Of the 250,000 young Catholics in America expected to enter college this fall, a conservative estimate is that half of them will lose their faith by next spring.
But the good news is that this disturbing trend is being countered by a vibrant new movement that is spreading to many college campuses. A Catholic fellowship, a cadre of young and dynamic Catholic apologists, is challenging the dominant secular culture. The movement, now in its fourth year and known as the Fellowship of Catholic University Students, or FOCUS, is staffed by recent college graduates who return to campus as missionaries—that’s the word they use to describe themselves. Well versed in Scripture and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, this new leadership is poised to take on all challenges to students’ faith. Its members are themselves the product of FOCUS’s mentoring program.
Toward the end of his four years at a large state university, a young man I’ll call John was in deep personal turmoil. Then he met a FOCUS missionary, who invited him to join a Bible study class with four other young men. Like all Bible groups in FOCUS, this one offered what it calls “authentic friendships,” grounded in mutual love of Jesus Christ. These friendships aim far beyond making group members feel good. They are meant to help them grow in true goodness. The FOCUS group that John joined covered the scriptural basis for Catholic teaching, as well as the basic teachings themselves—the first time that John had been exposed to them. Discovering true Catholicism and, most profoundly, Christ Himself has an astounding impact on the personal and professional lives of most FOCUS students and graduates.
John says that when he joined the FOCUS Bible group, he was a “career nerd with medical-school aspirations. Only grades mattered to me. I didn’t have time for anything else at all.” His personal relationships suffered, and he had begun to despair about finding a woman with whom he could imagine a lifelong commitment. But within the first year of his involvement with FOCUS, John began to attend Mass daily, pray the rosary for grace and guidance, and temper his all-consuming plans for medical school. Now John is married, and he attributes the success of his marriage—and his and his wife’s decision to start a family immediately—to the devotion to Mary that he and his wife cultivated in FOCUS. “It was so easy; we just kept praying, and pieces kept falling into place,” John says.
To the astonishment of nearly everyone he knew, John almost postponed medical school in order to become a FOCUS missionary, but he ultimately decided to begin his professional training after all. At medical school, his Catholic commitment was challenged immediately. One day he learned that his lab assignment would involve stem cells. After class, he told his instructor he could not do any research that involved embryonic stem cells, because the process would have entailed the destruction of a developing human being. Though taken aback, the instructor assured John that no embryonic cells would be used. Later, another professor sought out the upstart first-year medical student and expressed his respect for John’s principled stand.
“It’s not that what they say or do in medicine is immoral; it is amoral,” John says. “These are competent professionals who address all the right medical issues but not the underlying issues that concern the patient as a human being.” John describes his aspirations to be a doctor as having been refined during his short time with FOCUS. “I want to be a man of integrity among my colleagues, able to speak on behalf of the truth about the traditions and beliefs of the Catholic Church. I recently was able to talk to an abortion doctor [about] the Church’s stand on women and its compassion for their well-being. It was really powerful.”
Mary Claire’s Renewal
Other students converted through FOCUS express a similar desire to serve. Mary Claire encountered FOCUS when her faith was tottering. “I was pretty much on my way to becoming a watered-down Catholic. My faith was strong in my family, but…I was having so many doubts!” Mary Claire’s experience is common among college freshmen. “When you get to college, there are so many attacks on your faith. I don’t think parents really have any idea about peer pressure or about the very strong anti-Christian bias in classrooms. But there you are, without your parents, and you have to start your own habits. It’s easy to lose the habit of going to church.”
After graduation, Mary Claire postponed her career plans in order to work as a FOCUS missionary. She was assigned to a campus as part of a team of four. Like the 40 or so other FOCUS missionaries around the country who signed up for this academic year, she has committed two years of her life to the program, including a rigorous annual seven-week training session. She must raise 50 percent of her living expenses on her own, and she faces a “24/7 job” of being available to every student. Mary Claire elaborates: “We do mentoring. We are the same age and live in the same space. You don’t have to make an appointment to see a priest to ask basic questions about life and faith. We go into the dorms. We look for the young people who are searching for answers.”
She goes on: “The greatest thing I have learned personally as a missionary is how to rely on the Lord for all your needs. Asking for donations, which are your only support, teaches you that.”
It is stunning to overhear recent college graduates with stellar academic records talking about their latest appeals to local parishes for financial support rather than comparing their compensation packages on the usual career tracks.
