Focus on FOCUS

Almost two decades ago, long before she met me, my wife Susannah was working for Catholics United for the Faith in Steubenville, Ohio. In those days, way back in 1998, the president of CUF was Curtis Martin, better known today as founder and president of the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS).

Susannah remembers the exciting day on which FOCUS was formed. Curtis Martin and a colleague appeared on EWTN to announce their plans to launch FOCUS.

Phones began ringing incessantly in the aftermath of the show, with Susannah and her colleagues flailing frantically in the midst of the tsunami of enquiries from those interested in knowing more. Clearly the plans to start a fellowship of Catholic students in response to the rising tide of secularism and relativism in colleges was meeting a real need and was being received with great enthusiasm. It boded well for the future, but even the most optimistic FOCUS pioneers—Curtis Martin included—could not have imagined the full extent of its astonishing success.

During this current academic year, more than 660 FOCUS missionaries are serving full-time on 137 college campuses, located across 38 U.S. states and at three international locations (two campuses in Austria and one in England). In the almost 20 years since its founding, more than 20,000 students have been involved with FOCUS. Of this number, almost 700 have made decisions to pursue Catholic religious vocations.

At the evangelical heart of FOCUS are the missionaries, typically recent college graduates, who devote two or more years of their post-collegiate lives to supporting Catholic undergraduates on campus. This past January, almost 13,000 people attended its national conference.

Last month it was announced that FOCUS had partnered with the University of Mary, a Newman Guide college and North Dakota’s only Catholic university, to bring more than 400 FOCUS missionaries to the Bismarck campus for a five-week training period.

“FOCUS is pleased to announce that we will be adding a second location for New Staff Training starting in 2018,” said David Allen, FOCUS events manager. “This new campus location will be the University of Mary located in Bismarck, N.D. Incredibly, we have outgrown our ability to house all our staff at the current location for new staff training, held each summer in Ave Maria, Fla. While we will continue to use Ave Maria University’s campus, we are so happy to have the University of Mary as our new partner in our missionary training, and we look forward to adding a great location that will support all our formation needs.”

University of Mary President Monsignor James Shea, who serves on FOCUS’ board of directors, lauded the organization’s work and mission. He spoke of his plans to continue strengthening the partnership: “FOCUS emboldens young men and women to share the hope and joy of the Gospel with their peers, fellow college and university students, and enkindles in them the desire for a deep and meaningful encounter with Jesus Christ and His Church,” he said.

“In just a few short years, FOCUS and its team of fervent young missionaries have re-energized Catholic higher education across the country. FOCUS missionaries serve so selflessly in this noble and good pursuit and have already transformed the hearts of so many; we are humbled to be asked and honored to help in any way we can.”

Patrick Reilly, president of The Cardinal Newman Society, is as happy as anyone at FOCUS’ seemingly inexorable rise, but a while ago he voiced a concern that is well worth pondering.

“My persistent concern is that the type of evangelization done by FOCUS and other similar programs (Steubenville youth conferences, diocesan rallies, etc.) casts the net wide but never very deep,” he says, “and while it is wonderful to excite people about the Faith, not many of these evangelized and newly energized Catholics have the years-long formation of Catholic education.

“A vast and growing majority of Catholic adults, and even ordinands, have little or no experience of good, faithful Catholic education. My concern is whether FOCUS alumni get this formation later in life, and even more, whether they are committed to preserving and renewing Catholic education—most of them having had none. Will they embrace the view that there’s nothing lost when a Catholic has an entirely secular education but engages in FOCUS-like activity?”

There might be good reasons for a Catholic to attend a secular university, but it’s dangerous to think that nothing is lost by attending a secular college, as long as it has a good campus ministry or FOCUS group, ignoring all the benefits of a truly Catholic formation inside and outside the classroom. The same could be said of elementary and secondary education.

“Many Catholic parents today think nothing is lost by sending children to public schools while participating in CCD and going to Mass,” adds Reilly. “I am, of course, not discounting the many financial and other reasons families forego Catholic schools and colleges, but my concern is that families don’t see this as being of less value and don’t first desire Catholic education.”

Reilly put these concerns to a FOCUS fundraiser and was heartened by his response. He was told that FOCUS’ own research indicates that most FOCUS alumni are choosing Catholic education for their own children, despite not having it themselves. Many homeschool or choose Catholic schools, and they all seem to value Catholic education.

“That’s very promising and suggests a new, growing pool of families who are interested in Catholic education,” Reilly says.

As for FOCUS, Susannah and I have supported their missionaries for many years. Our view is that they are an evangelical Catholic presence in enemy territory. May their work continue to be blessed and prosper!

JOSEPH PEARCE is a senior fellow at The Cardinal Newman Society and editor of its journal. He is a senior contributor at The Imaginative Conservative and senior editor at the Augustine Institute. His books include biographical works on C.S. Lewis, Shakespeare, Tolkien, Chesterton, Solzhenitsyn and Belloc.