Catholics adopting evangelical methods on college campuses

by Sophia Lee
Posted 7/02/12, 04:23 pm

Evangelical groups aren't the only evangelists on college campuses now. There's a new kid in town, and its passion for evangelism and Bible reading burns bright-in the form of Catholic prayer candles.

Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS), a national Catholic college campus outreach, began in 1998 with four missionaries at one campus, Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan. Fourteen years later, it has now trained and sent out more than 300 missionaries spread out across 74 campuses in 30 states. That's still small compared to other campus outreach groups, but founder and president Curtis Martin said FOCUS will "be a response both to the Catholic Church and to Cru, and many other great evangelical organizations like Navigators and Intervarsity."

FOCUS's Catholic theology sets it apart from other college ministries, but in many ways it reflects remnants of Martin's experience in entering and exiting evangelical Christianity. When he became active in Campus Crusade for Christ-now called Cru-during his sophomore year of college, it was because he made friends with funny, athletic, and "normal" Cru members, not because a Cru member guilt-tripped him into reforming his secular lifestyle.

It wasn't until later that Martin discovered his friends were committed Christians. Something about the way they practiced their faith-a pure enjoyment and relationship with Christ-drew him in. As a young man raised Catholic who had ceased to attend services or pray, Martin said he was "attracted because I knew there was something wrong with my life."

Although Martin said he is "forever grateful" to Cru members for showing him the importance of spiritual life, over the next two years he turned back to "deeply rooted" and unified Catholicism. Three decades later, Martin lives in Westminster, Colo., and has injected much of what he learned from his Protestant period into the FOCUS bloodstream. It uses a style similar to Cru's: "Share the joy we feel in Christ, because it's available to anybody who wants it."

That Cru-style emphasis impressed Anna Capizzi, 23. She had drifted away from Catholicism during her freshman year at the University of Maryland but returned after she met FOCUS members who "lived with an intense joy that I wanted." By her junior year, FOCUS was her "second home," in which she also began leading Bible studies and mentoring other women. She became a FOCUS missionary right after graduation, spending a year sipping coffee and working out at the campus gym with New York University students.

"When we evangelize, we're focused on building a relationship with the individual," Capizzi said, noting that relationships starting with casual conversation can evolve into mentorships as she leads students in prayers and Bible studies. That's the work of the "new evangelism," Capizzi said. "I myself was a part of it as a college student and I'm continuing to be a part of it. People are getting fired up about their faith and going out to spread it with friends and family."

Because Bible-reading brought Martin back into the Church, FOCUS doesn't just seek to reform Catholic evangelism, it also holds regular Bible studies. Gregory Amarante, deacon at the Diocese of Harrisburg, Penn., said an increase in Bible-reading is the result of a "long, long battle in the Catholic Church. … People are starting to realize what an important and crucial part it is, not just to proclaim it in Mass but to read it over and over again."

Jeremy Rivera, FOCUS's director of communications, was a Protestant pastor in Hawaii who reentered the Catholic Church and became a FOCUS missionary at the University of Colorado in Boulder. He said young people "yearn for a reconciliation of authority, and I think the Church provides that." But he added that the method is no longer so clergy-centered: "Catholics are understanding their faith so that they can share the faith, not just in words but in their actions. It's a major shift we're experiencing in Catholicism right now."

Sophia Lee

Sophia is a senior reporter for WORLD Magazine based in Los Angeles. Follow Sophia on Twitter @SophiaLeeHyun.

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