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What I learnt from a stint as a campus missionary

More than 17,000 young people attended a FOCUS event in Indianapolis in January (CNS)

It was well below zero in Chicago when I decided to become a Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS) missionary. We wore woolly hats to our Airbnb’s hot tub, watched out for icicles falling from skyscrapers, and slid on ice and snow in an attempt to play basketball in the numbing weather. Why had we made Chicago’s fierce winter our New Year’s destination? To meet thousands of other young Catholic leaders at the FOCUS Student Leadership Summit (SLS) 2018.

Shortly before this I had been a science student, party girl and president of my students’ union. I knew I had been trying to live a life with a thumb in each of two very different pies: the Catholic and the worldly. My faith had always been important, even central at most times, but I still felt the need to prove I was “normal”. As it turns out, leading a double life isn’t all that fun or fulfilling.

“What if you gave everything?” was a speaker’s question that both haunted and excited me at SLS 2018. I knew I wanted to live my faith as if I actually meant it – no apologies, no double standards.

At the conference, I was given a last-minute opportunity to be interviewed as a FOCUS missionary. It was to last several hours and covered everything from the typical spiel on work experience to the not-so-typical discussion about “the big three”: chastity, sobriety (moderation) and excellence. I simply offered what I had to give: a love for Jesus, a desire to be better, and a heart and passion for mission.

Five months later I arrived at Ave Maria University in Florida for new staff training. We attended lectures from top Catholic academics and personalities such as Dr Jonathan Reyes, Dr Edward Sri, Fr Mike Schmitz, Fr Philip Bochanski and others. Among hundreds of FOCUS missionaries and staff, I was surrounded by the kindest and holiest people I had ever met. We went to Disney World, threw fiestas, and shared what was in our hearts. It was beautiful and exhausting.

In August 2018 I arrived at Oklahoma State University, in a small town called Stillwater (aptly named). I lived with my three female teammates, whom I love dearly to this day, and our two male teammates lived nearby. I was given a warm welcome, likely aided by my Irish accent which was a local novelty.

I soon realised that FOCUS missionaries work with many moving parts. We were hosting Bible studies and large events, running a discipleship programme, and recruiting hundreds of broke students to conferences and mission trips. However, the overall approach was simple: win, build, send.

First, and on a broad scale, we attempted to “win” students over. This meant anything from helping them move into their dorms, hosting a barbecue on campus, to driving students three hours to a weekend of camping and canoeing. If a student wanted to invite you into their life – even better. Whether attending a performance, joining their 6am run, or helping talk through a situation involving friends, family, a partner, or the lack thereof, there was never a dull moment.

Next, we sought to “build”. When that awkward ice had been broken and they seemed ready for more, you invited a student to a Bible study. These are FOCUS’s main gateway for introducing students to faith as they offer a relaxed, social environment where matters of faith and life can be talked about comfortably. Chocolate brownies always helped.

Finally, there was sending. FOCUS spreads its apostolate through a method called “spiritual multiplication”. The opposite of spiritual multiplication is arriving on campus and trying to reach everyone at once. The preferable approach involves each missionary investing deeply in two or three (realistically up to six) students and teaching each of them how to invest in a few others.

The FOCUS jargon (of which there is plenty) for this type of investment is “discipleship”. When inviting a student into discipleship, we ask them to strive for “the big three”, as well as to pray for at least 20 minutes a day, frequent the sacraments and start a Bible study. Then we can encourage them to begin winning, building and sending two or three students of their own. This creates a “down-chain” of disciples under each missionary. And – here is the real nugget – this means that everyone is receiving investment in a deep, personal and authentic way. In a world that is craving personal connection, relational ministry thrives.

Started by Curtis Martin with just two missionaries and 24 students in 1998, FOCUS now has more than 730 missionaries serving on 164 campuses and eight parishes across the US and Europe. In 2004, Curtis and his wife, Michaelann, were awarded the Benemerenti medal by St John Paul II for their outstanding service to the Church. In 2011, Benedict XVI appointed Curtis as a consulter to the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelisation.

By 2022, FOCUS estimates it will have had 75,000 students involved in its ministry. It has given life, hope and a much-needed boost to the new evangelisation.

Katie Ascough is a freelance journalist and award-winning human rights activist