Catholic Herald Staff
Approximately 15 years ago, prompted by no particular incident or cause, Fr. Dennis Mullen started a custom of speaking about adoption at the end of Mass for the post-Christmas feast of the Holy Family.
He encourages the faithful to seriously consider making room for one more at their table, to welcome a child in need of a family and a home, if they have the stability and sufficient financial means.
“I have a strong teaching experience of social justice,” he said. “And certain things come to your realization where there is a need.”
The priest himself has committed to more than preaching about adoption. He has put his own money where his mouth is.
Fr. Mullen, who celebrated his 50th anniversary of ordination to the priesthood on June 13 at a Mass at St. Joseph in Rice Lake, shared that he had been receiving financial gifts, which would be added to an adoption fund he helped to initiate with local Knights of Columbus.
The seed money for the fund was a $1,000 donation the retired priest made to the KCs in thanksgiving for their help when he accepted the invitation to move into the rectory with Frs. Ed Anderson and Samuel Schneider.
When Fr. Mullen wanted the KCs to determine a specific use for the funds, they offered three options. An adoption fund was the first one.
“I jumped on that right away,” he stated, adding that the reason that was suggested came from his time as the state chaplain for the organization, and the Knights’ recollection of his passion and conviction for the adoption cause.
At the Fourth Degree initiations, when it came time for the chaplain to speak at the coinciding banquet, Fr. Mullen would speak on adoption. This opportunity presented itself six or seven times.
“The KC Fourth degree is a patriotic degree. It is intended to develop good citizenship,” Fr. Mullen explained.
“We’re a pro-life people … If Roe vs. Wade is reversed, the Catholic Church better step up for adoption,” he said. “Period. It ought to step up right now.”
Fr. Mullen’s sense of practicing what he preaches reaches back into his personal history.
During the homily for his Mass of thanksgiving on June 13, wishing to extend thanks to significant persons in his life, Fr. Mullen recognized the loving dedication of his parents.
He had been diagnosed with a small intestine condition at 8 weeks old that required surgery to correct. Because he was born during World War II, his parents had to ask for and rely on the charity of friends and neighbors to meet their daily needs as well as gas stamps to make the necessary trips to the Twin Cities for their infant son’s care.
“They hung in there with me in my weakest days,” he said. “I could not have asked for better parents.”
Fr. Mullen also described his parents and siblings as unquestionably and unhesitatingly supportive of his vocation throughout his path to the priesthood.
He left home at the age of 14 to begin studies at a minor seminary in Ohio, having learned lessons of faith and of staying true to one’s work amidst the uncertainties of farming.
That support and dedication was visible even at his ordination. The gold vestment he wore had been handmade by his sister, Rosemarie, and the black walnut and silver chalice used for the ordination Mass had been lathed by his brother-in-law, Tony Sirek.
Both of the treasured items were used and noted during the anniversary Mass.
Living out the family trait of “staying true to one’s work,” Fr. Mullen made clear to the Knights that the designation of the donated funds for adoption needed to become “another peg, another mission or another purpose” for their council.
“And it’s got to endure,” he said, noting they agreed to maintain and disperse the fund with that intention.
A framework and resolutions were drawn up to govern how the fund is managed and distributed.
At a KC-sponsored pancake breakfast last winter at St. Joseph’s, Fr. Mullen personally greeted each attendee, going through the line speaking about the importance of, and need for, adoption. He also distributed information sheets that included a personal story from a child in need of a family.
“People have been generous. They have been giving regularly,” he said.
The fund, which currently sits at more than $13,000, can offer grants to cover adoption-related expenses such as assisting families who have been accepted through an adoption application process. Expenses could include paying for smoke alarms, ramps or furnishings to retrofit and prepare a home for a family to meet adoption requirements.
At the most recent Knights of Columbus meeting, a model was adopted for the yearly amount to be allocated as well as the agreement to continue adding to the account.
Fr. Mullen said guidelines for prioritizing who can receive funds have also been discussed. Relatives or close friends of a child needing adoption, as well as local adoptions by Knights of Columbus members or others in the region would be given priority.
“I think we’re in good shape,” he said, and he looks forward to this next step of offering grants. “Then we have something to show. We’re not just collecting money.”
The priest’s manner of handling his commitment to the adoption cause and initiative in moving it forward to bear fruit also harkens back to experiences he shared in light of his anniversary as a priest.
Sharing that he knew very quickly that if he were to be ordained he had to be “all in,” Fr. Mullen said, “I knew that priesthood had to be more than a job. It had to serve the faithful through the Eucharist with unflinching commitments.”
The Eucharist and his own gift of self have been themes woven throughout Fr. Mullen’s priestly ministry.
“I needed a martyr’s faith,” he said, like that of (sixth-century saint) 12-year-old Tarcissius, who lost his life protecting the Eucharistic.
“I knew no lifetime of study could provide that,” he added. “That had to come from within.”
Fr. Mullen noted that he is often asked when he decided to be a priest – in second grade – but that no one ever asks why he has persevered.
The priest acknowledged the studies were difficult and demanding, “but I endured and eventually prospered.”
He credited a profound inner discovery of Jesus’ real presence in the Eucharist for his perseverance in the choice of path in life he has taken and the inner resources to follow it.
From an intellectual standpoint, as a young man he knew “The Eucharist had to be so beneficial for the faithful that the church could make participation in the Eucharistic liturgy obligatory on its members.
And for its ministerial priests, it had to be so central to their lives that the church could and does ask us to give up our right to be married and to live single and celibate lives.”
He said there were no streaks of light or sounds of thunder, “but the deepest and most profound faith came over me. “But then again, something more than faith … In that hour, I knew what we call the ‘real presence’ not as a doctrine or teaching, but a living reality that courses through my spirit every day. To this very day.
“I left the chapel a changed man.”
Willing to grant that others might deny his experience as possible, Fr. Mullen concluded, “If I have learned anything in 62 years of studying for and practicing the priesthood, I know that God works as he wills. All is in God’s hands. We are just the living record of his graces.”
In the final blessing of the Mass, Fr. Mullen prayed, “For the glory of your name, O Lord, I have joyfully celebrated the mystery of faith to mark the anniversary of my priestly ordination, so that I may be in truth what I have handled mystically in this sacrifice.”
There is at least one child that priest knows of who has a family now as a result of his allowing God to “work as he wills” through his own convicted preaching. There is a bank account ready and waiting to fill another chair at tables in homes Fr. Mullen might now, and to carry on as a legacy of a sacrificial life and a living record of grace.
As the committee chair, Fr. Mullen is the contact person for anyone interested in giving or seeking a grant. He may be reached by email at .