Today, the American college campus is where religious faith goes to die. Research shows that even on many Catholic campuses, the faith of Catholic students is weaker at graduation than at the time they enter as freshmen.
Thirty years ago, Hollywood broke with its tradition of escapist fluff and gave us "The Mission," a brilliant, historical film about Jesuit missionaries sent in the name of Christ to Peru. This year the industry again broke with tradition and gave us another breathtaking film, "Silence," about Jesuit missionaries sent to 17th Century Japan. In both cases, the efforts of the missionaries to counter paganism do not end well.
Today, the American college campus is where religious faith goes to die. Research shows that even on many Catholic campuses, the faith of Catholic students is weaker at graduation than at the time they enter as freshmen. As a student's faith erodes, it is typically replaced by a cynical materialism and a sexually casual life style. The virtues learned at home and church fade and are reduced to that one favorite virtue of the academy: tolerance. Or, at least tolerance for all except offenses against Mother Earth.
Today, however, the American campus is experiencing a counter-attack from a new army of missionaries, the missionaries of the Fellowship of Catholic University Students or FOCUS. Started in 1998 by a dynamic Catholic evangelist, Curtis Martin, and blessed by St. John Paul II, during the 2016-2017 academic year nearly 600 missionaries are serving full-time on 125 college campuses, located across 38 U.S. states and in two pilot locations in Austria. In Boston, there are FOCUS missionaries at MIT, Harvard, and Boston University.
FOCUS describes itself as a "Catholic apostolate which shares the hope and joy of the Gospel with college and university students and sends them out into lifelong Catholic mission." But how do they do that? First, these recent college graduates are given a summer of intensive training on Church teaching, Bible study, prayer and evangelization, a training that continues over their two-year, voluntary commitment. Second, missionaries are formed into four-person teams -- two men and two women -- and assigned to a college or university, one where the team has support of the local bishop and campus chaplaincy. Third, and armed with Christ's great mission to us all, "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations" (Matt. 28:19), they engage with students in one-on-one, face-to-face Christian fellowship.
The teams of four live off-campus, but concentrate their work entirely on-campus. They invite students to join Bible study groups, initiate discussion groups, and provide a needed sense of community for students who are often at sea on large, impersonal campuses. Many missionaries lead students on life-changing FOCUS Mission trips around the world.
Their work with students is single-focused and all-consuming. No part-time jobs. Missionaries take a de facto vow of poverty. Like so many of today's college grads, they have debts, but still, like missionaries of old, are their own fund raisers. In itself, this is a lesson in Christian humility. [More about that below.] So, while their friends are starting in business or graduate school, each missionary makes a great big gift of two full years of service to the Church and to us, the Catholic community.
Since 2004, more than 5,000 college students and FOCUS staff have traveled the globe on hundreds of mission trips. During the 2016-2017 academic year, FOCUS Missions will host nearly 125 trips in 45 countries. Each year in January, FOCUS holds a huge, national conference. This year nearly 13,000 people attended SEEK2017, most of them college students.
At this year's conference, a Harvard senior, Maggie Hartman, reported: "I went to SEEK to encounter Christ in his people, both in the 13,000 college students who were there as well as in the clergy, religious, speakers, and missionaries who are so beautifully and faithfully living out their vocations in Christ. And, wow, did that happen!! SEEK was an incredible testament to the living Church. During SEEK, I was most moved by encountering God's overwhelming love in the sacraments and in adoration....Now back at campus, this experience is helping me to live out my faith and efforts at evangelization with the reminder that Christ desires above all else for me to know his love, his thirst for me."
Father Michael Drea, until recently the Harvard chaplain, said this about the missionaries with whom he worked: "I am most proud of my decision to bring FOCUS to the campus. The effort of the four missionaries who work with the chaplains has been a game changer for us, inspiring young people to live their faith wherever they are."
FOCUS has been a rich source of vocations to the religious life. To date, the number is 605: 477 men and 128 women. And more than 20,000 FOCUS alumni have been prepared to evangelize parishes throughout the country. By 2022, FOCUS expects to launch 75,000 alumni into America's 17,000-plus Catholic parishes. Those numbers represent the march of the new evangelization that recent popes have been calling for.
The missionaries are on fire with friendship and the faith, and they are getting results. These missionary stories are ending better than those portrayed in the film cited above. Their experiences give them firm grounding on what the Christian life is all about. They change others and change themselves.
Learn more about the work of FOCUS at www.focus.org.
- Kevin and Marilyn Ryan, editors of "Why I'm Still a Catholic," worship at St. Lawrence Church in Brookline, Mass.