9,000 Young Catholics Gather in Phoenix for FOCUS SLS20

“Who is your saintly friend for 2020?”

Adoration and Confession Night at the FOCUS SLS20 event in Phoenix.
Adoration and Confession Night at the FOCUS SLS20 event in Phoenix. (photo: Photo courtesy of FOCUS)

Another year, another decade, another season ripe for renewal. Even amid a challenging time for the Church, 9,000 Catholics — most of them college students and young adults — gathered in Phoenix and welcomed 2020 with a celebration of hope and life in Christ.

From Dec. 30 to Jan. 3, the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS) conference, SLS20, “You Were Made for Mission,” brought together religious, priests, bishops and cardinals from dozens of orders and dioceses, college students from 311 campuses, and passionate Catholics who serve in a myriad mission fields: media, education, publishing, teen chastity, family life and pro-life — you name it.

Since it was practically in my backyard, I was able to come for part of the powerful event, witnessing firsthand the fullness of the Church today. I wove through flocks of nuns — Dominicans in black and white, Sisters of Life wearing their beautiful blue, Franciscans radiant in brown, and friends from the Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity in their trademark gray. I passed priest after priest, most of them young and leading a pack of students. I stepped over youth groups praying in clusters in the corners and waited in long lines to hear powerful speakers encourage the thousands who had come to be inspired and educated and fed with the sacraments and prayer.

Enveloped by vibrancy and energy and enthusiasm, I began to crave a little quiet, so I slipped into the immense room converted into an adoration chapel and exhaled. Hundreds of heads bowed low in adoration, worshipful and silent. The stillness was thick with the presence of God. “Lord,” I prayed. “This is a small taste of heaven, isn’t it?” I felt surrounded not only with the future leaders of the Church Militant, but I felt the presence of the Church Triumphant. I felt surrounded by saints — the founders of all those orders, the patrons of the people and the universities and the heavenly friends who had prayed us all there. I wondered if others felt the same. So I decided to ask.

“Is there a particular saint inviting you to a deeper friendship this new year?” I asked two young Franciscan Friars of the Holy Spirit (FFHS). Father Ignatius Mazanowski had an immediate answer. “St. John de Brebeuf,” he said, explaining that the Jesuit missionary, martyr and patron saint of Canada had “found” him recently. He had asked the saint to give him increased passion and joy in his service of Native Americans. “And that’s exactly what happened on a retreat this year.”

FFHS Father Peter Teresa also knew exactly who his saint for the year was. “Thérèse of Lisieux emerged in my life as a movement in my soul,” he said, sharing that he’d just read her autobiography Story of a Soul for the first time, and that since someone had recently donated a statue of the Little Flower to the order, he had been spending time with her.

The friars’ communication director, Dan Ballinger, was thoughtful. “I’ve been thinking about those who’ve gone before me — my family and friends,” he said, reminding us that the Communion of Saints includes those not named in the canon.

Likewise, Sister Mary Michael of the Sister Servants of the Eternal Word said she had been drawn to Venerable Bruno Lanteri, founder of the Oblates of the Virgin Mary. An eight-day silent retreat filled with spiritual direction related to his teaching had changed her prayer life recently, and she was inspired by one prolific Oblate, Father Timothy Gallagher, who introduced her to Father Lanteri’s motto, “Begin Again,” in his book Overcoming Spiritual Discouragement.

“Who is your saintly friend for 2020?” I asked Liliana Suarez, a student from Georgia Southern University. Her eyes lit up. “St. Rita! Her feast day (May 22) is around my birthday — plus, I play softball, and she is the (unofficial) patroness of baseball.”

Geoff Stricklin, director of sacred liturgy at St. Thomas Aquinas parish outside of Phoenix had been feeling drawn to St. Anthony of the Desert. “I was baptized in St. Anthony’s Church,” he said, “and I am compelled by the story of St. Anthony wandering into a church as the Gospel of the rich young man was being preached and hearing Christ’s own voice speak to him. Like him, I want to be attentive to the Living Word of God.”

Ryan Meyer from Arizona State University revealed that Venerable Fulton Sheen had his attention. “I’m attracted to his ability to touch so many lives through the media.”

Sister Mary Fidelis, one of the Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration in Tonopah, Arizona (affectionally known as the “Desert Nuns”), had been feeling drawn to spend the year with Blessed Charles de Foucauld, in whose famous “Prayer of Abandonment” she saw a reflection of the cross of Christ.

I asked Father Mike Schmitz, one of the keynote speakers for the conference and the director of Youth and Young Adult Ministry for the Diocese of Duluth, Minnesota, and the chaplain for the Newman Center at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, if there was any saint who’d been trying to get his attention. He smiled. “Some years I’ve done the saint-generator thing,” he admitted. “Or pulled a patron saint out of a hat. But that never seemed to work out. This year, St. Joseph keeps showing up!”

He said that a new book by Marian Father Donald Calloway, Consecration to St. Joseph, had really inspired him to grow in his devotion to St. Joseph. “We give God our latria, which is the adoration due to God alone, and we give the saints veneration, called dulia. We give Mary our hyperdulia, which is the highest form of veneration. But we give Joseph protodulia, which means among the saints he is given primacy of place.” Father Mike pointed out that Joseph is patron of so many groups and categories of people in the Church — and the Church itself — so that, “if you are Catholic, he’s basically your patron.”

By the end of the day, I was convinced more than ever that there were a lot more than 9,000 souls at that conference — or anywhere we gather. As Catholics, one of our greatest treasures is the companionship and friendship of thousands of saints who pray for us and inspire us in all of history — and who are with us as we ring in a new decade and every day of our lives.

Who is your saint for this year?