FOCUS missionaries are changing lives by bringing the Catholic faith to university students
By Claire Collins
My sophomore year of college at the University of Tennessee, I was getting closer and closer to leaving the Catholic Church.
While my Dominican Catholic education had convinced me of Jesus’ presence in the Eucharist, not much else was attracting my attention like the non-denominational ministry I also attended every week on campus. They were dynamic, welcoming, Gospel-centered, and many of my new college friends could be found there.
Then, as if placed there in perfect divine providence, a team of missionaries with the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS) was sent to UT-Knoxville. I had heard from a friend about her incredible experience with FOCUS on her campus, so I reached out to our FOCUS team director, Andrea, and attended a FOCUS SEEK conference that year with 6,000 other young Catholics.
I couldn’t believe what I saw and heard those few days in Orlando, Fla.: young people alive for their faith, dynamic speakers with life-changing messages, college students on their knees adoring our eucharistic Lord. And my life was never the same.
Back on campus, Andrea saw my hunger for the truth and invited me to pursue it more intentionally. She answered many of the theological questions I had come across during my years of searching. I then became a FOCUS student leader on campus and began meeting regularly with Andrea.
She taught me different ways to pray, how to lead a Bible study, how to evangelize and share the basics of the Gospel message with others and inspired me to want to start sharing my faith in a more direct and intentional way. I promised to live chastely, with sobriety, and personal excellence in my own life to the best of my ability.
I had a lot to learn about the faith and how to lead others in it, but I was hungry and excited to follow where the Holy Spirit was leading. This lasted throughout the rest of my college experience, and I was able to lead Bible studies and mentor other students, develop a more regular prayer and sacramental life, and make some great friends in a beautiful and growing Catholic community.
One of the Scripture passages driving the mission of FOCUS is John 17:3: “Now this is eternal life, that they should know you, the only true God, and the one whom you sent, Jesus Christ.” When graduation came, there was really no question in my mind. I wanted to live this verse out with my life and become a FOCUS missionary.
Jesus had used Andrea and the FOCUS teams at the University of Tennessee to forever change my life, and I wanted to be a part of helping Jesus do that in the lives of others. I interviewed and was accepted, and, after a summer training program in Ave Maria, Fla., with our fellow missionaries, I was sent to start the FOCUS program at the University of Memphis.
I would go on to serve the University of South Alabama and Vanderbilt University, lead a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and go on mission trips to St. Lucia and Kolkata, India. Each new adventure brought me closer to Jesus in beautiful ways as I watched my students’ hearts, and my own, be transformed.
The FOCUS model of evangelization is unique and particular to the college campus, and because of this, college campuses can begin to be transformed simply by the presence of a four-member team.
“With such affection for you, we were determined to share with you not only the Gospel of God, but our very selves as well, so dearly beloved had you become to us” (1 Thessalonians 2:8). These men and women, whose full-time job is to be present to students on campus, fill their time with Bible studies, mentorship, lives of sacraments and prayer, and intentionally “wasted” moments living simple life with their students.
It’s in these small and great opportunities in true friendships and relationships that Jesus shows up and the Holy Spirit is given the space to work in whatever way He sees fit.
We also were able to take our students with us on spur-of-the-moment trips, travel with them to retreats, take them on pilgrimages, and go on foreign and domestic mission trips with them. The highlight of every year was FOCUS’ big conference in January, where thousands of students gather for five days of prayer, worship, and spiritual and intellectual formation. Watching lives change in only a couple days, sometimes overnight, was one of the greatest honors I had during my time as a missionary.
In addition to time spent with our students, we also would do outreach on campus, trying to reach new students any way we could. We would host parties and events and invite anyone who wanted to come to join. Many beautiful conversations were had around bonfires, hanging out in our living rooms, or handing out free food at the Catholic center.
We would go out on campus and ask random students if they’d allow us to share the Gospel with them, always ending with an invitation to come check out a Bible study or the Catholic center with us. We set up tables on campus and offered to answer people’s questions about the Church or find some other way to engage people in conversation, often including a free treat.
There were the random students we met on campus who later became Catholic, the sorority girl forever changed by a FOCUS mission trip, the students who grew up going to Catholic school but hadn’t yet made the faith their own, the fraternity guy who encountered Jesus in adoration and completely changed his life.
These and so many other stories flood my mind when I recall the various experiences I had on campus. Beyond the college campus, I’ve met so many people whose involvement with FOCUS, no matter the size, changed the entire trajectory of their lives. They might have picked different career paths, made more intentional decisions with getting involved in a parish, dated and married differently, and made daily decisions more virtuously all because of the presence of a FOCUS missionary during their time in college.
As missionaries, we were also able to partner with generous donors who would monthly provide for our material and spiritual needs through donations and prayers so that we could do the job God was inviting us to do. These “mission partners” were just as much a part of our daily lives as our students; they just couldn’t be on campus with us physically.
They entrusted their finances to God through donating to us, prayed for us and our campus, and many times had their own hearts transformed by our work as they supported us. Our jobs as missionaries and the lives changed by Jesus’ presence on campus wouldn’t have been possible without their generous support.
Today, FOCUS is present on 205 college campuses and parishes serving students and parishioners in five different countries, not including those served by the Digital Campus platform. As they continue to impact thousands and thousands of people around the world, I can reflect on how my life has been forever changed.
Because of FOCUS, I strive to give Jesus primacy in my life. Some of my best friends were people I met as a missionary, whether students on my campus or people with whom I had the honor of serving. My team director my second year on staff is now my husband and we have two beautiful (and wild) sons.
We’ve established a community with many people who are now taking their faith seriously because of the impact of a FOCUS missionary or student leader, either during their time in college, in their place of work after college, or in their parish community. We now support FOCUS financially and pray for them every day. Former teammates and students have gone on to pursue religious vocations and the priesthood in many different orders and dioceses.
To put it simply, the world is being changed because of Curtis Martin and his dream of starting FOCUS. FOCUS just finished its SEEK22 conference, which had over 22,000 attendees both in person and virtually. As more people’s lives are affected by the impact of FOCUS, I am so hopeful looking toward the future of the Church. From vocations to the priesthood and religious life, to the boldness of those lay men and women in the pews, Jesus is using this ministry in big ways.
The Scripture passage that most inspires the mission of FOCUS is the Great Commission: Jesus’s last words to his apostles before He ascended to the Father after the resurrection.
“Then Jesus approached and said to them, ‘All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age’” (Matthew 28:18-20).
I’d challenge you to take this verse to heart and to learn more about the mission of FOCUS. Whether supporting FOCUS missionaries financially or trying to imitate what they are doing in your families, workplaces, and parishes, you can have this transformation, too.
Begin attending the sacraments with more frequency: a daily Mass when you can, the sacrament of confession, attending eucharistic adoration at your parish. Find someone to walk the journey with you such as a friend or family member with whom you can be on mission.
If you don’t know how, the FOCUS website has many awesome resources to get you started. Jesus is waiting for you, and all He needs is your yes! So, what are you waiting for?