FOCUS marks 25 years of missionary-driven university student evangelization

by Kiki Hayden

(OSV News) — “FOCUS’ mission statement is simple: It’s to know Christ Jesus and fulfill the great commission,” said Curtis Martin, founder of the Fellowship of Catholic University Students. Based in Denver, FOCUS lives out that mission in that order: For its campus missionaries, “divine intimacy” and the pursuit of holiness come first, before their evangelization efforts, Martin said.

FOCUS has grown greatly in the 25 years since launching in 1998. Now with about 981 missionaries, the student-focused missionary outreach serves 193 college and university campuses in the United States, nine international campuses, nine digital campuses and 23 parishes. Most U.S. states have multiple university campuses served by FOCUS missionaries.

On its website, the organization underscores its vision, which it calls its “main thing”: “Inviting college students into a growing relationship with Jesus Christ and his church, inspiring and equipping them for a lifetime of Christ-centered evangelization, discipleship and friendship in which they lead others to do the same.”

Knowing Jesus wasn’t always central for Curtis or his wife, Michaelann. By their late teens, both had rejected their Catholic faith. However, through evangelical Christian Bible studies in college, each rediscovered Christ and recommitted to Catholicism.

With a burgeoning love for Scripture, in 1988 Michaelann joined a young adult Bible study Curtis started with about 65 to 70 people in his parents’ living room.

She and Curtis “became friends almost instantly,” Michaelann recalled. The evening they met, they talked about “how Our Lady brought us back to Jesus in the Eucharist.”

The following November, Curtis and Michaelann Martin were married. They felt called to help others experience Scripture as they had in college, but in a Catholic context.

While Michaelann was pregnant with their first son, the Martins met Scott Hahn, a former Presbyterian minister who had recently converted to Catholicism. After hearing about their dream to minister to college students through Catholic Bible studies, Hahn invited Curtis to study with him at Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio.

In February 1998, Martin traveled to Benedictine College in Kansas to lead a retreat with his friend, Benedictine professor Edward Sri. Believing the pair were called to start something larger than that single retreat, Sri worked that semester with students as a part-time leader for FOCUS.

That summer, Martin and Sri trained two part-time missionaries who were rising seniors at Benedictine as well as two full-time missionaries who would serve with Martin at the University of Northern Colorado. Ever since, FOCUS has been sending missionaries to college campuses to be disciples among students.

By strategically focusing on American universities, FOCUS has an opportunity to connect with and evangelize rising leaders from all over the world, Martin said.

When Curtis Martin had the opportunity to share his ideas that year with St. John Paul II, the pope responded: “Be soldiers.” This meeting was the first of several encounters with popes and influential Catholic leaders —encounters that the Martins believed confirmed they were doing God’s will, they told OSV News.

FOCUS sends full-time missionaries to campuses and parishes to support local Catholic volunteers. “You can be impacted by a webpage or some great materials, but the webpage and materials can’t love you, whereas our missionaries can,” Martin said.

Those missionaries receive training based on St. John Paul’s 1992 apostolic exhortation “Pastores Dabo Vobis” (“I Will Give You Shepherds”), which was written for the formation of priests. FOCUS’ two-year training emphasizes the same pillars of formation as seminarian formation, he said.

An ideal missionary candidate is someone who is faithful to the church, eager to learn and who is “contagious,” or lives their life in a way that attracts others, said Martin, who served under Pope Benedict XVI as a consultor to the Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization and whom Pope Francis named in April to the Dicastery for Evangelization.

FOCUS missionaries spend their days leading Bible studies, praying together, attending Mass, and getting to know the students and others around them, offering deep friendships and delving into important topics, especially what it means to follow Jesus. Personal spiritual growth is central for all FOCUS team members, who have access to spiritual direction.

FOCUS helps each missionary fundraise their salary, while FOCUS subsidizes with benefits. “We walk with our people,” Martin said.

FOCUS hosts annual SEEK conferences for university students, with this year’s event drawing nearly 19,000 attendees to St. Louis in January to learn about evangelization and other faith-related topics. Like many of FOCUS’ endeavors, SEEK conferences provide opportunities to encounter Christ through Mass and Eucharistic adoration.

