus? Where is Jesus? Why Jesus?” drew up to 400 people a night October 16 to 18.
Fr. Dwyer is director of Paulist Young Adult Ministries, publisher of BustedHalo.com, an online spiritual magazine for people in their 20s and 30s, and hosts “The Busted Halo Show,” a call-in talk show on the Catholic Channel on Sirius Satellite Radio. At SU, he hosted a morning show as “Happy Dave” on the student-run radio station, WJPZ, 89.1 FM, five days a week on a top 40 station. After graduating in 1986, he worked at MTV and Comedy Central.
Then he experienced an “ah-ha” moment during the 1993 World Youth Day in Denver. He felt a call to priesthood in the words of the late Pope John Paul II and the reactions of people to the popular pope. He was ordained in 2000.
“I thought church was what people do when they get home from work,” he said during an interview. “Then God showed me a different plan.”
The Paulist Fathers (also known as the Missionary Society of Saint Paul the Apostle) were a good fit for Fr. Dwyer’s skills and experience. The order, named after St. Paul, “seeks to meet the contemporary culture on its own terms.” That includes using the media and Internet. St. Paul wrote letters, Father Dwyer noted, so it makes sense for today’s religious leaders to use technology to spread the Good News.
“There’s a narrative that all in culture and out in the world is bad,” Father Dwyer said. “We are called to be leaven to the world, living in the world. We find God in the secular world.”
Churches not using technology miss connecting with their flock, he said. “I plead with priests to record their homilies and put them up as podcasts,” he said. “What can it hurt? You’re appealing to the crowd that’s already not in church. Maybe they’ll hear something that makes them want to come back.”
Parish leaders intimidated by technology should invite a young person to help. “It’s like being an altar server,” he said. “If you give a young adult the chance to do something and share his gifts, they’ll feel like the church needs them.”
He offered this advice: Don’t create a website and update it every year or so. “It needs to have something happening every day,” he said. “If it’s not a living, organic thing, it’s not helpful.” And don’t worry about creating new content; add plug-ins from Saint of the Day and other features.
He sees using technology as crucial to reaching young people. A May 2015 Pew Research Center survey found an increase in religiously unaffiliated Millennial adults, those born in the 1980s to the early 2000s. The Catholic Church has seen the biggest decline among religious groups in American. Nearly 13 percent of American adults are former Catholics, while just 2 percent of U.S. adults have converted to Catholicism, Pew found.
Millennials distrust institutions, Father Dwyer said. “Their parents graduated and had a job for 50 years and retired with a gold watch,” he said. “That’s not true anymore. … From the church they hear, ‘This is the only way’ in a very relativistic age.”
On the last night of Immaculate Conception’s mission, Father Dwyer began by reading submitted questions – a practice he follows on his radio show. Topics included why Catholics don’t sing every verse of hymns, the Catholic view of tattoos (they’re not prohibited) and whether communicants can dip the Communion host in wine (under the new General Instruction, no). After a spirited talk from Father Dwyer, attendees broke into pairs to discuss challenging faith moments and why they chose to stay in the church.
“He has a lot of energy and is very spiritual,” Father Thomas J. Ryan, Immaculate Conception pastor, said over the chattering crowd. “He uses a lot of humor and he gets you to think about things you take for granted.”
Father Dwyer encouraged the group to serve as ambassadors and find their own way to tell the story of why they choose the Catholic Church.
“I credit Father Charles with a large part of my vocation,” he said of the late priest remembered for his role as SU’s chaplain and director of the Pompeian Players musical theatre group. “The Catholic Church felt like home and they needed me.”
Renée K. Gadoua is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Manlius. Follow her on Twitter @ReneeKGadoua.