Joey also decided to become a FOCUS missionary. He had only been in FOCUS for a year when he made his remarkable decision. “I had a huge conversion during my experience with FOCUS. Things started to happen in my life really rapidly. I was always Catholic. I was going to Mass on Sunday, but my faith wasn’t making a huge difference in the way I lived day to day. Now, I would like to lead as many people as I can into a strong love of Christ. Just two years ago, my life was so offtrack. Being a missionary! I would never have imagined it. It’s so out of character for me! It wasn’t even on the radar screen.”
The impact FOCUS has had on the secular culture of the universities has been staggering. The fellowship, wherever it preaches, hears the refrain: “When are you coming to my child’s campus?” It may be soon, because FOCUS is growing fast. It was launched only in 1998, at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, by Curtis Martin, a Catholic apologist and public speaker with a master’s degree in theology who once seriously considered a priestly vocation. Originally sponsored by Catholics United for the Faith, a conservative Catholic organization, FOCUS is now an independent movement.
Within two years, FOCUS had added three new missions at the universities of Northern Colorado, Denver, and Nebraska. In its first year, FOCUS missionary training involved only two people; by the summer of 2001, more than 40 missionaries were being trained. Only 24 students belonged to FOCUS in 1998, but by the year 2000, it had grown to 600-strong. Within the next five years, members estimate that FOCUS will at least double in size. Meanwhile, Martin continues to speak on college campuses that FOCUS has not yet reached, and he is developing a written FOCUS program, coauthored with leading Catholic theologians.
The secret of FOCUS’s success is its adaptability. FOCUS creates on-campus Catholic activity, but it also supports and supplements ongoing Catholic campus ministries such as Newman centers. The fellowship taps the enthusiasm of the young people already involved in Catholic campus activities and supports the work of campus chaplains. The partnership between the chaplains and FOCUS has been tremendously effective. Rev. Robert Matya, campus chaplain at the University of Nebraska, says of his work with FOCUS: “I wish you could see the long lines for confession. We’ve expanded our schedule twice already. Come down to the Newman Center on any given night at 10 p.m., and you’ll see 100 to 150 kids attending daily Mass, praying—it’s beautiful. I wish you could see the dozens of students at weekly adoration in the evening when many other students are at bars and parties. These kids have been challenged to place Christ at the center of their lives. They have been shown the beauty and truth of the Catholic faith.”
Msgr. Stuart Swetland, pastor of the student center at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, agrees. “The students in my Newman Center are people of goodwill and are very generous, but they haven’t been formed well in their faith. Their need is infinite, and FOCUS helps by bringing the refreshing presence of peer ministers who can understand the problems of our students much better than adults who are twice their age.”
The FOCUS organization is also highly streamlined. Martin, who now serves as its president, presides over a small staff at its headquarters in Greely, Colorado. He speaks to youth at prospective campuses all over the country. His travel schedule is grueling. To select campuses, FOCUS sends four missionaries as a team for two-year terms. They first acclimate themselves to the campus culture and find student leaders with whom they can work, lessening their own loads. During the school year, they run the Bible study groups, organize social events, and initiate gatherings called “Prime Times,” during which students can listen to other students talk about their journeys back to Catholicism.
But before the FOCUS missionaries set foot on a college campus, each must successfully complete a seven-week intensive training course, renewed each year. Teachers include Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap., of Denver; noted Catholic apologists Scott and Kimberly Hahn; theologian Timothy Gray; and Curtis Martin and his wife, Michaelann. Courses last eight hours each day, five days a week, for a total of more than 200 hours of study in topics such as sacred Scripture, catechism, and evangelization. The Martins give a signature session on dating and marriage, including some of the most common issues facing college students. But the training, which begins with a white-water rafting trip, extends beyond rigorous schooling in Catholic apologetics. The missionaries also develop a sense of community and the “radical availability” that they must offer tirelessly to others.
Reflecting on the success and growth of FOCUS during the past three years, one of the first donors to the program, who prefers to remain anonymous, describes how gratifying it is to see FOCUS graduates become leaders in the secular world: “I wish I had my act together when I was that age! But to think I am helping to reach people at such a vulnerable point in their lives, when they can be so easily educated out of their faith; it is true joy.” Another donor explains: “I feel like I am helping to send a whole new generation of Catholic leadership out into a culture that is foundering all around us.”
