For countless universities across the country, Catholic ministry programs are an integral means by which college students are drawn to the faith or sustain it during the college years.
Ministry programs such as Fellowship of Catholic University Students, St. Paul’s Outreach and The Evangelical Catholic encourage students to live their faith and take part in the Church’s call to the New Evangelization on campus. These programs strive to reflect this mission, just as Pope Benedict XVI stated in his apostolic letter Porte Fidei for the Year of Faith: "Today, as in the past, he sends us through the highways of the world to proclaim his Gospel to all the peoples of the earth."
That includes college students on campuses across the country.
A well-known college ministry devoted to the New Evangelization is the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (Focus). Founded by Curtis Martin in 1998 at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan., Focus missionaries encourage students in their faith through Bible studies, personal mentoring and outreach events. They invite young people to explore the purpose and meaning of their lives through their relationship with Jesus. They are present on both Catholic and non-Catholic campuses.
According to 2013-14 statistics, Focus grew from two missionaries on one campus to 355 missionaries on 83 campuses (in 34 states and the District of Columbia) within 15 years. Furthermore, almost 70 missionaries have answered the call to a religious vocation within the past year.
This academic year, Focus has missionaries at 11 more universities. For the first time, Focus has expanded into California: at the University of California-Berkeley, the University of California-Santa Barbara and the University of Southern California. Other new campuses across the country include Stephen F. Austin State University and the University of Rhode Island.
Full-time Focus missionary Shannon Zurcher serves at the University of Connecticut as a team director. She believes that evangelizing on college campuses helps shape the culture.
"The college campus is a place where young people make decisions that will affect the rest of their lives," said Zurcher. "If they understand the relationship that God their Father wants to have with them and base their decisions off of that, the trajectory of their lives will be able to bear much fruit."
Part-time missionary Emily Bench works for a special branch of Focus called Varsity Catholic at Mount St. Mary’s University. This branch concentrates solely on student athletes. Reaching athletes is important to her because these students will be future coaches, teachers, parents and/or young professionals. She wants them to embrace their faith and take it with them after college.
"Varsity Catholic missionaries are on campus to help witness to these young people," said Bench. "We show them that it is possible to live out the faith in college and that it will ultimately bring you more joy and fulfillment."
St. Paul’s Outreach (SPO), which helps college students grow in faith through community and relationship building, serves more than 10 college campuses across the United States. The program trains young people to evangelize to fellow students on and off campus. Mark Archibald, director of operations, said the 2012-13 school year set a record for the ministry, reaching approximately 5,000 students. The ministry also set a record this summer, gathering 227 students for an eight-day training program to prepare missionaries for the school year. Additionally, two SPO donors recently purchased a house within walking distance of Ohio State University, which will serve as a men’s Catholic household for the campus.
"Through building strong communities of faith and the relational evangelization of young missionaries, students are brought to life-changing conversion in SPO," said Gordon DeMarais, SPO’s founder and executive director. "We are needed on college campuses because we are losing the next generation of Catholics."
Ohio State University senior David Bethel engaged in the college party culture before he discovered SPO. This school year will be his third year to live in a SPO men’s household. He will also serve as a student missionary, and he plans to live in the new house when it opens.
"We are a leaven for the culture on college campuses. Because there is so much partying, sex, drinking and drugs, we are a countercultural example," said Bethel. "SPO’s witness alone drew me deeper [in my faith]."
Just as Focus and SPO aim to enrich the faith of college students, The Evangelical Catholic (EC) works with campus ministries to help them thrive. Faye Darnall, director of campus ministry and publications for The Evangelical Catholic, said the group’s mission is "to build self-sustaining, fruitful, sacramentally alive campus ministries."
Some campuses consult with them through monthly meetings, weekly phone calls and mentoring. Other campuses use their resources as needed.
Darnall said the staff at The Evangelical Catholic has tripled within the last two years. Although EC plans to expand over time, the current demand for its services is so high that EC is unable to assist every campus that wishes to utilize the ministry. The ministry held a training camp this year in the Washington area for the first time. The camp set a record for EC, drawing in 120 students and campus ministers. It is offering three training camps this year and plans to expand to four in 2014.
University of Wisconsin-Madison alumnus Father Brian Dulli explained the impact The Evangelical Catholic placed on his priestly discernment amidst his work as a student. He stressed that EC helped him understand Scripture in ways he never expected, resulting in a desire to sincerely delve into his faith.
"Their programs opened the word of God for me in ways that I could understand and grow with, and they fostered an exciting and lively student community," said Father Dulli. "I grew a lot through this program, and I know hundreds of others did, too."
North Carolina State University student Angela Petrongelli considers The Evangelical Catholic a necessity for college campuses because it brings hearts to Jesus.
"The Evangelical Catholic reminds and reveals to us our purpose as disciples of Christ. Christ’s love and our faith is reborn in our hearts, and we can strive to be the saints that we are called to be," said Petrongelli. "It reminded me of the freedom I have as a child of God, and I couldn’t be more thankful for the grace God has brought into my life because of it."
Jacqueline Burkepile writes from Dallas-Ft. Worth.