by Nina M. Riccio, M.A.’09
The 60 or so students and community members at the Friday afternoon service on April 1 were by turns somber and joyful as they gathered to worship in a chapel located in the former Jesuit residence on Bellarmine Road.
There were candles, some singing, and the occasional subdued laughter typical of most informal services. But while there was a priest in attendance, he was not up on the altar but sitting in the first row. Rabbi James Prosnit was leading this worship: one of Fairfield University’s first Kabbalat Shabbat services.
“Jesuit universities should be places where people on campus notice and appreciate the religious diversity that exists,” says the Rev. Gerald Blaszczak, S.J., the University’s new vice president for Mission and Identity. “We are better off if religious people of all traditions share in a conversation about the religious roots of morality and responsibility. One of my goals, building on the significant work of my predecessor, [the Rev.] Jim Bowler, S.J., is to promote a campus environment which is integrally religious and faithful to its traditions in deed, worship, and thinking – while becoming diverse and alive with new religious energies.”
“As a university, Fairfield welcomes students from all religious backgrounds, yet in the past has done little to create for non-Catholic students opportunities for spiritual self-expression,” says Dr. Ellen Umansky, director of the Carl and Dorothy Bennett Center for Judaic Studies. “To help create such an opportunity for Jewish students, in an environment welcoming to non-Jews as well, was extremely gratifying.”
Over 20 students and Fairfield University community members participated in an Orthodox ceremony celebrated by Fr. Dennis Rhodes last March.
Chaplain Heba Youssef of the Hartford Seminary speaks with students after one of the Muslim prayer services this year. After each service, which generally attracts about 50 people, non-Muslim students are free to ask questions to get a better understanding of Islam.
Having a Muslim prayer service on campus “really makes me feel accepted,” says Bayan Abunar ’14, vice president of the Muslim Students Association. “And I like that others come to see and understand what the service is about.” This spring, Campus Ministry also held the University’s first Islam Awareness Week, with speakers, films, and entertainment, culminating with a Friday (Jummah) prayer and picnic.
The highlight of Palm Sunday’s Mass in the Egan Chapel was the joyous singing of the University’s brand new Gospel choir, under the direction of TaVon Brown from the Cathedral of Praise in Bridgeport.
“Catholic campuses should be a laboratory of religious learning aimed toward respect and understanding.”
Creating a campus atmosphere where all students – as well as members of the greater Fairfield community – feel included is important to Fr. Blaszczak, who has taught at Le Moyne and Fordham universities, as well as Hekima College in Nairobi, Kenya. Prior to joining Fairfield, he was pastor of the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola in New York.
At one time, it might have been considered problematic for a faith-based University to celebrate religious pluralism. But Fr. Blaszczak says that today, our more serious problem is the radical decline of any kind of faith background or sensitivity. The challenge today is not religious conflict so much as it is religious indifference, the lack of a religious culture of any kind.
“Students should be encouraged to mature in the practice of their faith,” said Fr. Blaszczak. “Catholic campuses should be a laboratory of religious learning aimed toward respect and understanding.”
To that end, Fr. Blaszczak has focused on making Fairfield’s overwhelmingly-Roman Catholic campus a more welcoming place for those of other faiths. It’s a vision that ultimately serves the mission of the University as a whole, broadening the education of all students and encouraging their understanding of other faiths. And it’s a mission that doesn’t begin and end with a religious service, Fr. Blaszczak stresses. “Sensitivity to other faith traditions is needed across the University. Religious diversity is not achieved by retreating with bland religious language which is vaguely but inoffensively Christian.”