Curtis Martin explains the importance of FOCUS in positive and simple terms: “College is a hinge time. Young people are making decisions that form a whole life and that, without the guidance of Christ through grace, can have tragic long-term effects. Many students make most of their life decisions during college. Mistakes can take years of grief to undo. FOCUS invites students to start right, to found their adult lives on Jesus Christ. The result is a deeply personal and satisfying relationship that provides a blueprint for lifelong success and happiness. It makes a big difference when this message is delivered by one’s own peer who has struggled with the same set of dilemmas a young student faces every day.”
FOCUS is committed to the orthodoxy of the Catholic faith, but it eschews labels such as “liberal” or “conservative.” Martin uses the term “dynamic orthodoxy,” because, he says, orthodoxy by its very nature is liberating and dynamic. And it works. When FOCUS presents Catholicism in its most basic and simple terms, a wildfire of inspiration and faith seems to break out among listeners. The real spark comes from the living testimony of missionaries and student leaders. Their lives reflect the joy of a renewed and active faith. Their comrades, struggling with their Catholic friends and ask, “Hey, what’s up with you?” And FOCUS students are all too glad to tell them: It is the impact of Catholic orthodoxy on their daily lives. They try to introduce Christ as a person, a friend, and a guide.
Archbishop Chaput has seen the impact of FOCUS up close. “Over the past several years, I have had the opportunity to watch the FOCUS program develop,” he says. “They are currently serving several universities within the Archdiocese of Denver. I see their work as one of the most exciting examples of the new elements within the Church. FOCUS has already borne incredible fruit, and I am sure of its success. I have never seen any organization that has been able to stir up the enthusiasm of young college students as this one has—both in terms of the staff that they have developed and in terms of the people that they serve.”
Curtis Martin’s own testimony is typical. He recalls that “because I did not live my faith, I did not learn my faith, and I lost my faith.” According to his story, which he tells to sellout audiences across the country, he lost his faith as a young man, but he still hungered for truth and instinctively distrusted easy answers. He yearned for a personal relationship with Christ. Finally, it was not Catholics, but students from the Campus Crusade for Christ, a decades-old evangelical outreach group on campuses, who befriended the floundering Martin. (FOCUS patterns its methodology on that of the Crusade.)
Highly motivated Christians themselves, these new friends asked Martin the question that Christ posed: “Why do you call Me ‘Lord, Lord’ and not do what I tell you?” It was time for a change of heart and life. The young Martin responded wholeheartedly. Fluent in biblical chapter and verse, the evangelicals also confronted him about his Catholicism, and he found himself unable to defend his “brand” of Christianity. “My Catholic faith didn’t survive the first night of their challenges,” he admits.
Martin is forever grateful to his evangelical friends for returning him to Christianity, but like many lapsed Catholics, he ultimately had to wrestle with the powerful Catholic doctrine of the presence of Christ in the Eucharist. While attending a Catholic retreat at his mother’s insistence, he found himself trembling during Eucharistic adoration. He faced a shattering choice: If Catholic claims of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist were bogus, he must save Catholics from their heresy; but if the claims were true, he had to worship the Eucharist as a Catholic.
Thus began Martin’s arduous journey into Scripture and traditional Catholic writings, including the fathers of the Church. He ultimately concluded that the Roman Catholic Church he had left was indeed the one true Church. Martin’s message today is crystal-clear: Catholicism offers the only blueprint for a truly happy and successful life. That is his starting point.
The FOCUS approach on campus similarly starts with a comprehensive presentation of the basic teachings of the Catholic faith, the likes of which few Catholic schoolrooms have seen in several decades. It makes rapid connections with young people by addressing the concerns that consume their energies—career, dating and marriage, success, and happiness. The FOCUS message offers a simple, if not always easy, answer: Once you put Jesus Christ at the center of your life and heart, everything else falls into place.
One of the most popular FOCUS instruction sessions is the Martins’ presentation on romance and married life. Among the first things students hear from Curtis Martin is a challenge to practice virtue: “A man who is cheating on his wife can still value fidelity. What he lacks is not a sense of values, but virtue itself. To love Christ is to lead a life of virtue with the help of His grace.” Here, students face, often for the first time, the idea of developing habits of goodness and of refining themselves with practices of virtue. As they embrace this way of life, they typically begin to discover the direction they seek and the peace they long for.
Joey, the new missionary, recounts: “I was really lost in my relationships and had almost given up ever finding a way to relate to women successfully, but when I started to understand how Christ had to be the center of my life and my friendships, things started to work out better fast.”
