Re-FOCUS: Revitalizing Campus Ministry in the Midst of COVID-19

Fellowship of Catholic University Students is committed to keeping college students plugged in to the faith as the pandemic continues. The ministry is hosting the upcoming ‘SEEK21’ to reach many more virtually.

Socially distanced Fellowship of Catholic University Students events, including adoration, have been bringing college students together over the past year. This week a virtual FOCUS conference will bring more events, including faith-focused talks, to more people.
Socially distanced Fellowship of Catholic University Students events, including adoration, have been bringing college students together over the past year. This week a virtual FOCUS conference will bring more events, including faith-focused talks, to more people. (photo: Courtesy of FOCUS)

For many undergraduates, 2020 brought radical changes to “college life.” From lockdowns to virtual classes, schools across the country have made significant adjustments to meet students’ physical and academic needs. But what of students’ spiritual welfare? Despite ever-changing regulations and considerable new hurdles, the work of Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS) missionaries continues, as they minister and journey with college students at campuses across the country.

“When universities first shut down in the spring, our team at the University of Virginia was concerned about how we could walk with students in their faith from afar,” Mary Schneider, who serves as the FOCUS team director at the University of Virginia, told the Register. “We were concerned, but quickly realized our students didn’t skip a beat! Before we knew it, student leaders started hosting their Bible studies online, having social events over Zoom, and connecting with each other to stay close in fellowship and encouraging each other in the faith. This past fall, we assumed the ministry would reach a lull in involvement, but, instead, we’ve boomed from 12 Bible studies in 2019 to more than 24, and counting!”

Schneider also openly admits the challenges of the situation. “The reality is: Our outreach efforts are limited. ... We decided to shift our mindset from the things we couldn’t do to the things we could. We decided that instead of drawing in a crowd, we would ask every student to simply make an invitation to their friends, the people in their circles, to share in something, whether that be a Zoom Bible study or a socially-distanced picnic. We’ve seen these simple invitations to fellowship and to learning about the Lord bear fruit in just one semester.”

One student who has benefited from FOCUS’ continued ministry is Sophia Van Horn, a senior at UVA who serves as a Bible study leader for FOCUS. 

She commented, “Although community looks different, it feels … stronger and more unified. Students are intentional about their conversations and embrace the chance to see each other at Mass.”

On the West Coast, FOCUS missionaries are also learning to adapt to the new guidelines. Katt Redmond, a FOCUS team director from the University of Southern California, told the Register, “The students’ classes are still 100% virtual, meaning most of our outreach efforts are, too. Even still, God has worked in ways we could have never imagined, bringing about 230 students to Bible studies and allowing almost 40 students to say ‘Yes’ to the Gospel last semester — many over virtual platforms! We will also be attending SEEK21 virtually with over 40 USC students. This is a time of uncertainty, and I believe it is prompting all of us to make a renewed ‘Yes’ to God or maybe a ‘Yes’ to him for the first time. We have learned in a new and deepened way that we truly can do nothing without God.”

FOCUS’ “SLS20” conference last year drew people from all over the world, and this year the audience is no less diverse — just connected virtually. 

Rather than encouraging groups to travel to a centralized conference location, the team has created a totally new approach. “College students, missionaries, alumni, mission partners, clergy, benefactors and many others will engage through a ‘build-your-own’ environment and intentional small groups wherever they are,” explained Christine Sarnow, senior director of events for FOCUS, about SEEK21, which will be held Feb. 4-7. 

Wallice-FOCUS SLS20
In January 2020, ‘SLS20’ featured fellowship, a night of adoration and confession and a talk by Father Mike Schmitz, who will be among the speakers at this year’s ‘SEEK21,’ which will be held Feb. 4-7.

 “Friends, families and communities will come together for prayer, small-group conversations, incredible speakers, participation in the sacraments and time together to bond and grow in faith.”

After a year when community seemed almost impossible, SEEK21 is striving to make community a priority by providing different ways for participants to engage with one another without leaving their local area. Sarnow explained, “We are offering a ‘Parish Pack’ option for people to set up in their parish hall and attend together, following all local COVID-19 regulations, of course. Some people are inviting local friends into their living rooms to host the small groups and enjoy fellowship with dinner and snacks. Others who cannot gather in person are setting up online meetings for the small-group time and interaction. SEEK21 will be live interaction, with many ways to engage and experience the event with others.” For those interested, there is still an opportunity to sign up to host a small group for the conference.

Even the speakers will be “local.”

“Speakers will fly to where you are, presenting from a different city each day,” Sarnow said. “Each talk builds on a greater story, geared toward the heart of the Gospel and customized for SEEK21. The sessions will guide people toward an incredible journey to draw closer to their faith and God’s will for each one of them.” 

Sarah Swafford, author of Emotional Virtue who will be speaking at an “Impact Session” at SEEK21, related, “FOCUS and the conferences have been so pivotal in my faith journey over the years, and every time I walk away thinking, ‘I wish everyone could experience this.’ And now they can! We all will miss being together in person, but the Holy Spirit is going to reach such a broad and diverse audience this year. ... I can’t wait to see what he will do!” 

Other speakers include Bishop Robert Barron, Father Mike Schmitz, Sister Miriam James Heidland of the Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity, Sister of Life Bethany Madonna, Francis Chan, Immaculée Ilibagiza, FOCUS founder Curtis Martin, and Edward Sri.

Additionally, this year’s event will also feature talks from FOCUS 153, an initiative that supports and engages those of diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds. Speakers for these sessions include Father Agustino Torres of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, Father Rafael Capó, Montse Alvarado, Priscilla Garza and Jeff Runyan.

While this year’s conference will be undoubtedly different, the virtual approach is proving to be an unexpected blessing to former would-be participants. “With the ability to gather right where you are, we are hearing from so many their gratitude and excitement because they would not be able to attend a traditional SEEK,” said Sarnow. “I have a close friend who supports FOCUS through my mission support team. She loves FOCUS conferences but cannot make it to our events annually because of the travel for her family of six. She keeps telling me how SEEK21 is a bright hope on her calendar and is grateful to be able to attend this year.”

Following a year of many dark and frustrating moments, the continued interest and response to both FOCUS’ on-campus work and the larger conferences is a beautiful, hopeful reminder. “Thousands of people of all ages and around the world are signed up for SEEK21,” Sarnow added, “from college students to missionaries, alumni, mission partners, clergy, benefactors and many others. People are hungry for a sense of community, so the opportunity to grow in faith with others — and share that faith — is one of the best things about SEEK21.”

As student leader Van Horn added, “We are all asking the Lord for more hope, and he has not disappointed.”

Kathryn Wallice writes from Hartford, Connecticut.