Father Thomas Blantz, CSC, shares his vocational story and advice about discernment
Father Thomas Blantz, CSC, Professor Emeritus of History, has had a long career at Notre Dame. Father Blantz has served as University Archivist, Vice President for Student Affairs, and Chair of the Department of History. He was awarded the 2010 Edmund P. Joyce, CSC, Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching. The Rover recently had the opportunity to sit down and speak to Fr. Blantz about his vocation.
Irish Rover: How would you define vocation in a general sense?
Father Blantz: Vocation is a calling from the Latin word vocare meaning to call. There are different types of vocation. You have a vocation to the priesthood, a vocation to religious life, a vocation to the married state, and a vocation to the single state. Vocation is the calling for what you want to do with the rest of your life and how you want to live the rest of your life. Very often, when people say you have a vocation, it is to priesthood or religious life. Marriage and the single life are also vocations. Vocation is the way of life that God is calling you to live.
What is your personal vocation story?
When I was in grammar school back in Ohio, a lot of religious orders and dioceses had their own minor high school seminaries. A lot of us in the seventh or eighth grade got letters from religious communities and the parish priest would talk to us about the possibility of going to the seminary, especially if you were an altar boy or daily Mass attendee. I was one of those who in the eighth grade corresponded a little bit with vocation directors—Dominicans, Holy Cross, the Youngstown Ohio Diocese (at that time). I had no intention of entering the seminary; at the time, I lived in Massillon, Ohio, a city of about 22,000 people. There were three Catholic churches and three Catholic grade schools. I was in Saint Joseph’s Church, and Saint Mary’s Church was the one about a mile and half away. We played them in basketball and football and sports all the time. There was a fellow there who decided to come out here to the high school seminary, Holy Cross Seminary on Holy Cross Hill, on the other side of Saint Mary’s Lake.
I stayed here all four years. Then after graduating, I went to the Novitiate, which was in Jordan, Minnesota, at the time. Novitiate is a year of silence, prayer, and study of religious life. After that first year in Novitiate, we made our first vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience for one year. Then, I came back to Moreau Seminary, which is now the Sacred Heart Parish Center next to the new Moreau Seminary. I spent four years there as a philosophy major, as part of my pre-theology requirement before being ordained as a priest. At that time, you could take your religious vows for three years before taking final vows before ordination. I graduated in 1957 with a philosophy degree and then was sent to Rome to study theology for four years at the Gregorian University, run by the Jesuits.
After my second year, I received a bachelor’s degree in theology, followed by a Licentiate in theology after the fourth year, like a Master’s degree. I came back here for a fifth year to study theology, was subsequently ordained a priest in 1961, and became active in my priestly ministry. I lived in a residence hall as chaplain and worked in different parishes in town and spent a week at Saint Joseph’s Hospital shadowing a chaplain. At that time, the community wanted me to go into higher education. My favorite course was history. I stayed here a second year and received a Master’s degree in history. Then, I went to Columbia University in New York and got my doctorate in history. I came back here in 1966 and finished my dissertation and began teaching in 1968. In 1969, the archivist, Father Tom McAvoy, CSC, died, so I was appointed archivist. In 1970, I was made vice president for student affairs for only two years. Then, I began teaching American history full time while remaining university archivist until I retired two years ago.
What led you to become a history professor?
When I was growing up at home in Massillon, Ohio, we had a double house, and my grandmother lived on one side. She was a history buff, especially American presidents. She always had picture books, like coffee-table books. I would go over and look at the pictures, and she would read to me when I was a little kid. Also, we were related, somehow, to President Ulysses Grant through Grant’s sister. My grandmother had some photographs, and she showed me General Grant and General Garfield. Some of my grandmother’s relatives knew both presidents. Her brother was named Ulysses Grant Speck.
When I came to the seminary, I had some good history professors here at Notre Dame. Every year in the seminary, the superior would have a personal meeting with us, and he would ask us what we would like to do as a priest. At the time, I had some good priest-professors here and was leaning on going into teaching. History was what I liked very much. I took some elective courses and conducted research and reading over at Gregorian University about ancient Rome. That was the thing, I liked to read more than anything else and study and learn about history.
How has your vocation as priest fit into your ministry as teacher?