Christ Comes First
The Martins, when they speak before student groups, maintain that Christ must come first when it comes to love and friendship. Curtis Martin warns students that young people too often chase after a marriage commitment as if running a sprint rather than training for a marathon: “As St. Augustine tells us, we all have a God-shaped hole in our hearts that only God can fill. You have to put first things first. You can’t take that gaping hole into your relationship, or you end up yoked to someone who is very needy or you end up remaining needy yourself for the rest of your life. Each of us is called to a life of giving, not taking, and right order in friendship and marriage is not possible unless we have our relationship with God straight first.”
FOCUS repeats its message again and again: Pursuing a Christ-centered lifestyle must be everyone’s central vocation. Commitments to religious or married life do not precede but follow that personal connection, which is at the core of life itself, FOCUS maintains.
“I encourage students, as they seek their ideal marriage partner, to fix their eyes on Christ,” Martin says. “Run after Him. Let everything else go. After they have been running a while, I encourage them to look up. What do they see? Who is at their side? Probably someone who is also following Him. That’s when I urge them honestly to ask themselves whether this is someone they will love more with time, whether each one will love Christ more because of the other. They respond enthusiastically. We find that quite naturally dating moves out of the backseat and onto the front porch.”
FOCUS suggests that young people examine the love stories in the Bible to see how salvation history addresses today’s romantic dilemmas. Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Rachel, Tobias and Sarah all make appearances in FOCUS Bible studies and the Martins’ speeches. Students are reminded of how Moses, after running through the desert, falls down at the feet of the woman who later becomes his wife. These stories portray godly women living out their stations in life and godly men being led to them at the right time and the right place. The lesson: God leads individuals to each other. The relationships He desires to blossom will flourish with time and His grace. Essentially, the Martins challenge students to practice patience, setting aside their own ideas about making commitments in favor of accepting God’s often delightfully surprising will. The message is one of hope and trust and faith in the future. Many students take this message from salvation history deeply to heart. Fostering more sound choices about marriage partners and more realistic expectations about how to make marriages work is one of the most basic ways that FOCUS tries to counter today’s destructive cultural trends.
The dating and marriage discussions are particularly credible because they are run by the Martins, a strongly Catholic couple. Once again, FOCUS students, who are expected to become Catholic community leaders, come into contact with dynamic examples of leadership. Michaelann Martin, an accomplished writer in her own right, has a great effect. Although she leads a busy life as a mother of six children, she regularly joins her husband on the podium in the dating and marriage sessions. Unlike many women in the secular culture, Michaelann Martin says she feels neither marginalized by devoting herself to her maternal priorities nor banned from a leadership position in her work outside the home. John, the medical student, recalls something she said that inspired his devotion to Mary: “It was Michaelann who advised us to become one-woman men, devoted to the Blessed Mother first. She assured us that everything else would follow. She was right.”
Aside from its guidance on friendship and love, FOCUS promotes what it calls its five main principles: dynamic Catholic orthodoxy; cultivation of “living Catholic traditions”; “vital unity,” or respectful dialogue among Catholics; practical instruction in the basics of Catholicism; and heroic generosity. Living traditions, for example, are a radical idea for many students. Few Catholic young people have been exposed either at school or in the home to the rich range of Catholic devotions their parents and grandparents might have taken for granted, so FOCUS teaches them. “It takes a lot of work to learn faith,” Curtis Martin explains. In FOCUS, students learn how to say the rosary and about plenary indulgences and the meaning behind the rituals of the Mass. As Martin points out, all this is possible through heroic generosity: the missionaries’ total donation of themselves and their patrons’ financial support.
Reflecting on the future of FOCUS, Martin quotes Acts 2:42: “They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teachings, to fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayer.” He says: “With these four points, we can turn campuses—and the culture—upside down.”
Recently, while speaking to FOCUS missionaries, Martin got a chance to sum up the significance of the organization that he started three years ago and that is now changing students’ lives at many campuses: “We are battling for a culture. The end goal of FOCUS is not to own campuses. In ten, 20 years, each of you will have taken up your roles in a culture that will respond with amazement to lives which enjoy the peace only Christ can give. Medicine, law, teaching, government, and, most importantly, parenting—any discipline, anything you do will be infused with the light of Christ if you harness yourself to Him and do His will.”
As one FOCUS donor says, “It’s simply a matter of investing in the future—with solid confidence in the long-term payoff.”