Online, FOCUS provides free formation materials, such as Bible study guides and YouTube videos on topics ranging from saints to dating, at its website

Trevor Jin, FOCUS’ formation specialist whose work emphasizes formational media, described FOCUS’ digital outreach as “providing air support to that in-person mission.”

Jin, 30, grew up Catholic in St. Louis. But he knew more “about” Jesus than he knew the Lord’s love for him, he said. After being invited to a FOCUS Bible study while attending The University of Tulsa in Oklahoma, Jin quickly discovered a desire to spread the good news about Jesus’ love.

During the summer before his senior year of college in 2015, Jin worked for a bank developing a mobile app. But his passion project that summer was making an app for his Newman Center. “I found a deep love for building things for the church,” he said.

When he realized that as a FOCUS missionary he could evangelize full time, joining the team was a natural next step.

After two years as a missionary, Jin moved to Denver to join the national team to support missionaries. He’s stayed with FOCUS in part because of the atmosphere of prayer in the Denver FOCUS support center, where there is easy access to priests and chaplains, confessions, spiritual direction and daily Mass.

“We all pray the Divine Mercy chaplet every day together, there’s a rosary said every day here, there’s a culture of prayer here,” Jin said. Meanwhile, “Professional development is very important here for. . . being more effective in spreading the kingdom.”

Jin has recently worked on a unique project: a documentary on Michelle Duppong, a servant of God whose cause for canonization is underway in the Diocese of Bismarck, North Dakota. After encountering FOCUS as a student at North Dakota State University in Fargo, Duppong served as a FOCUS missionary for several years. But that’s not the central theme of her story: Jin said his main takeaway is that “heroic virtue and sanctity is for everyone.”

Like Jin, Amy Chang was extremely successful at what she studied, but found her passion in spreading the Gospel, eventually choosing to work for FOCUS as a missionary. Seeing FOCUS’ growth gives Chang, 28, hope for the future.

Raised in a family that practiced Buddhism only on holidays and visits to South Korea, Chang grew up without much knowledge of religion. During her freshman year at The University of Tulsa in 2013, she was invited into friendship with a FOCUS missionary and FOCUS student leaders. Chang described her friends at FOCUS as “radically available,” something she had not experienced in previous friendships.

One Friday evening, she found herself in a Eucharistic adoration chapel alongside 30 other students. “It was really there that I think the Lord invited me to encounter him for the first time,” she told OSV News.

Chang was baptized, confirmed and received her first Communion her freshman year. During her junior year, she traveled to India on a FOCUS mission trip. It was “one of the most transformative trips I have ever been on,” she said.

FOCUS leaders invited her to apply to become a missionary after college. Instead, she worked for a Fortune 500 company, but ultimately felt lonely and unfulfilled. She recalled how different things felt when she had been involved with FOCUS during college.

Chang called FOCUS and described her struggles. The FOCUS hiring manager said the organization’s offer wasn’t about FOCUS needing a certain number of missionaries, but rather “we gave you an offer because we believed in you, and we still believe in you.” She accepted.

After two years of serving as a FOCUS missionary, Chang joined the missions management team in Denver. FOCUS, she said, wants to help their team members be “fully alive.”

To celebrate FOCUS’ 25th anniversary, all missionaries were invited to the same summer training at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s campus. Thinking about all the hundreds of missionaries together “gives me goosebumps,” Chang told OSV News.

The 25th anniversary also gives Chang “great hope and great faith that there are a lot of. . . young people that are answering the call to the new evangelization, and just how many more souls are being brought along.”

Within the next 15 years, FOCUS hopes to reach half of U.S. college campuses and 5% of U.S. parishes, Martin said.

While FOCUS boasts impressive numbers — such as 1,206 priestly and religious vocations inspired by FOCUS and more than 70,000 missionary and student alumni — Martin said FOCUS has its eyes on each individual.

“The value of a single soul is the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ,” he said.

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