Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta


New Archdiocesan Religious Education Director Chosen

By SUZANNE HAUGH, Special To The Bulletin | Published August 23, 2007

The Assumption has a special significance in the life of Dennis Johnson Jr., who began his new position as the director of the archdiocesan Office of Religious Education on this feast day.

It is also the day his son, David Carlos, now 8, was baptized. In July, David Carlos was climbing the stairs in their Michigan home to pray that his dad might get the job he wanted most.

“His foot hit the top stair when the phone rang, and it was Archbishop (Wilton D.) Gregory offering me the job,” Johnson recalled. “I had choices, and so did the archbishop. It’s a wonderful feeling that Archbishop Gregory and I chose each other.”

Johnson, who is bilingual in Spanish, has extensive experience in parish and diocesan ministries in the Midwest and Latin America. He has served as the director of catechetical ministry in the Diocese of Grand Rapids, Mich. He has also worked as executive director of VIDA, Inc., in Venezuela, where he fostered the creation of a new parish in concert with the bishop and local pastor.

He was selected following an extensive search process to succeed Deacon Lloyd Sutter, who retired from the position this year.

Johnson is a member of the National Conference for Catechetical Leadership and the National Catholic Educational Association and serves as the first non-Latino president of the National Organization for Catechesis with Hispanics.

He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in speech communication from the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., and has completed most of the graduate-level credit hours for the master of divinity degree at the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Ill.

Johnson harkened back to the first seeds of his own spiritual formation. “Probably the reason for everything that has happened in my life started with my family. My family growing up was always very involved in the church.”

Johnson joked that, probably against his wishes at times, while growing up the oldest of three boys they spent “more time at our parish than (we) lived at home.”

“It really had an influence on my life,” he said, explaining later how he had entered the seminary for a time “almost to the point of ordination.”

“I really felt called to experience missionary work, though, so I went to Venezuela and lived in a one-room, tin-roofed hut, really living with folks as they struggled to make ends meet. … It was an incredible experience.”

Johnson developed a fluency in Spanish and also met and later married his wife, Marvelys. In addition to their son, they have a 3-year-old daughter, Antonia Catherine.

Johnson has been dubbed the family’s “pioneer,” staking out the Atlanta territory for his wife and children, who remain in Michigan. He had one request for his new archdiocesan family: “Pray that my home in Michigan is sold.”

Johnson has wasted no time in beginning his assessment of northern Georgia. “Here, in Atlanta, there is a very diverse family culturally. … In the last 10 years the Hispanic population has grown in leaps and bounds.”

Johnson noted that one of the gifts he brings to his new position is that he is bilingual and understands also the nuances among the various Spanish-speaking populations.

“I hope to help the church attend to their needs, the needs of individuals and families, to serve them, serve them well, and lead them to the Lord. It’s not an easy assignment. We need to listen and be attentive to how the Lord calls us to live our lives.”

The role of religious education is crucial in developing disciples of the Lord throughout the entire archdiocese, he said.

“We are about forming disciples that witness to God’s kingdom. Jesus said, ‘Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them all that I have commanded you.’ This is the church’s mission of evangelization, which consists of three moments: proclamation, initiation and catechesis,” he said.

“In simplest terms, catechetical ministry (or religious education) in the church today is about fostering formation frameworks that fully implement the mission of evangelization in a comprehensive, systematic, lifelong and ongoing fashion. Doing so ensures we will have vibrant faith communities where Catholics and others can grow in faith, hope and love—and ultimately, the world will be transformed. In the Archdiocese of Atlanta, this means engaging the diverse faces and people we serve; it means inviting, encouraging and supporting.”

Discipleship means reaching out to everyone to more fully experience the body of Christ.

“For me, personally, I see myself as a bridge very much balancing, trying to reach out to people … to link people to the Lord and to each other.”

The Catholic Church is the universal church, he said.

“We march with the Lord but with a global identity. That’s what I love about us—the many colors we have, the spice we have to live our faith enthusiastically. It comes from the energy that unites so many cultures, that unites everyone into one body.”

Johnson relies on what the church offers to nurture his own spirituality—“prayer, the sacraments, trying to live a moral life. From there, I get energy from people.”

Before proposing a course of action, Johnson plans to “get the lay of the land” to determine how best to serve the people.

“I need to spend the first couple of weeks really getting out there and really listening, interviewing and meeting the staff; getting out to the parish staffs, pastors and parishes, and seeing how we can collaborate with other departments.”

Johnson described his experience so far as “almost euphoric.”

“I feel a tremendous joy and privilege in being able to serve the ministers and people of the archdiocese. I am grateful to Archbishop Gregory for offering me this opportunity. Atlanta is home now, and in the few days I have been here, I have felt nothing but Southern hospitality and welcome. As my family is preparing to join me in coming months, we feel nothing but peace and see God’s hand at work.”

Quoting the archbishop’s episcopal motto, he said, “We are the Lord’s.”