Legate’s ministry leads young people to friendship with Christ and His Church . . .
“I was at a low point in my life,” she said. “I hadn’t been to church in a while. Someone referred me to a local parish and there I met a friend who was involved in FOCUS. I ended up meeting the FOCUS missionaries, and they were so welcoming to me. I felt I was in a safe place.”
Collar eventually went to a FOCUS conference for college students. It was there that she decided to go to Confession for the first time since her Confirmation.
“It was a slow process, but what FOCUS did for me was guide me to a better place,” she explained. “They were very patient with me and very focused on living a life in Christ.”
Conversion of heart
Founded in 1998 by Curtis Martin and his wife Michaelann — members of Legatus’ Denver Chapter — FOCUS is a national outreach that meets college students where they are and invites them into a growing relationship with Jesus Christ and the Catholic faith.
FOCUS sends missionaries to live at colleges — both Catholic and secular campuses — where they engage in “personal discipleship” or evangelism with students. Missionaries commit to working for FOCUS for two years.
“At the heart of our work is the belief that the most authoritative person to live on this earth was Jesus Christ,” said Curtis Martin. “His command was to go out and make disciples.”
Martin himself was a fallen away Catholic during his youth. While attending Louisiana State University, he grew unhappy with the man he had become. One day, out of desperation, he began to read the Bible his mother had given him.
“I came across Luke 6:46 where Jesus says, ‘Why do you call me Lord, Lord, but not do as I command?’” he said.
This passage shook Martin to the core, and he spent several weeks wrestling with it. He soon met a group of evangelical Christians from Campus Crusade for Christ and joined them. Campus Crusade has a systematic way of evangelizing young students, but the Catholic parish on campus did not.
After 18 months with Campus Crusade, Martin began noticing inconsistencies with their doctrine. Despite the inconsistencies, Martin decided to write a paper during his senior year about the early Church to disprove that Peter was the first pope. He started reading the Church Fathers and was shocked to learn that they were all Catholic, all believed in the Eucharist, and all believed that Peter was their first leader and pope. Martin realized that he would have to return to the Catholic Church, which he did one year after graduating from LSU.
FOCUS’ strategy isn’t only to bring students into right relationship with Jesus Christ and the Catholic Church. Its mission is ultimately to teach students how to evangelize others — or as Jesus commanded “make disciples of all nations.” Missionaries begin the process through authentic friendships.
“We have a ‘win, build and send’ model,” said Christine Westerlin, FOCUS’ manager of events. “In the ‘win’ stage, we meet people where they are. In the ‘build’ stage, we build up their faith. In the ‘send’ stage, we send them back out and teach them how to evangelize.”
In 1998, FOCUS sent four missionaries to Benedictine College in Kansas. Fast forward to 2013 and FOCUS will be sending 355 missionaries to 83 college campuses in 34 states. Each FOCUS team includes four to six missionaries.
For the first time, FOCUS expands its mission this fall to California. Missionaries are now at three Ivy League schools as well MIT, University of California-Berkeley and New York University. Only 10% of FOCUS schools are Catholic.
As of May 2013, more than 11,000 students were involved in FOCUS-led student groups. The ministry’s growth rate has been 20-25% annually since 1998. Because of FOCUS’ success, Pope Benedict XVI appointed Martin as as a consultor to the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization in 2011.
For his part, Martin says evangelization must be intentional. He teaches his missionaries to think about “spiritual multiplication — the idea that if one person makes disciples of two people, and these two people make disciples of four people and so on, by the end of 25 years, 33 million people will have been converted,” he explained. “By the end of the 33 years, 8 billion people will have been converted — which is more people than we have on earth.”
“We take formation very seriously,” said Jeremy Rivera, FOCUS’ senior director of marketing and communications. “We teach cultural apologetics, which is: How would God our Father respond to issues we face today — like same-sex ‘marriage’? For theology, we bring in some of the best speakers in the nation. The summer training can be described as being part retreat, part boot camp, and part theology graduate school.”
During their training, held over the summer at Ave Maria University, missionaries also learned how to engage in “incarnational evangelization.”
“Jesus shared our humanity, so we have to meet people where they are,” Rivera explained. “We need to meet people who are in crisis. This calls for heroic generosity.”
Sam Mazzarelli, a FOCUS regional director, says evangelization starts with intercessory prayer. “We pray for affinity groups like sports groups or fraternities,” he said. “We pray for God to provide an opportunity for an encounter.”
FOCUS missionaries receive further training at the invitation-only Student Leadership Summit, which typically hosts 2,500 students. The largest annual FOCUS event, however, is the SEEK conference for Catholic college students, featuring some of the top Catholic speakers in the country.
“The first SEEK conference was held in 2000 with 30 people,” Westerlin explained. “Even during the recession, when most hospitality events were closing, SEEK conferences kept growing. This year’s SEEK had 5,200 students and 700 were from non-FOCUS student campuses.”
In terms of evangelization, FOCUS missionaries are on the cutting edge. Catholics may have ceded active evangelization to Protestants or Mormons in the 20th century, but today’s Catholic youth are serious about changing the culture for Christ.
“We push missionaries to get out of their comfort zone,” said Westerlin. “When I was a FOCUS missionary, every Thursday we would set aside a few hours to walk around campus and actively evangelize. We had to learn to be bolder.”
Westerlin learned that many times when students had “issues” with Catholicism, their real issues had nothing to do with religion. For example, when students rail against a paternalistic God, they often admit to having absent or distant fathers. FOCUS missionaries try to fill that gap by building authentic friendship — and by being radically available to others.
“It’s through authentic friendship that lives are changed,” Westerlin said. She points to the 355 men and women who have entered the religious life since 1998 after their involvement with FOCUS.
“I went to the Napa Institute conference in 2012, and many of the speakers spoke about the problems we have in the Church,” said Westerlin. “When my FOCUS colleague, Grace DelNero, got up and spoke, it was amazing to see how the mood in the room changed and brightened. Here at FOCUS, we are young and fresh. We show that there is hope in the Church.”
SABRINA ARENA FERRISI is Legatus magazine’s senior staff writer.