Catholic Evangelists Rush To Catch Up on Campus

Today's young Catholics see the obvious failures of a society obsessed with material gain. They hunger for truth — and for a meaningful encounter with Jesus Christ.

The search, however, doesn't always lead straight to the Catholic campus center or the nearest Catholic parish. Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses and an array of Protestants are recruiting Catholics on campuses like never before.

Money magazine calls Campus Crusade for Christ, a campus-based Protestant recruiting organization, the largest and most efficient evangelical organization in the world. It comprises 20,500 full-time staff and 663,612 trained volunteers around the world. Similar groups, such as Navigators, Inter-Varsity and Christian Challenge, are also thriving by recruiting hungry-but-lost Catholic souls on campuses.

“Most Catholic college students stray from the Church,” said Curtis Martin, founder and chairman of the Fellowship of Catholic University Students — FOCUS, for short — an outreach of Catholics United for the Faith International. “They are trying to find themselves, in an environment set up to lead them away from Christ. However, all students come to college to search for truth. Jesus Christ is truth, so everyone on a college campus is seeking Jesus whether they know it or not.”

Tre Cates, an unpaid Southern Baptist minister, knows that too. He devotes his life to helping students, including many wayward Catholics, find Jesus. He left a huge church in Dallas three years ago to start an outreach ministry called Quest, in Boulder, Colo. He said Quest offers all the same tenets of the Southern Baptist Church without the traditional formal services and organizational hierarchy.

“I chose Boulder because there's a revolving body of 25,000 college students and almost none of them attend church,” Cates explained. “There's a huge hunger for spirituality among Generation X and Generation Y, but they couldn't care less about church structure, ritual and full-time preachers working for salaries. They want Jesus Christ, and that's it.”

Eager Young Ears

While many campus evangelists stand on street corners handing out tracts and questionnaires, Quest has a slightly different approach. Cates devotes his energy to recruiting campus leaders who then bring students from their organizations. Quest services, held in a former Salvation Army homeless shelter, consist of live Christian rock music and Scripture-based preaching.

“The local leaders of Christian Challenge, Navigators and Campus Crusade are all involved with Quest right now,” Cates said. “They go back to campus and tell their friends about us.”

Catholics are easy to recruit, Cates said, because they already have a spiritual foundation and an understanding of Jesus as savior. Many have been turned off by “unnecessary” rituals and structures, he added, claiming as examples “the Mass and the hierarchy.”

Martin knows firsthand just how successful Protestants can be at recruiting Catholics on campus. He attended Louisiana State University in the 1980s, during a time when he had lost touch with his Catholic roots. Back then, he said, about half of the 40,000 students at LSU were Catholic, but only about 400 practiced their faith.

While he stood in a cafeteria line on campus, he was approached by members of Campus Crusade for Christ. They were passing out a questionnaire that asked about a “personal relationship” with Christ, and his desire to become better-acquainted with God. Martin filled it out and, within a week, volunteers from Campus Crusade showed up at his door and invited him to a meeting.

“As a young adult, I had put Christ on the shelf,” Martin said. “My Protestant friends taught me how to pray, how to live a Christian lifestyle, and the importance of surrounding myself with Christian friends.” He left the Catholic Church and became a “Bible Christian.”

Martin pointed out that there are as many views of the Catholic Church as there are Protestant and pseudo-Christian bodies. Some believe the Church is simply in error on certain doctrinal points; others don't hesitate to apply a label pulled from the Book of Revelation — “the whore of Babylon.” Most fall somewhere between the two extremes.

“Some are convinced Catholics aren't Christians at all,” he added, noting that most holding this viewpoint — evangelicals, fundamentalists and “nondenominational” Christians — also tend to lump “mainline” Protestants such as Lutherans, Episcopalians and Methodists in the same category with Catholics: the “unsaved.”

Attractive Zeal and Conviction

Martin recounted how, as he grew in his Bible-based faith, and in his relationship with Jesus, he began studying Scripture more closely. The more he learned from and about the Bible, the more evident its Catholic roots became. Eventually this discovery led him to “revert” to his Catholic faith.

Having experienced the zeal with which Protestants recruit, however, Martin understood the passive approach Catholics have taken for decades on college campuses. If that didn't change, he thought, few Catholic students stood a chance of maintaining their faith.

“The Catholic Church has a kind of older-brother mentality,” Martin contended. “Because we're the biggest and oldest Christian church, we've had a desire to be respectful of other religious traditions. So we've stood back. As a result, we haven't taken our message to the streets like others have.”

Martin hopes to change that with FOCUS. The group's official mission is “to fulfill the great commission of Jesus Christ [Matthew 28:19-20] on college campuses.” FOCUS, based at the University of Northern Colorado, in Greeley, is only 2 years old but already has offices at five other campuses, including the University of Kansas, Benedictine College in Kansas, the University of Colorado, Denver University and the University of Nebraska.

FOCUS plans to open dozens more chapters throughout the country in the next few years. At each university, the group works with local parishes. Staff members and volunteers conduct student surveys that introduce the subject of Christ. They sponsor Christian speakers on campus and host Catholic retreats. They evangelize Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

“This simply wouldn't have worked in the ‘70s and ‘80s, because young Catholics were not pursuing Christ the way today's students are,” Martin said. “Our message would have been a turnoff to most students back then, but today it's exactly what they want to hear. They are rejecting the ways of the secular world.”

Father Paul Montez, a Benedictine priest in Grand Junction, Colo., agreed that young Catholics are ripe for recruiting, either by Catholics or others who take the initiative. As a youth leader, he said he recently helped persuade five high school seniors from one small parish to enter the seminary.

“Kids today are starving for Jesus,” Father Paul said. “All we have to do is be there for them, and help them in their journeys. Teach them Christ is in the Eucharist and they will stay with the Church.”

Cates, of Quest, said he hopes FOCUS catches on nationwide and brings most wayward Catholics back to their roots. He won't be bothered if former Catholics in Quest ever leave his church and return to Catholicism.

“All I care is that students end up in a place where they can grow and strengthen their relationships with Christ,” Cates said. “What FOCUS is doing is absolutely amazing, and I wish them all the success in the world. Whatever gets you to Jesus, I'm in favor of.”

Martin said a minority of religious recruiters are blatant in their efforts to turn Catholics against their faith, says Martin.

Although Martin said he hoped Catholics soon take the lead role in campus evangelizing, he holds no hard feelings toward the mainstream Protestant and evangelical recruiters who hooked him. “I do not wish my path on anyone, but it happened to work for me,” Martin said. “Whatever leads one gets to Christ, however, it's important to realize that a full relationship with him requires the Catholic Church and the Eucharist.”

Wayne Laugesen writes from Boulder, Colorado.