By Christina Eberle
Contributing Writer, FOCUS
When he visited Denver for World Youth Day in 1993, Pope St. John Paul II urged an eager crowd of young listeners: “The world at the approach of a new millennium, for which the whole Church is preparing, is like a field ready for the harvest. Christ needs laborers ready to work in his vineyard.”
Not quite five years later, a man named Curtis Martin met with the pontiff in Rome with an idea. He wanted to equip faithful laborers for vineyards in tremendous need: college campuses.
It’s now 2023, and FOCUS is celebrating a milestone anniversary. “We are honored and humbled to have served in this mission of evangelization for 25 years,” said Martin, FOCUS’ CEO. “There’s such a hunger for goodness, truth and beauty, and we’ve been able to bring the Gospel to people who are hungry.”
This college-based evangelization effort truly began in 1998 on a Catholic campus in Atchison, Kansas. At the time, Dr. Edward Sri was a professor at Benedictine College when he invited Martin to speak at the school.
Sri, who currently serves as FOCUS’ senior vice president of apostolic outreach, remembers the day well. “The students heard Curtis and Scott Hahn on EWTN as they talked about FOCUS,” said Sri. “The students wanted to meet him, so we organized a retreat. At the end of it, all the students were eager to start FOCUS at Benedictine. Curtis answered, ‘Professor Sri will help you get going!’”
That was the apostolate’s grassroots beginning. “Once a week, Curtis and I would be on the phone writing a Bible study, and then I would lead that same Bible study with a group of guys, sometimes even the very next day. Then I would meet with a handful of those students later to prepare them so that they could lead that Bible study the following week with their own group,” said Sri.
The effort paid off. Within a few months, 70 Benedictine students were in Bible studies, and student leaders were primed to lead studies of their own. Now, in 2023, more than 850 FOCUS missionaries are encountering hundreds of thousands of people at colleges and in parishes across the country — including eight campuses in Colorado.
“From the very beginning, I have felt that God has granted us a front-row seat to watch him do amazing things,” said Martin. “Everything we’ve been able to do is dependent upon his grace.”
In addition to crediting God’s abundant grace and providence in guiding FOCUS over the years, FOCUS’ leaders were quick to acknowledge the many incredible, faithful people who helped the apostolate get off the ground. When FOCUS founded its headquarters in Colorado, then-Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap., welcomed FOCUS to the Archdiocese of Denver. The apostolate has since been blessed by the many friendships with clergy and lay people throughout the archdiocese whose encouragement has been instrumental in helping form and send out missionaries.
“Since the time that FOCUS expanded to Colorado from Benedictine College, I have been impressed by its evangelical witness and missionary zeal,” said Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila, who has supported the apostolate through the years was a board member and as a presiding celebrant at many FOCUS events. “When I left Colorado to become the bishop of Fargo, I made sure to invite them into the diocese. It is the best campus ministry program for the youth of today, accompanying and forming young people to become missionary disciples of Jesus Christ. The fruits of this apostolate are clear in the numerous vocations it has produced: priests, religious brothers and sisters, and holy marriages can all trace their origins to the work of FOCUS, who introduced them to the One who gives meaning to their lives. As our culture moves farther and farther from the Gospel, young people are wondering what life is for. The answer to the chaos and despair of our culture is Christ, and FOCUS has shown that they know how to propose this answer to the great question of our time.”
Support is so critical to the work of evangelization, and FOCUS is grateful to work with countless other bishops, university chaplains, campus ministers and benefactors — and, last but not least, the missionaries themselves.
“It has been an incredible privilege to see God’s work in the lives of so many missionaries over the past 25 years — individuals who have made heroic, generous decisions with their lives,” said Sri. “It is extraordinary to see the thousands of young people who have offered years of their lives in generous service to missionary discipleship. They fundraise their own salary, they spend an hour in prayer every day, they go to Mass every day. It’s from the interior generosity of their souls to Jesus and the Church that the Lord has done tremendous things.”
Method Modeled by the Master
If there were a third element contributing to the apostolate’s growth, it would be their foundational method of evangelization, which they call the Method Modeled by the Master — or, more simply, “Win, Build, Send.”
