With more than 350 lay missionaries serving on over 80 college campuses, the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS) has shown itself to be successful in finding new ways to bring the Gospel to the modern world.
But back in 1998, when the apostolate was barely off the ground, FOCUS founder and president Curtis Martin met with Pope John Paul II. As Martin described his vision for the budding organization, the Holy Father responded with two words: “Be soldiers.”
St. John Paul II's call-to-arms for Martin echoes his urging for all Catholics to embark on a “new evangelization.” And in the years since that call was first made, it has borne fruit across the United States through numerous lay initiatives.
“The New Evangelization is one of the enduring themes of the pontificate of Pope John Paul II,” said Douglas Bushman, a professor at the Denver-based Augustine Institute, in an April 24 interview with CNA.
“You can tell a tree by its fruit, the Lord said. As we approach 10 years since his death, publications on the new evangelization abound. Most importantly, the increasing numbers of the faithful - now many who were in their teens when he died - are being drawn to a sense of personal responsibility to engage in the new evangelization.”
One of the late Pope's most well-known references to the new evangelization comes from his 1983 address to the Latin American Episcopal Council. In light of the 500th anniversary of the evangelization of Latin America, Pope John Paul II urged bishops to embark on a “new evangelization,” which he described as “new in its ardor, its methods, in its expressions.”
Bushman suggested that John Paul II's proclamation of the new evangelization was not a change in the Catholic message, but rather a renewed way of presenting it to the modern world.
“He often quoted Matthew 13:52, about the wise scribe being compared to a head of a household who could draw out of his storehouse things both new and old,” Bushman said. “He was always faithful to divine revelation and to the entire Tradition of the Church, drawing on all the saints and the ecumenical councils, showing us how relevant they are for the 'today' of the Church.”
“At the same time, there is something 'new' in John Paul's teachings,” he said, pointing to the late Pope's revolutionary teachings on the theology of the body.
Bushman explained that St. John Paul II's vision for the new evangelization included several key parts.
“It begins with a rediscovery of the relevance of divine revelation,” he said, and from there, it discovers that Jesus Christ reveals what it means to be fully human.
“This awareness leads to conversion and the embrace of the call to holiness,” Bushman said. “Once renewed in Christ, His disciples then act as He did. They bear witness to the truth about God's merciful love to a world that is in desperate need of this mercy.”
“This witness is the essence of the new evangelization. We are called to show the world what renewed humanity looks like, what God's transforming love produces in our world.”
The founders of the Augustine Institute hoped to help make the new evangelization a reality by transforming Catholic education and forming new leaders. Established in 2005, the graduate school expresses in its mission statement a desire to “equip Catholics intellectually, spiritually, and pastorally to renew the Church and transform the world for Christ.”
The school offers M.A. programs in theology and leadership for the new evangelization.Academic Dean Christopher Blum said the majority of Augustine Institute students are already actively involved in apostolic fields and hope to bring their learning into the field “to bring the light of Christ to the world.”
The San Diego-based John Paul the Great Catholic University is another lay apostolate responding to John Paul II's call for a new evangelization, specifically through media.
“If you go to any subway, stand in any line, go to any supermarket, you see everyone on their phones, on the internet, looking up things,” said Tim Van Damm, vice president of advancement. “There are all these screens in today's world.”
“Film, media, gaming; it's such a huge part of our culture now and so we're using those technologies to evangelize and to meet people where they are.”
The university offers undergraduate programs in Communications Media and Business as well as graduate programs in film production and biblical theology.
Van Damm told CNA on April 22 that the life and legacy of John Paul II are an inspiration for the university.
“He had a massive impact on culture worldwide,” Van Damm explained. “He went out to people...and we are trying to take that model he put out there, go out to the people and impact culture.”
FOCUS similarly works to impact culture; the organization seeks to bring the new evangelization to college campuses across the U.S.
“John Paul II once said that to evangelize, you need two things; You need to know modern man and you need to know Jesus Christ,” said John Zimmer, vice president of training and formation for FOCUS. “Your job as an evangelist is to introduce modern man to Jesus. It's an introduction by a friend of both.”
Zimmer explained that these words from the late Pope encapsulate FOCUS' mission.
“We try to understand modern man, specifically on the college campus, and we desire to have a deep, interior relationship with Jesus Christ,” he said. “Then, we let the Holy Spirit do his work.”
The organization aims to introduce college students to Christ through one-on-one mentorship, as well as small groups and Bible studies. FOCUS has also recently developed its digital resources including social media and a blog.
Zimmer said the new digital effort reflects a changing culture on college campuses.
“When college students are engaged with things like Facebook and Twitter, those are different ways that they are developing friendships,” he said. “We need to be able to do that same thing.”
“We are blessed to be living in a time when the Church is really harkening back to Christ's initial call to 'Go and make disciples,” Zimmer reflected. “The Church has always done that, but I think John Paul II was prophetic in ... calling the Church back to her deepest identity, which is evangelization.”