Fairfield Now - Winter 2009
The Parish Priest of Fairfield
By Meredith Guinness
The Rev. Gerald Blaszczak, S.J., stands outside the Egan Chapel of St. Ignatius Loyola.
At the beginning of September, the University community received a short e-mail marked "Ramadan." "For the last few weeks our Muslim sisters and brothers here at Fairfield have been observing the sacred month of Ramadan, a time of individual and communal spiritual renewal," it read. "Through fasting and prayer they have sought to grow closer to God, and with acts of charity and hospitality they have served those in need." The e-mail went on to invite everyone on campus to the Egan Chapel to celebrate Eid al-Fitr, the annual breaking of the fast. "Let us pray that God grant to them and to us the peace and joy, reconciliation and love of this Holy Season."
The Rev. Gerald Blaszczak, S.J., the new University chaplain, knows his simple note made little impact on most peoples' lives that day. But it did, in a small way, say one important thing to the University's increasingly diverse population: "It says 'We know you're here and that you are a valued part of this community,'" he said.
In his first months on the job, Fr. Blaszczak has sought ways to address and celebrate religious, racial, and social-economic diversity through the lens of his new office. While the Rev. Michael Doody, S.J., the director of Campus Ministry, primarily serves the needs of students, Fr. Blaszczak will be a kind of pastor for the entire University - from staff and faculty, to the Board of Trustees, alumni, benefactors, friends, and neighbors. He'll celebrate Mass, coordinate explorations of faiths on campus, and participate in ecumenical outreach with the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim communities in the area.
"You could say I'm the parish priest of Fairfield University," he said with a warm smile.
Born in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, Fr. Blaszczak and his family lived in Dallas, Texas, for a time in the turbulent late 1960s. His parents enrolled him in Dallas Jesuit Prep, the only integrated high school in the entire city. The Jesuits took great pains - sometimes at great risk - to make sure their students recognized both the rich Mexican culture around them and the issues facing their African-American peers.
"They were guided by an inclusive vision and a vision of social justice that was humane," said Fr. Blaszczak, who remembers crossing picket lines and walking with his teachers and classmates behind the school banner in civil rights marches.
His time at Dallas Prep with the Jesuits had a profound effect on him.
Fr. Blaszczak jokes with prospective students from the Bronx and Brooklyn who were taking a campus tour this fall.
"These people were very supportive of our growing up as young men," said Fr. Blaszczak, who had been raised in the traditional ethnic churches of Pennsylvania. "They took the life of the mind seriously and were not threatened by it. Struggle and doubt didn't mean a lack of faith; they meant engagement in faith." The Jesuit idea of cura personalis, or care of the whole person, became very real for the young man.
Fr. Blaszczak entered the Society of Jesus in 1967 and was ordained in 1979. In the years in between, he turned his attention to his education, earning a B.Phil. from Philosophische Hochschule Berchmanskolleg in Pullach, Germany, in 1971 and a B.A., summa cum laude, in Classics from Fordham University. A few years after his ordination, he earned his Ph.D. in New Testament and Early Church History and Islamic Studies from Harvard University.
Fr. Blaszczak began his work as an instructor of religious studies at LeMoyne College in Syracuse, New York, moving on to academic posts at Hekima College in Nairobi, Kenya, and Fordham, where he was most recently vice president for University Mission and Ministries. He also served for a time as director of novices for the New York and Maryland provinces, bringing his intense knowledge of Jesuit spirituality to the order's seminarians for most of the 1990s. And in 2005, he became pastor of the Jesuits' flagship parish, St. Ignatius Loyola in Manhattan, where he was known as a challenging and eloquent homilist.
His storied career has earned him a reputation among his peers. "Many Jesuits would tell you he is one of the most talented and respected Jesuits they know," said University President Jeffrey P. von Arx, S.J., who has been a friend for 40 years. "He has tremendous skills and experience as a university chaplain. He's always been someone for whom I've had real admiration and respect.
"And he's an excellent cook."
Cooking, it turns out, is one of Fr. Blaszczak's fondest hobbies. Before taking his post at Fairfield, he spent a few months on sabbatical in Istanbul, and he's been trying out Turkish delights in his new home in the townhouses ever since. Over Labor Day, the first weekend many students spent on campus this year, he fired up a grill outside and invited students to join him for kebabs and conversation.
Fr. Blaszczak celebrates a Thursday Mass.
Conversation is another area where Fr. Blaszczak excels. He is proficient in a number of ancient and modern languages. William Johnson, assistant dean of students and director of Student Diversity Programs, said his language prowess came in handy when he invited Fr. Blaszczak to a meeting with first-generation students and their parents. Fr. Blaszczak was able to converse with Latino families in Spanish, Haitian families in French, and even shared a few words of welcome in Kiswahili with a family from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, putting them at ease.
"I love the guy already," said Johnson, laughing.
As he gets to know Fairfield, Fr. Blaszczak hopes to extend the conversation to the wider campus community. He is working with Judaic Studies to develop a Jewish text study group this spring. He hopes to offer similar programming about Muslim and Protestant spirituality in the future. He is also a mentor to the Magis Scholars and Ignatian Residential College and plans on joining local ecumenical groups to be sure Fairfield has a presence there.
When not out meeting people, Fr. Blaszczak spends much of his day in his sunny office on the lower level of Egan Chapel. There, surrounded by six bookcases of theological and language texts, he crafts the homilies he delivers on Thursdays and Sundays in the chapel upstairs. "I start Monday morning," he said. "I make coffee and sit at my desk and read the readings and pray about those readings. I'll be fussing with it until, literally, quarter of eleven on Sunday morning."
Fr. Blaszczak said he is excited to be a part of the Fairfield community at a time when the focus is on creating educated, ethical, global citizens, which he believes is firmly in line with Jesuit values. "The Jesuit approach to spirituality and to ministry is affirming, compassionate, understanding, smart and reflective," he said. "It gives me the meaning and the path, and with whatever years I have, it is what I want to be about."