Three thousand college students gathered in Texas as the New Year began, but they weren’t there to party. Instead they were learning to "Go, and set the world on fire!" at the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS) 2008 National Student Leadership Conference.
The energy at the conference reverberated through the room as FOCUS celebrated its 10th anniversary and the largest national conference it has ever held.
FOCUS is an interesting phenomenon in the world of youth ministry since it is the only college-level Catholic campus ministry organization operating nationally. It has experienced unprecedented growth, beginning with just a two missionaries in 1998 to over 150 this year.
The fruit of FOCUS' growth was a crowd of students from around 200 college campuses. The enthusiatic attendees were treated to a line up of famous Catholic speakers from Jan 2-6. Some of the most notable talks came from Deacon Alex Jones, Mother Assumpta Long and Fr. Benedict Groeschel.
Deacon Alex Jones, a former Pentecostal minister who is now a Catholic, challenged the audience to respond to the call to share their faith without holding back.
"Evangelization is a call to the Gospel. You must be committed to the work of the Lord with everything you have -- not piecemeal, not halfway, not half-hearted, not mediocre, but with your whole heart, with your whole being, you're committed to the work of Jesus Christ. That's what the Holy Spirit is calling for from the faithful," he told the students.
Mother Assumpta Long, one of the founders of the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, encouraged the youth to remain faithful in a society where they are under attack.
"We are encountering the enemies of truth and goodness," she told the crowd of thousands. Following a standing ovation, Mother Assumpta came back onto stage to say "Let me tell you something, and this is the truth, you are the hope of our Church, you are the future. We need you desperately!"
On Saturday evening, Father Benedict Groeschel, a founder of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, related how from a psychological standpoint the fact that so many young Catholics are faithful. He said that "You've been exposed to the apostasy, the betrayal of many Catholic colleges. And the media is out to get the Catholic Church." You are part of the JP II generation, a generation of young people that really shouldn’t exist, Fr. Groeschel said.
He also offered the captivated youth his thoughts on the future. From his point of view the U.S. will either undergo a religious revival or a religious persecution.
The impact of the five day gathering was deep for many of the attendees. Lamar Bowers, a senior from Troy University in Alabama, said that the conference was “a recharge” since “it’s easy to plateau when you aren’t being spiritually fed”.
Besides the 33 U.S. campuses that FOCUS has a team of missionaries on, students came from approximately 170 other schools including Canada, Australia and even Israel. Interestingly, the group from Israel was Jewish and had seen the website for the Conference. During a tour of the U.S., they decided to stop and see what the gathering was all about.
The event was also attended by close to 100 priests and several bishops, including Bishop Samuel Aquila, Bishop Kevin Vann and Archbishop Charles Chaput.
Students could take part in Eucharistic adoration, receive the sacrament of reconciliation and attend daily Mass as well as participate in numerous faith-building break-out sessions.
As the college students prepared to return to their campuses FOCUS president and founder Curtis Martin told them: "You are an anointed generation. You were made for a very specific purpose. You were made for greatness."