Column: Ancient church proves forever young

by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann

Pope Benedict XVI, after seeing the great outpouring of affection by the youth of the world at the time of Pope John Paul II’s death, commented: “The church is young.”

I was reminded of the Holy Father’s words during the Christmas season. On Dec. 28 and 29, I gave a retreat for 22 young men, college age or older, who were attempting to discern if God was calling them to the priesthood.

It was a talented group of young men. They were so open to God’s will in their lives that they were willing to spend part of their precious Christmas holidays conversing with some of our seminarians and priests and listening to talks given by me. More importantly, they were praying and searching for what the Holy Spirit was attempting to reveal to them.

Like our current seminarians, they are an impressive group of young men possessing a multitude of talents and with many opportunities available to them. I had the chance to speak to most of them individually and I was edified by their sincerity and goodness. Some are already in the application process to become a seminarian for the archdiocese, and many are experiencing a genuine sense of being called by God to serve his people as a priest. Keep them in your prayers that they remain open to God’s will for them, whatever it may be.

On Jan. 3 and 4, I was in Grapevine, Texas — a suburb of Dallas-Fort Worth — to participate in a portion of the Federation of Catholic University Students (FOCUS) conference. There were almost 3,000 college students in attendance.

FOCUS began, just 10 years ago, in Atchison at Benedictine College. Dr. Ted Sri, one of the founders of FOCUS, related at one of the sessions that the first FOCUS conference was held in Perry, with 20 student participants. Today, there are approximately 140 FOCUS missionaries serving at 33 college campuses, two-thirds of which are secular campuses.

Each FOCUS missionary commits to two years of service that includes a commitment to prayer, the Eucharist, intensive training, and fundraising for the ministry.

The FOCUS missionaries form Catholic Bible studies at the campuses where they serve and mentor student leaders, guiding them in the development of a knowledge of the Scriptures, a strong prayer life, a love for the Eucharist and the sacraments, and an openness to God’s will in their lives. It was impressive to see the fruit of their labors in the young adults participating in the annual conference.

In the brief history of FOCUS, 108 of the FOCUS missionaries or student leaders have entered the seminary, and 33 women have entered religious life. Nick Blaha, one of our seminarians — a first theologian at St. Mary of the Lake Seminary in Chicago — is a former FOCUS missionary.

I celebrated Mass for the conference on Jan. 4 and was edified by the devotion and participation of the young people. As the procession came to the back of the huge ballroom, where the Mass was celebrated, there was a whole section of FOCUS staff and missionaries with their spouses and children.

While it has not been tabulated how many strong Catholic marriages are, in part, the fruit of the FOCUS ministry, it has to be a significant number. What a blessing these families are and will be for the church!

The growth of FOCUS in ten short years is no less than astounding. There is no doubt in my mind that FOCUS is just one of the signs of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon today’s young people.

Not only was Benedictine College the birthplace of FOCUS, but it continues to be one of the most vital centers for FOCUS. Some 250 students from Benedictine College attended the conference, which was the second largest delegation from any college and by far the highest ratio of attendees to the overall student population.

It is impossible not to be filled with hope after meeting the 22 young men on our vocation retreat and experiencing the love for Jesus and his church of the 3000 FOCUS conference participants. Pope Benedict XVI is correct. The church is very young!

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