Fr. Dennis Budka served the archdiocese of Milwaukee for more than 36 years as a priest before his retirement in January. He continues on in his priestly vocation by filling in at occasional Masses at Divine Mercy Parish in Milwaukee, where he was last assigned, and by reminding parishioners any time they compliment his homilies that “We’ve got to thank God for the miracle. Everything good comes from him.”
SPECIAL TO THE CATHOLIC HERALD
Did you feel a call to the priesthood early in life?
Oh, I’m sure I felt it quite early but just didn’t know what it was. Most of my life up until about college I was the last person who anyone thought would be a priest, and I felt the same way about myself. I couldn’t have imagined it. I wasn’t paying attention to the Lord’s repeated calls. Looking back, I can see them for what they were but in the moment I just wasn’t listening.
What were you doing before you entered into the seminary?
In 1972, I went for one year to MATC then I got drafted into the Vietnam War. I filed for conscientious objector and went up in front of the draft board, and truthfully told them that I could not kill under orders and that I would rather go to jail. I meant it. I got the classification 1CO which meant I had to go to California and be trained as a forest firefighter in a small town called Tehama. I did that for almost a year, and while I was there, totally unexpectedly, my father died. A blood clot came from his leg and traveled to his lungs and killed him. I found out about it and got leave to go home for the funeral, and later I was able to get transferred to Milwaukee to finish out my service.
Can you tell me what brought about your conversion of heart, and what led you to have a deeper connection with Christ?
I ended up at Gimbels in Southridge as a salesperson in cameras, calculators and sporting goods. There was a small religious shelf and on one of them was a little Bible. As an employee, I got a discount and I thought that instead of spending an hour during lunch at the pinball machine, I should buy that Bible that could fit in my pocket and read it. By chance, or grace, it happened to be the same translation we use at Mass, the New American Bible. It took me months but I read it from cover to cover, and that was the catalyst that woke me up to my vocation. I fell in love with the word of God.
Was there anyone in particular who helped guide you through the time between your conversion of heart and when you answered God’s call to the priesthood?
Absolutely. Fr. Robert J. Novotny had been the choir director when I was in high school and I stayed in touch over the years. In 1977, when I started to really think about the priesthood, I went to visit him and asked him questions and talked with him. One day, I asked where I’d go if I wanted to join the seminary and he laughed and had a hard time stopping himself and then said, “you’re in the building.” I didn’t know that in all that time I’d been visiting him at the seminary. He was an incredible encouragement and when I went into the seminary college, he was the choir director there, which was great. I was ordained in 1984 and it was the best choice of my life.
In addition to being a priest, you’re a cartoonist and a musician. How have you tried to use those talents in your ministry?
Over the years, I’ve written four books and drawn over 500 comics for a strip I named “Little Morph and Andy.” I’ve written and recorded over 100 songs playing drums, keyboard, guitar, synthesizer, all kinds of stuff. I even drew comics for the Catholic Herald from 1975-77. I remember one of our teachers saying in seminary, “Don’t worry; the priesthood is big enough to accommodate all of your gifts and all of your interests” and it turned out to be true.
What’s your best piece of writing advice for other aspiring comics?
Persistence. And also remember that no one sees the universe exactly as you do, and your writing has value even though it sometimes feels just the opposite. I used to get up early on Saturday, put on a pot of coffee and write. When I first started doing that, I’d tell myself that if I did a page a day for a year I’d have a book and in the beginning, that’s how it turned out.
Can you tell me about the most recent book you’ve finished?
In the book I’m trying to find a publisher for now called, “Mr. Creeply Meets the Reaper,” the main character is trying to fight against bigotry and intolerance but he has a personal problem of different kinds of compulsive behavior. Throughout the book, he discovers that because he has to keep people at a distance, he’s very lonely. His last name is Creeply and because of that he’s put on this persona of liking all things creepy and macabre but then he makes a few new friends, and a couple of guardian angels, and everything changes for him.
In your work as a priest can you tell me about one of the moments when you were able to see clearly that you were right where God wanted you?
Years ago, there was a little boy who was dying. While I was sitting with him talking, he was busy making a little creation out of safety pins. It was difficult to be there with him and talk about death, knowing it was so close to him. Towards the end of our conversation, he looked up and pinned it on my clergy shirt and I felt like I was receiving the medal of honor. I knew God put me there for that moment.