Why is there a critical need for college evangelists?
Citing a 2009 Pew survey on its web site, the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS) answers that question: Almost 80% of those who leave the Catholic faith do so by age 23. Only 30% of Americans who were raised Catholic are still practicing.
A 2018 study on young adults leaving the Catholic Church found people stopped identifying as Catholics at a median age of 13, long before they ceased attending a parish.
Nicholas Wolfram Smith of the Catholic News Service cites this study in an article I would recommend on the subject of disaffiliation from the Church: https://www.ncronline.org/news/people/study-shows-young-adults-leaving-church-start-down-path-age-13
Obviously, retention attempts need to start with parish teenagers. However, a big part of the problem is parents who are failing to transmit Catholic values.
So, the best time for achieving a lasting conviction about Catholicism is at the college level. It is then young people are making decisions on their own and cementing their character. FOCUS says that the university is the most strategic place to transform the world.
FOCUS: How It Works
FOCUS was founded at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas in 1998 by Curtis Martin, who remains its CEO. https://www.focus.org/
It has created a Catholic collegiate outreach whose mission is to share the gospel with college students, “inspiring and equipping them for a lifetime of Christ-centered evangelization, discipleship and friendships in which they lead others to do the same.”
According to FOCUS, their missionaries are college graduates “trained in Church teaching, prayer, sacred Scripture, evangelization and discipleship.” They make a two-year commitment, raise their own salaries and work in teams of four.
Invited by the local bishop to partner with chaplains and campus ministers, their method is to meet students on campus where they routinely congregate, develop friendships and invite students to outreach events, Bible studies or just coffee and conversation.
The student is helped to grow in the knowledge and practices of Catholicism through this personal interaction (sometimes in union with kindred Greeks) and Catholic activities, including prayer and the sacraments.
Also, there are opportunities for various mission trips around the United States and the world. The trips are usually 10 days long and entail corporal works, catechesis, evangelization, service, pilgrimages, retreats and sports programs for kids.
Through these mission trips, students learn more about and are inspired by the faith. There are also service opportunities and, in alternating years, two types of national conferences.
The SEEK Conference
The larger of the two, SEEK (for “What do you seek?” (John 1:38) , is largely educational and social in nature. There you can find exhibitors for many Catholic organizations and religious orders.
Two years ago, my husband and I were fortunate enough to attend a SEEK conference sponsored by FOCUS. If you need to have your faith in humanity restored, this is the place to go.
What we found were over 8,000 college-age people on fire with the faith. It was awesome to behold!
Conversations with these students and those who work with them were so refreshing. All of them were super nice and polite. We did not hear a single curse word the whole conference!
Eavesdropping on their conversations at the book tables revealed that they were well acquainted with ancient and modern teachers of the faith. Also, the concerts demonstrated their enthusiasm for religious rock!
When they assembled in the common room for a session, carrying the flags from their different schools, it was quite a sight – hundreds of flags from Catholic and state colleges and an enthusiastic, lively audience.
The smaller conference, the Student Leadership Summit (SLS), is more directly aimed at training undergraduates and other young and ministerial professionals in the organization’s methods. Both conferences feature high-profile speakers, exhibitors, and social events.
The goal is to equip the students to find greater meaning in their lives, share the gospel and lead others to evangelization and discipleship wherever they find themselves – at work, at home, in their parish or community.
To date, FOCUS has been on 205 campuses with nearly 800 missionaries resulting in over 1,000 religious vocations and 1,500 mission trip participants. In 2021, when SEEK was online, it drew 27,600 participants!
FOCUS also works in Austria, England, Ireland and Germany. Its alums continue the mission with networking, job notices and mentoring.
Evangelization is THE most needed mission these days, in my opinion. It is highly encouraging that FOCUS is on college campuses making such a big impact not only in retaining Catholics but also in equipping them to share the faith with others and giving them the motivation for a lifetime of service in the Church.