Thousands of young Catholics descended on Phoenix, Arizona, last week for a conference hosted by the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS), serving as a sign of hope amid an extended period of malaise in American Catholicism.
From December 30 to January 3, the Student Leadership Summit brought together Catholics from across the country for a week dedicated to faith formation, prayer and training for evangelisation.
The conference included a star-studded line-up of Catholic speakers, including Fr Mike Schmitz, a chaplain at the University of Minnesota-Duluth known for his short video messages, who encouraged participants to help others encounter the love of Jesus Christ.
“I’m afraid that when we say, ‘I’m fine,’ we actually believe it,” said Fr Schmitz (pictured at the conference). “It’s normal not to be seen, not to be known, not to be loved, and then Jesus shows up, and he says, ‘You don’t have to pretend you’re fine any more. You actually need me.’ ”
Fr Schmitz’s talk, and the conference as a whole, reflected FOCUS’s broader effort to support college-aged and other young adult Catholics, and equip them with the tools needed to help others meet Christ.
Founded in 1998, FOCUS concentrates on spreading the Gospel at universities by sending young adult missionaries to campuses, mostly in the United States. Missionaries work to strengthen Catholic student communities and reach out to non-Catholics.
FOCUS missionaries follow a model known as “Win, Build, Send”. Genuine, meaningful friendships are central to this model, according to the organisation’s website. Missionaries seek to develop “authentic friendships that foster an encounter with Jesus”, then form “hearts, minds and habits of joyful, disciplined followers of Jesus”, before finally “inviting people to imitate Jesus and to be Spirit-filled evangelists”.
Towards the end of the conference, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia delivered a homily in which he praised this model by noting the importance of Christian friendships. He said that FOCUS helped students “discover the Lord in intellectual pursuits, in friendship, in Bible studies and in discipleship.
“And without that interaction, without that sense of brotherhood and sisterhood that’s such an essential part of the FOCUS ministry, the grace that the Lord offers us through FOCUS doesn’t really take place,” Archbishop Chaput said, according to the Catholic News Agency (CNA).
FOCUS’s method of forming others and encouraging evangelisation has proven fruitful, and the organisation has grown rapidly in recent years.
Between 1998 and 2013, FOCUS spread to 83 campuses, grew to 355 missionaries and included almost 2,500 mission trip participants. In the past five years alone, the number of campuses where FOCUS is present has almost doubled to 153, and the number of missionaries has reached around 700. More than 11,000 people have participated in FOCUS mission trips around the world. Over 700 FOCUS alumni have explored vocations to the priesthood or religious life, including more than 230 since 2014.
FOCUS’s success serves as a beacon amid a challenging period for the US Catholic Church, which has struggled with sexual abuse revelations and people leaving the faith. Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) estimates that the number of former Catholic adults in America rose from 1.8 million in 1975 to 26.1 million in 2018.
A 2016 study of Americans by the Public Religion Research Institute found that almost half of former Catholics become unaffiliated with any religion, and most former Catholics leave the faith before the age of 23. Strikingly, only seven per cent of millennial Catholics, born between 1981 and 1996, still practise their faith.
The German Cardinal Gerhard Müller told the conference that the Church was struggling with a crisis that had arisen because many outside it, and some within it, wanted to make it conform to the broader culture.
“The poison paralysing the Church is the opinion that we should adapt to the Zeitgeist, the spirit of the age, and not the spirit of God, that we should relativise God’s commandments and reinterpret the doctrine of the revealed faith,” the former prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said, according to CNA.
Cardinal Müller argued that freedom and happiness come from embracing the life to which God has called each individual, whether that is “in the sacrament of marriage, in celibate priesthood, or in religious life according to the three evangelical counsels of poverty, obedience and chastity”.
FOCUS is seeking to help individuals meet Christ and, in that encounter, to embrace the life they have been called to. While the challenges facing the US Church and the world have been cause for alarm, last week’s conference shows there is reason for hope as we move forward.