British Colleges Gain Focus
Fellowship of Catholic University Students Hosts Leadership Summit in London
SUMMER SCHOOL. British students learned about Catholic evangelizing last month. Courtesy of Focus
It was monks from Italy, led by St. Augustine of Canterbury, who heralded the evangelization of England, beginning in 596.
But now it looks like a leading U.S. Catholic college apostolate is set to address the growing secularism and de-Christianization of England.
The Fellowship of Catholic University Students (Focus) held its first “United Kingdom Leadership Summit.”
Sixty Catholic university students attended the July 12-14 event at St. Elizabeth Catholic Church in London.
Focus’ missionary effort comes just a few months after a report by the Benedict XVI Center for Religion and Society found that 48.5% of the English and Welsh adult population now identifies with “no religion,” with just 8.3% identifying as Catholic.
The study also found that for every one Catholic convert, there are 10 cradle Catholics who no longer regard themselves as Catholic, throwing into stark relief the growing secularism of Britain.
The Focus missionary team came at the invitation of a parish priest, Father Stephen Langridge, who is also the national director of vocations in the United Kingdom.
“Last year I was instrumental in sending an English student to Focus for their staff-training course, and everything I heard back convinced me Focus could be a real asset in this country,” said Father Langridge.
He added: “Young adults need formation. Some groups offer this, while others offer fellowship or simply evangelizing retreat experiences. Behind Focus is a complete program of human, intellectual, apostolic and spiritual formation.”
Founded in 1998 at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan., by Curtis Martin, Focus has spread to 113 campuses across the U.S. The group ran 66 mission trips to 28 countries across the world last year, too.
Andrew Green, Focus’ training leader at the U.K. summit, said his impression of the British-Catholic youth scene was a small group with a lot of enthusiasm for changing the culture.
“Being tired of the culture of death, they have decided to take a stand to bring Christ once again into the hearts and minds of young men and women. They are thirsty for formation and to learn the tools that can help them go out and reach many souls for Christ,” he said.
The three-day course included a schedule of prayer and Mass, practical evangelization activities, group study and social time, in order to help the students build authentic friendships based on Christ and bringing others to him.
“The methodology was excellent and immediately engaged all the participants. One of the students, entering his third year at university, said that Focus had made sharing the faith with friends accessible to everyone,” said Father Langridge.
University of Birmingham student Isaac Withers, 19, said he enjoyed the outreach opportunities. “On the first night, we just had a really great time singing praise songs down by the River Thames. We had passersby come and talk to us.”
“The next night,” he added, “we had a ‘Night Fever’ event, which is when you open up a church of an evening and invite passersby in to come and light a candle. I had never had so many people say, ‘Yes’ as on that evening.”
‘American Way’ in England?
Survey any number of Catholic chaplaincies at universities in the U.K., and the offerings will be everything from Taizé prayer groups, Mass in Latin, pro-life outreach and feeding the homeless to St. Thomas Aquinas discussion groups, organized pilgrimages, the Legion of Mary, Knights of St. Columba and more. Can these U.K. chaplaincies accommodate a relatively new group from the U.S.?
“It remains to be seen,” said Green. “But the tools developed in Focus are not developed for a certain person in mind, but, rather, for people in general to build friendships, grow closer to Christ and be sent to evangelize.”
Father Langridge recognizes there are some challenges with adopting this model, particularly the need for missionaries to raise their own salaries.
Yet he remains optimistic about the future of Focus in the U.K. “I’d very much like to see it established here within the next few years. Focus offers a basic Catholic formation which is transferable to any culture.”
“This year, Focus is starting in Austria [University of Vienna and University of Graz], so there’s no reason it shouldn’t start here,” the priest added. “It would be very good if a couple of British students were to complete the Focus staff training and then work on a Focus campus for a year, before bringing that experience back to this country with a more experienced supervisor.”
As he emphasized, “Over 80% of our young people are lapsed [in the practice of their faith] even before they get to university. Surely it is time to start winning them back.”
Green added: “The ever-growing need for more missionaries to step forward and witness to the joy that comes with living a Christian life has become ever more necessary in this culture of death.”
With such dire statistics around Church membership and attendance, and the continuing decline in Catholic conversions, baptisms, ordinations and marriages, have England’s homegrown efforts on campus failed?
“Not at all,” said Father Langridge. “It’s in no way a comment on the effectiveness of Catholic chaplaincies, and it would be a serious distortion of the truth to suggest so. The witness those students gave during the summit was for the most part a testimony to the effectiveness of their chaplaincies.”
Withers, who is the Catholic student president at his university, wanted to know what Focus missionaries could teach him about aiding his faith-filled mission on campus.
“We were already using Focus Bible studies at the chaplaincy, and I had heard good things about them and their techniques for transmitting the faith and evangelizing at university. So it was great to hear the missionaries talk about ways of starting a conversation about the faith (an alien, non-British concept!), but when it’s a conversation about the Gospel, why should we be waiting to be asked about it? That was the challenge I came away with.”
Green explained that Focus sees the whole university as “mission territory,” not just the confines of Catholic centers or chaplaincies, with missionaries going out and searching for those who need Jesus everywhere on campus.
Leeds University student Eleanor Hill, 20, who is an active member of her university Catholic chaplaincy, played a key role in organizing the summit. Even as a committed Catholic, she found the experience a positive challenge.
“The conference challenged me in my view about what university is. I was challenged to become so much more aware of the mission of young people in the Church and the call to be saints,” she said.
“There’s a reason for being at university: to spread God’s love, and when we realize this, [our time at] university becomes a lot more purposeful.”
writes from London.
- Aug. 21-Sept. 3, 2016