OSHKOSH — Bringing the word and joy of the Gospel to young adults can require a different approach than doing so for other parishioners, says Fr. Jason Blahnik. Since July, Fr. Blahnik has been director of the Newman Center on the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh campus, in addition to being priest celebrant at St. Mark Parish in Redgranite and Sacred Heart in Poy Sippi.
He leads Mass at 7 p.m. Sundays at the Newman Center, as well as being present at other scheduled times during the week. He finds that his work in renewing and sharing the faith is a gift in his outreach to young people.
Part of what the new evangelization is, Fr. Blahnik says, is reintroducing the Gospel to those “who have been Christian in the past but have gone a little lukewarm in their faith; who were traditionally Christian but have fallen away from faith; and a relationship with Jesus Christ.
“The first people we have to evangelize are us priests and those of us working for the church,” he adds. “We need to continue to be renewed in that personal relationship with God. Ultimately, we can’t give away what we don’t have. The Gospel is joyful. It represents a living and transforming relationship with the Lord God through Jesus Christ.”
Fr. Blahnik says his service to the young adult community at UW-Oshkosh would not be possible without the support of Catholics who donate to the Bishop’s Appeal.
“The vast majority of our funding comes from the Bishop’s Appeal,” Fr. Blahnik says. “Without it, Campus Catholic Ministry at UW-Oshkosh would not exist. I’m so thankful to the donors to the Bishop’s Appeal for allowing me to be part of this very important ministry.”
Fr. Blahnik previously was an associate pastor at St. Raphael Parish in Oshkosh, then administrator at St. Ambrose in Wabeno and St. Mary of the Lake in Lakewood.
Young people bring different issues to the table than members of more traditional parishes, he says. “You’re dealing with young adults who are trying to figure out what their identity is. Some are raised in the faith and come from decent Catholic families. Some are not sure what they believe at this point. Some think the church believes ‘this,’ and it really doesn’t. The pastoral issues tend to be more relationship-based and in the area of belief. It’s more about personal formation for them.”
He explained that UW-Oshkosh is a compact community size-wise, and he wants to bring Christ into that community. “We want to show that we want Christ in these young people’s lives. As Catholic students, they matter. We want them to be disciples now, rather than waiting. We also want to witness to the campus community as a whole that we believe Christ does matter.”
As one set of parents told him about their son, “We’re so thankful the Newman Center is here. He was a little bit lost, but he’s really enjoying it at Newman Center and growing in his faith.”
About 45 to 50 people attend Mass each Sunday, and about 40 of those are students, Fr. Blahnik says. Others sometimes are professors and their families or other people from the Oshkosh community.
“A few folks who are not Christian come,” he says. “For some reason — and I believe it’s Christ — they’ve latched onto our community. Hopefully, we’ll be doing some baptisms in the future.”
Fr. Blahnik says he loves working in campus ministry, and he also finds it a blessing to be in the Redgranite and Poy Sippi parishes. Connections he has made in area parishes are blessing his work at the Newman Center.
“The people have been very generous and very loving, praying for the ministry here at Newman Center,” he says.
Area Knights of Columbus members have donated money for vestments. One woman brings homemade egg rolls every week, and another bakes cookies. A parishioner from St. Raphael’s installed woodwork, a woman provided new altar linens and the Sisters of the Sorrowful Mother purchased two statues for the chapel.
“Our worship space isn’t very liturgical; it just has metal folding chairs,” Fr. Blahnik says. “We want to make it as beautiful, holy and uplifting as possible. I’m so thankful to God that people’s hearts are in the right place. It’s a reflection of the commandments to love God and love our neighbor. Some of those who help are alumni of UW-Oshkosh, but a lot of them are not. They’re just good people and do some neat things for us here. I think they’re excited about the ministry.”
Fr. Blahnik says he wants the campus ministry program to grow.
“One of the great challenges is just getting the word out,” he says. “We use Facebook, email, signage out in front of the building. A lot of times I will just grab my rosary and walk around campus, or take my newspaper and read it at Polk Library, right across the street from Newman Center.”
He also wants to bring the joy he finds in his faith to the young people he sees every day.
“I find the more I follow Christ, the more joyful life tends to be,” he says. “I think it has a great power to better people’s lives.
“Pope Francis very clearly calls all Catholics to be missionary disciples. That means faith in Jesus Christ and his church is not just a label we put on ourselves, but a furnace in us — the end all and be all of our lives,” he explains. “We need to bring the Gospel to our homes, to our schools, to the Piggly Wiggly, even the taverns and the bars. I want people to know there are young people who care about their faith.”