“The Method Modeled by the Master is all about raising a generation of leaders by investing deeply in a few so they can likewise go invest deeply in a few,” explained John Zimmer, FOCUS’ vice president of apostolic development. “This is how Jesus lived, and we apply that same approach to the 21st century. It’s winning people over into a relationship with Jesus Christ, building them up in the faith and then sending them out to do the same. A small Christian community then grows into a larger Christian community that in turn sends out missionary disciples to repeat the process.”
Zimmer himself was an early-generation FOCUS missionary at the University of Northern Colorado and CU Boulder, and he has witnessed firsthand the lasting impact of “Win, Build, Send” with the students he has accompanied. Four men whom Zimmer invested in as students are now priests for the Archdiocese of Denver — with one currently serving as the pastor of Zimmer’s own parish. Other men he worked with are raising faithful families, growing various careers, investing in their Christian communities and sharing the Gospel.
Why does this approach to evangelization work? “Because it harmonizes most perfectly with our human nature,” explained Zimmer. “We are made by love, for love. We were created to share in eternal relationship with the blessed Trinity. Sharing the Gospel in the context of ordinary friendship leads to those friends running after Christ together. That’s the way the Good News is designed to work.”
And it has a multiplying effect. What began with two men on a single campus has led to more than 50,000 alumni and more than 1,000 religious vocations — and FOCUS expects the number of vocations to nearly double in the next 10 years. The apostolate has also developed special outreaches to student-athletes and sorority/fraternity students, mission trips, retreats and national events. FOCUS’ annual national conference, SEEK, has drawn thousands of attendees from across the globe annually — including most recently in St. Louis, where nearly 19,000 students, clergy, religious and parishioners were present for SEEK23. FOCUS projects that more than 100,000 people will attend a FOCUS conference in the next five years.
A Great Commission
As more young people involved in the apostolate have graduated, FOCUS itself has continued to accompany others beyond campus at the parish and diocesan levels.
“The call to evangelize — the Great Commission — was reiterated by St. Pope John Paul II in 1993 in a watershed moment for the American Church,” said Montse Alvarado, president and COO of EWTN News and a member of FOCUS’ President’s Advancement Council. “FOCUS stands apart as one of the answers to the call that models what that looks like in the day to day. I’ve been blessed to witness FOCUS’ growth beyond the U.S. college campus as their missionaries and alumni now serve in parishes here in the U.S. and in communities in Europe and Latin America. In the desire for the world to encounter Christ in the Church, FOCUS gives me hope.”
The more FOCUS has grown, the more their leaders have striven to reinforce the true heart of the mission. To them, it’s not about the number of people participating; rather, it’s always been about quality of relationships. This intentional emphasis on evangelization through friendship has led to countless conversions over the years — along with a remarkable development in Fall 2022 that will forever impact the future of the Church in the United States.
“On November 1, 2022, the cause for canonization for Michelle Duppong was officially opened,” said Craig Miller, FOCUS’ president since 2003. “Michelle served as a missionary with FOCUS for six years and then went to work for the Diocese of Bismarck before she was diagnosed with cancer, and after heroic suffering, passed away on Christmas Day in 2015. It’s been amazing to see the impact Michelle has had on hundreds and hundreds of young women and other staff members. But now, after her passing, we’re already hearing stories of favors that have been granted through her intercession. We’re very thrilled for what this might mean for the Church, for America and for young people all over the world.”
A quarter of a century has proven that FOCUS has made an impact on the vineyard of college campuses, with saints in the making. And while the apostolate strategically chose to begin with university students, extending its mission to dioceses and parishes provides the opportunity for many more to be involved in the work of evangelization.
“We’d like to invite every person to get involved in the important work of evangelization,” said Martin. “The exciting things God is doing in the lives of young people can — and should — be done in all our lives!”
Christina Eberle is a Northglenn-based author and editor. She formerly served as FOCUS’ communications manager until 2018 and since then has worked with FOCUS as a contracted writer and copy editor. Her debut novel, Brio, is available through her website, chriscrossauthor.com.