Why is FOCUS at Catholic Colleges?
As a graduate of a Catholic college, and after serving as a missionary at a Catholic university with the largest seminary in the United States, the answer to the question, “Why is FOCUS at Catholic colleges?” is an integral part of my testimony, as well as my experience in ministry. There are several reasons I pray that Catholic evangelization efforts like FOCUS will one day have a presence on every college campus, especially the Catholic ones. These reasons are rooted in three realities: the reality of campus culture, the impact of relational evangelization, and the need for more young men and women committed to the evangelical mission of the Church.
Paraphrasing the wise Dr. Seuss, campus culture is campus culture, no matter how Catholic. What is “campus culture,” you ask? For four years, students live, learn, play, eat and socialize on a daily basis with the same people - they go to the same classes, join the same clubs, work out in the same gyms, eat in the same dining halls, and live in the same buildings. The influence of these relationships on a student’s decisions in college is unavoidable. Experiences outside the classroom, including peer encounters, significantly affect their spiritual lives, and an article from The Catholic World Report discussed how negative behaviors such as premarital sex, alcohol abuse, and drug use, were more common among students who had friends engaging in the same behaviors.
The nature of the campus environment provides an equally powerful opportunity for young men and women to learn how to live virtuous, Christ-centered lives, especially at a Catholic institution. However, according to an article by Steve Wagner in Catholic Studies in Higher Education, less than half of students on Catholic campuses that self-identify as Catholic are actively practicing their faith, and over 50% of Catholic graduates of Catholic colleges disagreed with basic moral teachings of the Church.
It is no surprise, then, that 9% of Catholic students abandon their faith before graduation, according to another article from The Catholic World Report. I was certainly among that 9%. With the majority of the people students encounter on a Catholic campus (much less on a secular campus) not actively practicing their faith, students are immersed in a “mini-society” that tends to reflect the “prevailing cultural norms.” Intentional evangelization that is focused on forming Christ-centered relationships, and striving to live virtue, is just as important on a Catholic campus as it is on a secular campus.
What does this relational evangelization look like? FOCUS is not separate from the existing campus ministry program, but a team of missionaries can be essential valuable asset for leading students to a personal encounter with Christ. FOCUS is able to bring fifteen years of exploration and training in relational ministry, which is key to the New Evangelization. Missionaries are trained to invest in Christ-centered, purposeful relationships, which inspire commitment to some of the most difficult virtues to uphold on the college campus: chastity, sobriety and excellence. The presence of a few vibrant and faithful young men and women on campus who can draw people in to campus ministry, who are free to stay up late in the dorms with students, go to "club night" on the weekends, or play a game of pick-up Frisbee in the middle of the day is essential to infusing campus culture with examples of young people striving for virtue, and building the kinds of relationships that allow for a paradigm-shifting witness to the Christian life. This kind of investment demands a commitment of time that is not (and should not be) expected of traditional campus ministry staff.
The experience was the same for me when I was a student. I was at a Catholic college where opportunities for faith development were easily available, but a strong support network of Catholic friends was elusive. Just before, I left the Catholic Church. Six months later, while a grad student at a large public university, FOCUS missionary struck up a conversation with me on the campus quad, and I ended up going to Mass for the first time in months. This initial invitation led to conversations about Catholic teachings, friendships with Catholic students, and eventually a personal encounter with Christ in the Eucharist that opened my heart to the fullness of truth in the Church. If this missionary hadn’t been spending his time outside of the Newman Center and involved in day-to-day student life, I never would have connected with the Catholic ministry on campus. I can only imagine the impact if he had been doing the same thing on my Catholic campus.
When I first heard of recruitment as a factor in FOCUS’ presence on specific Catholic campuses, I was uncomfortable with the idea. I believed the students on secular campuses needed to hear about Christ more than FOCUS needed more missionaries. But the more I thought about it, I remembered the words of a seminarian I know, who once included in a prayer request, “until the world hears.” In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul writes, “and how can they hear without someone to preach?”
We cannot ignore the reality that, even on a Catholic campus, there are many students who have not had a transformative personal encounter with Christ. However, one of the greatest fruits of having FOCUS at a Catholic college is the great availability of faithful students thirsting for a way to serve the Gospel sacrificially, because of the great love they already have for Christ. A relational ministry such as FOCUS is able to make deep investments and draw from these students' existing commitments to their faith, adding to their zeal with specific instruction on relational ministry and discipleship, which is central to the New Evangelization.
Ultimately, FOCUS isn’t just about “converting” people, but rather “launching college students into lifelong Catholic mission,” which is a goal that reaches far beyond the boundaries of secular and religious educational institutions, and the relationships students form in college will echo throughout their relationships for the rest of their lives.
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Why is FOCUS at Catholic Colleges?
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Since the pontificates of Pope Paul VI and John Paul II, the Roman Catholic Church has been commissioned to engage and embrace the world with God's message of love once more with ‘new methods, new ardor and new expression.’ It has come to be phrased, 'the new evangelization.'
For FOCUS, this means meeting college students across the nation where they are and challenging them to examine the meaning and purpose of their lives. Through personal relationships and friendship, we offer college students the true peace and fulfillment they seek in the good news of Jesus Christ and the teachings of the Catholic faith, inviting them to answer His calling in their lives.
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