Holy Cross Father Jim Blantz can’t pull a rabbit out of a hat, but he does use magic and a sense of humor to promote vocation awareness and raise funds for Roman Catholic missions in Uganda and Bangladesh.
Father Jim, who is 83, came to St. Bernard Catholic School last Friday with the Missionary Childhood Association to encourage students to go on a mission when they become adults. He told the students missionary work used to be a lifelong commitment left for the religious.
“Now you can be a teacher, nurse, doctor or married and go on a mission. Lay people can help to lead people to Jesus Christ,” Father Blantz told the crowd of grade-school children.
Father Blantz’s brief talk on missionary work led to a half-an-hour magic show, which dazzled the youngsters. He made a “growing” tree out of newspaper, pulled strings through a solid pane of glass and made solid metal rings go through each other without explanation.
“I thought the magic show was really great. I think he could teach kids what he learned in life,” said Lauren Garvey, a fourth-grader at St. Bernard.
This is the priest’s first year participating in the Missionary Childhood Association’s call to educate children locally about the lives of their brothers and sisters in developing nations. So far this spring, he has done 26 magic shows in five weeks at parochial schools throughout the archdiocese.
The incongruity of being a priest and a magician isn’t lost on Father Jim. He simply doesn’t blend the two. He doesn’t do practical jokes, which can harm others, or Gospel magic, as it can diminish the true meaning of the Gospel.
Father Blantz, a graduate of Notre Dame, found his passion for magic when a family friend’s 12-year old daughter asked him if he knew any magic tricks. He said he knew one. He performed the trick. The young girl lit up.
As a missionary priest serving overseas for the first time in Bangledesh, Father Blantz’s role was to make movies for fundraising efforts for the missions. While shooting a movie in the extreme heat of the day, he suffered from severe heat exhaustion.
“My job was to produce movies and slides for vocational work and fundraising,” he said. “In Bangladesh, it’s so blazing hot you don’t go out in the middle of the day, but I did because I had to shoot in the sunlight. So I got sick.”
On a second trip to Uganda, he found his second purpose in life: to make people happy. He found himself surrounded by about 30 kids who could not speak English.
“I thought about the magic trick [he performed for his friend’s daughter]. So, I took out a coin and made it vanish. They were thrilled,” he said.
Another priest saw how well he connected with the children and encouraged him to make use of his talent. While in Uganda, Father Blantz’s malady persisted and he could no longer shoot movies.
Serendipity stepped in. He found an old book of magic tricks written in English, left behind from World War II. While recuperating he read it cover to cover.
Back in the United States, he was assigned light duty in a school in Terre Haute, Indiana. Whenever he had a day off, he devoted much of his time to learning magic.
He developed his act to near perfection over the years. He has performed his magic act for 43 years, filling audiences with laughter, all the while raising funds for his beloved missions overseas.
Through the years, Father Blantz has performed in hospitals, public and private schools, service club events, the Pritikin Center, IKEA, and most notably, the Magic Castle — where he has performed 1,500 shows, the next one being Aug. 5.
His act is a mix of cards, wordplay and many techniques not utilized by modern magicians. Although Blantz is technically retired as a priest, he still celebrates Mass weekly and provides assistance to parishes throughout Los Angeles when needed.
His purpose as a priest has been to serve others. His purpose as a magician has been to take people away from the cares of the world, even if only for a moment.
“There is so much sorrow and suffering in the world. I want to take you away from your burdens and put you in a land of make-believe to give you happiness, even if for a moment,” he said.
Father Blantz has used the gifts God has given him to the fullest. He ended his magic act at St. Bernard Catholic School in his missionary spirit by encouraging the students to use the gifts God has given them.
“Any gift God has given you can be shared with others,” he said.