Father Tom Dentici, the priest who presided over my childhood, is one part dry humor, two parts conviction, and 100 percent Brooklyn-Italian. I think for him it might be one word, Brooklynitalian.
A snippet of conversation I recently overheard between Fr. Tom and a former parishioner:
Parishioner (excited, cheerful voice): “We’ll be thinking of you.”
Fr. Tom (deep, serious voice with a Brooklyn accent): “Don’t think of me. Pray for me.”
Parishioner: “I’ll tell my parents you’re doing fine.”
Fr. Tom: “Don’t tell them I’m doing fine. I’m not fine. Tell them I’m doing all right.”
At eighty-five, Fr. Tom now moves slowly with a cane, but mind and spirit are obviously still strong.
Fr. Tom preached the same thing every Sunday: God’s love. This was not butterflies and teddy bears love; this was serious love. He preached as if trying to speak forcefully enough to pry open our hearts and allow that love to rush in. Though he always stopped just short of, “You better let God love you or else,” you sometimes felt that’s where he was going, not because he wanted to proclaim punishment but because he believed that this was the most important thing in the world for our souls to understand.
In fourth grade I asked him about the fate of my Jewish mother’s soul, and in that same, grave Sunday-morning-sermon voice he said, “Your mother will go to heaven.” When I protested, pointing out that the New Testament said quite the opposite, he cut me off and repeated himself with such priestly authority that I couldn’t help but believe him. He saved God and Christianity for me that day.
At the same time, he had—and I assume still has—a wicked sense of humor. According to a visiting priest, he once pretended to be the voice of God when he saw a woman praying alone in a church. Though the story may have been apocryphal, no one in the congregation doubted he’d do it if given a chance.
One of my most enduring memories of Fr. Tom comes from the annual Octoberfest. In it, he is wearing a Hawaiian shirt and leading the congregation in the chicken dance, which is being played by a polka band.
Thank you, Tom Dentici, for your faith, your sincerity, and the love with which you shepherded your flock.