Six new FOCUS missionaries have joined the Catholic Student Center at Texas State University in San Marcos to evangelize and minister to college students.
FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students) is a national Catholic outreach program providing missionaries to college campuses all over the country. The missionaries are recent college graduates who have been taught effective methods of evangelization. Their purpose is to expand Catholic campus ministries.
Kayla DiNardo, the development director at the Texas State University Catholic Student Center, said the center is blessed to have the missionaries.
“They spend their days out on campus, inviting kids to our Sunday Masses, to get involved in our Catholic Center activities, and most of all, to join one of our weekly Bible studies,” DiNardo said. “This August, the day before classes started, our FOCUS missionaries attracted a crowd of new students to the Catholic Center by setting up a big water slide and snow cone booth outside. The wonderful part was that more than 100 students walked inside the Catholic Center for the first time.”
DiNardo said ministering to college students is an ideal opportunity to carry out the church’s call to evangelize.
“Young college students are extremely malleable, and looking for a place to fit in. It’s an ideal time for us to encourage them to live an authentic Catholic life,” she said.
DiNardo added that new students can be overwhelmed with peer influences that are not always positive. “Many students that have been raised in the Catholic faith, suddenly find themselves surrounded by sexual promiscuity, alcoholism and other unhealthy, risky behaviors. Our commitment is to reach out and bring them back to their Catholic values. And we’ve brought in FOCUS missionaries to help us do this.”
FOCUS missionaries have learned how to connect with students and encourage them to examine the meaning and purpose of their lives. They go through an intense summer training that centers on evangelization, apologetics, small group dynamics, Scripture and fundraising.
Mike Huelsing, a FOCUS missionary at Texas State University, said the training is “a cross between graduate school, a religious retreat and mini-boot camp … For five weeks we live on the campus of the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. We start each morning with a holy hour of prayer and then head to the classrooms until 4 p.m. The instruction is very thorough, and we’re privileged to have several well-known guest speakers. By the time we leave the training, we feel confident in our ability to inspire college students in their faith.”
Huelsing is in his fourth year as a missionary and is now team director for the group that has been placed at Texas State.
“We are asked to serve a minimum of two years as FOCUS missionaries, but I feel like I could do this forever,” he mused.
Father Brian Eilers, the director of the H.L. Grant Catholic Center, requested FOCUS missionaries for the university campus.
“Our goal is to minister to the 32,000 college students attending Texas State University,” he said. “We know that about 8,000 of those students are Catholic, yet we only see about 500 at our Sunday Masses. It’s clear we have some work to do.”
Father Eilers visited the FOCUS headquarters in 2009 and was impressed, so he sought the bishop’s approval to bring the missionaries to Texas State.
“Today we are the only college campus in Texas with FOCUS missionaries,” he said. Because FOCUS is a new ministry, there are not enough missionaries to send to every campus that requests them.
“I felt that Texas State would be a prime location for FOCUS, because of our unique demographics,” Father Eilers explained. “We have a large population of Catholics, but only a small percentage participate.”
He knows they will encourage Catholic college students to continue practicing their faith and they will be shining examples of Catholicism for those who are not Catholic.
“These missionaries can reach out as peers and confidants, and examples of joyful, good Christians,” Father Eilers said.
Since arriving at Texas State, Huelsing and the other five new missionaries: Andrea Huelsing (Mike Huelsing’s wife), Jon Ervin, Reese Harris, Sara Griffith and Brian D’Andrea have been met with “amazing acceptance,” he said.
Mike Huelsing reports a gratifying increase of student traffic through the Catholic center.
“We have enrolled more than 170 new students into our weekly Bible studies, brought in 60 students to our new Power Hour evenings of praise and worship, and recently took 20 students on a tubing excursion,” he said. “We are very encouraged about the response we’re getting.”
Nationwide, FOCUS missionaries have seen positive results. Since its inception in 1998, the numbers of students participating in campus Bible studies, Mass, the sacrament of confession and campus ministry events have grown substantially. And 236 young people have answered the call to the priesthood or religious life in areas where FOCUS missionaries minister.
The movement was started by husband and wife, Curtis and Michaelann Martin, who were inspired by Pope John Paul VI’s call to a “new evangelization” of the Catholic faith. It began with four missionaries serving one college campus and has grown to more than 250 missionaries serving 50 campuses today.
FOCUS missionaries have the double duty of evangelizing and also fundraising for all their living expenses.
“We have to raise 100 percent of our salary,” Mike Huelsing said. “We will speak at our hometown parishes requesting donations, and send out letters to family and friends. We try to get our finances worked out during the summer, so we can devote the school year to our campus missionary work.”
Father Eilers said the missionaries are great role-models for the college students.
“They challenge our student leaders to take a step up in their faith. Research shows that once students engage in campus ministry, they are far more likely to be with the church, as active participants, for the rest of their lives. And that is ultimately our purpose –– to grow authentic Catholic leaders for the future.”
Printed with permission from the Catholic Spirit, newspaper for the Diocese of Austin, Texas.