OSHKOSH — As the Catholic Campus Ministry director at the Newman Center on the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh campus, Fr. Jason Blahnik is always looking for new ways to engage young people and attract them to his Catholic ministry.
This summer, he discovered an engaging new one. While walking alongside the Fox River on a hot day, he was struck by the humor of a sign warning, “Danger, thin ice.” He thought, “I bet people would get a good laugh out of this.” He took a “selfie” — a photo of himself — with the sign and posted it on his Facebook page.
The selfie prompted the amused response he had hoped for from students who were not on campus for the summer. He then started posting selfies of himself near UW-Oshkosh landmarks that the absent students would recognize.
“With the students gone, this was a way to connect them with UW-Oshkosh and the Catholic ministry even if they weren’t there,” Fr. Blahnik said. “Kids do a lot of selfies and snapshots. It’s me putting a foot into their world. It endears them a little bit more to the ministry.”
He said that now that school is back in session, students are taking selfies of themselves at the Newman Center and are posting them as well.
And how is it going over with the students? Fr. Blahnik obligingly asked for a nearby student’s opinion and got an enthusiastic response. “They think I’m the best, apparently,” he reported wryly.
In the back of his mind, Fr. Blahnik’s current approach was influenced by the popular selfies being taken by Pope Francis. “If the boss is doing it, I guess it’s OK,” Fr. Blahnik said.
In the UW-Oshkosh student union, campus organizations can set up information tables, and Fr. Blahnik plans to sponsor a table once a month with a cardboard cutout of Pope Francis that students can pose beside for selfies.
“We may need to create an album on Facebook just for those photos,” Fr. Blahnik said. “The aim of the tables is to be a voice if somebody has questions about the Catholic faith. It gives the students a chance to see the church is present on campus. Sometimes we need those reminders. It encourages them to think about religion. Sometimes we put that on the back burner when we’re busy.”
He said a hospitality committee of students will be present at the tables as well as at offerings at the Newman Center. “Regardless of who the person is, they will be feeling welcome, worshiping Christ, loving Christ and being loved by Christ,” he said.
Fr. Blahnik said he wants to reach out to young people on a personal level and to have fun. He is offering such activities as pumpkin carving, arts and crafts, Catholic charades, knitting baby caps for charities or just dancing around to music.
He said his foray into selfies is a way to show that he is willing to go to the young people’s level in a good way. “There’s some authenticity there,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to connect with the culture of young people now, and they appreciate that. It shows that Christ can enter even into something like this.
“Some people think that if we’re having fun, we’re sinning. That’s not the case. It’s fun to be Catholic,” he explained. “There’s a joy to it, living and loving people. It’s a great life. There are so many ways of following Jesus in a good way. I want them to have fun.”
Check out Fr. Blahnik’s collection of “selfies” on Facebook.