I think teaching is priestly work. First, I think teaching is helping someone else learn, develop their mind, and improve their intellect. We are created in the image and likeness of God, especially in our intellects and wills; these are the two most God-like faculties. In teaching, you are helping someone improve and perfect his or her most God-like faculties. I think that there is something very priestly about that. Second, I think just about everything you teach and learn is a manifestation of God in the universe.
Literature tells you about the created inspiration of human beings as children of God. Philosophy teaches you something about the good, true, and beautiful aspects of God. Theology and Scripture deal with God directly. Almost everything you study can be an opening up of your vision to a greater knowledge of God. In teaching, you are not just teaching a subject, you are trying to teach a person an enthusiasm for learning more to improve their minds. You are leading people closer to God and on top of all of that, you do have the sacramental ministry as well. Saying Mass, hearing confessions, baptizing, and marrying is very much a part of the priestly ministry, particularly on the Notre Dame campus in the residential halls and the Basilica.
What is the most fulfilling part of your vocation? The most challenging?
I have liked it all. I certainly enjoy the sacramental ministry of offering Mass and hearing confessions. I thoroughly enjoy teaching and working with students and helping them to grow in their knowledge of history or whatever I happen to be teaching. I enjoy research and writing because, in a way, that is teaching on a wider scale when you do research, write, and publish something that other people are reading out there. That is teaching them outside your classroom. They are learning from you. I have been very fortunate. I enjoyed all of that. I enjoyed being rector of Zahm Hall, for a few years. I tried to integrate the academic, social, and religious side of the hall to make it into one kind of happy religious community or family. I found the sacramental ministry and teaching very satisfying, and that is what I have been doing most of my life.
The most challenging part of my life was the period I spent as Vice President for Student Affairs. I was appointed Vice President for Student Affairs in May 1970. The Kent State shootings took place in April of that year followed by the Jackson State shootings. It was a period of unrest and things like that with the students. They were good years, as well—the years we tried to merge with Saint Mary’s College. That didn’t work, so we admitted undergraduate women ourselves in the fall of 1972. I was involved in picking the residence halls for women and preparing the campus for co-education. Working with Father Hesburgh was a real blessing and benefit; however, I did miss teaching.
It has been said that you have a passion for storytelling and have been a teacher for all generations. Do you have any comments to share?
History is telling stories of the past. I taught for 46 years, some of the same courses over and over again. I think people are interested in other people, so a lot of my courses were biographically based. I taught a course on American history from 1945 to 1992, in which we would move from president to president. You try to make the course interesting, so I did tell some personal anecdotes about different people involved. I think the students remember those anecdotes or those humorous asides, which would give them an opening into what you were trying to teach that day. I did tell stories, but history is a story, so I tried to make it as interesting as I could. Each year, if you were teaching the same course, you would have your notes from the year before, but you learned something in the meantime, so you would add something new or more relevant and drop something out you taught last year. I centered my courses on the telling of stories about individual people, funny stories about what they did or something like that to liven up the class a bit.
Do you have any advice for young people discerning their vocation?
Be open to everything; everyone is different and has different talents. Give serious thought, pray about it, and give it a try. Like what you do if you date a particular girl or boy you met in your class—you date him or her to see if the relationship is going anywhere and to see if you could spend the rest of your life with someone with his or her personality, talents, or abilities, etc. If you are a young man thinking about the seminary, then read about the different communities of priests available and pray about it. Talk to priests and if as you discern something becomes a little clearer then maybe enter the seminary. Same thing if you are a young women strongly considering religious life, then look at it seriously and honestly and pray over it, maybe entering the convent.
Entering the seminary or convent is not a lifelong commitment like marriage. Anytime, you could leave before final vows. I encourage trying it for a year, especially Old College. Try it, live there, and continue as a Notre Dame student. You are living together and having morning and evening prayer and Mass together. A young person should give their vocations a serious look, whatever talents you have can be used in any religious community of nuns or priests or your diocese. Saint Augustine said that the human heart is made for love. You are not going to be happy unless you are in love and love is seeking the happiness of someone else. When you get married, you are hoping to make the other person’s life as happy as can be. Same way if you enter the seminary, you are trying to make other people’s lives happier and help them on the way toward eternity. The same qualities you need to be a good husband or wife are the same qualities you need to be a good nun or priest—you have to be unselfish, charitable, patient, kind, and zealous in order to make other people’s lives happy.
Alex Slavsky is a junior studying theology and philosophy. He is becoming quite adept at conducting interviews about vocations. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.