Being faithful and fruitful in the New Evangelization

FOCUS founder Curtis Martin speaks during the Following Jesus Conference on April 18 at Knoxville Catholic High School. Photo by Bill Brewer

FOCUS founder Curtis Martin speaks during the Following Jesus Conference on April 18 at Knoxville Catholic High School.
Photo by Bill Brewer

Curtis Martin, the dynamic Catholic lay evangelist who founded the FOCUS missionary movement in the United States and abroad, delivered his unique brand of evangelization to the Diocese of Knoxville on April 18 as a featured speaker for the diocese’s Following Jesus Conference.

Mr. Martin started the Fellowship of Catholic University Students in 1997 as a way to bring Catholicism closer to young adults studying in colleges. The missionary movement has been growing around the country and the world and is present on the University of Tennessee-Knoxville campus through the St. John XXIII University Parish and Catholic Center, where four FOCUS missionaries have been active for three years.

Speaking to about 250 adults and youth, Mr. Martin gave a spirited discussion about the challenges of living a Christian life in today’s society with so many distractions and temptations. He stressed the need to rely on Catholic teachings and prayer on a daily basis to navigate our world. He was one of two speakers addressing the diocese during the Following Jesus Conference and was followed by Cardinal Timothy Dolan, who led an afternoon talk at All Saints Church.

FOCUS founder Curtis Martin, center, prays with FOCUS missionaries who attended his talk April 18 at Knoxville Catholic High School. Photo by Bill Brewer

FOCUS founder Curtis Martin, center, prays with FOCUS missionaries who attended his talk April 18 at Knoxville Catholic High School.
Photo by Bill Brewer

Using a Bible as his point of reference and for emphasis, Mr. Martin applied Scripture and Catholic beliefs to real-world situations as a way to educate and affirm people’s faith.

He opened by acknowledging that Catholics can have a difficult time understanding evangelization, which St. John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis have stressed as a way to spread the faith.

“Let’s look at three things: What is evangelization? Why is it so absolutely important right now? And how; how do I articulate how awesome it is to be Catholic in a way that is not coercive, or pushy, or judgmental, but would be inviting and effective?” Mr. Martin said. “As Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) shared with me years ago when I launched FOCUS and I was in Rome; I asked him, ‘If you were going to tell young people something about God, what would you tell them?’ And he said, ‘I would tell them there is one God, and He has one Son, and He founded one Church.’ That is pretty simple, pretty straightforward.”

Mr. Martin said it is important for Catholics to know the difference between ignorance and apathy, which essentially is “I don’t know and I don’t care.”

“We’re in a cultural battle for the hearts and minds of people, and if we don’t know which issue we’re trying to address – ignorance or apathy – we will frustrate people,” he said, urging the audience to help people overcome any apathy first, then any ignorance. The first step in evangelization is to win the hearts of people so that their minds will open … done through prayer, grace and friendship, and then you can teach them,” he added.

Speaking in the Knoxville Catholic High School gymnasium, Mr. Martin engaged with the audience in plain-spoken tones, with humor and anecdotes thrown in to make his three-hour talk accessible to the laity and women and men religious in the audience. Relying on his Bible and armed with a portfolio full of examples, Mr. Martin made it easy for his audience to understand what evangelization is – and isn’t.

“Evangelization is a big, long Greek word that means share good news,” he said. “I really think the reason why many Catholics don’t evangelize is because many Catholics don’t experience their faith as good news.”

He agreed that people wanting to learn how to evangelize could ask him to put on a workshop, with workbooks full of how-to and how-not-to instructions, and train them. But it isn’t necessary.

Evangelization is about developing friendships and spreading the Good News through example, according to Mr. Martin.

He pointed out that there is a sense of burden in Catholicism.

“Let’s face it, being Catholic is not easy. It just isn’t,” he said, pointing to the thick Bible and referencing the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which can be daunting. “It’s not so important that we know it all. It’s that we love it, and we begin a steady diet of learning.”

Mr. Martin leaned heavily on Scripture during his talk and incorporated some sobering facts to illustrate the need for Catholics to evangelize.

He pointed out that the Catholic Church in the first world is shrinking for the first time. Citing the Protestant Reformation as an example, where 9 million Catholics left the Church in a decade, he noted that in the same 10-year period, Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared in Mexico and 9 million people joined the Catholic Church, which perfectly illustrates evangelization.

“Even in the middle of the Protestant Reformation, the Church didn’t shrink,” he said. “Right now in the first world, the Church is shrinking.”

And that’s why, he said, the New Evangelization can and must succeed.

“The Catholic Church is still the most amazing group of people on Earth. Even with only 5 percent engagement, the Catholic Church every single day feeds more people, clothes more people, provides health care and education for more people than any other group of people on Earth,” he said. “Unless we get better at winning the hearts of our young people, our Church will continue to shrink. Catholicism is the greatest adventure on Earth. And when we live it that way and we share it that way; well, then people’s hearts come on fire and we begin to evangelize. That’s what evangelization is – it’s the winning of hearts so that people will want to follow,” he said.

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