New man on campus: Approaching Catholic campus ministry

Our Faith
A new approach to student ministry is changing the Catholic presence on the quad.

A young man and woman stop short of the Arizona State University Memorial Union. It’s lunchtime. James Timberlake asks Jessica Peterson to lead the two of them in prayer. She asks the Holy Spirit to guide them, to give them the right words as they set out to evangelize students.

Peterson spies a female student sitting alone outside of ASU’s Memorial Union. She walks up to her and says, “We’re from the Newman Center. Would you mind if we ask you five survey questions?” The survey is pretty informal, and no one is taking notes. Peterson asks general questions about religious practice. The young woman is a non-denominational Christian. To many of her responses, Timberlake simply smiles, nods, and says, “That’s awesome.”

Eventually, Peterson invites the student to a Bible study on Wednesday night, and the young woman agrees to attend. Peterson gets her number dialed into her iPhone.

Timberlake and Peterson are missionaries with the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS), a national organization that sends missionaries, two by two—a man and a woman—to college campuses. FOCUS represents a broader, growing trend in Catholic campus ministry.


For decades, campus ministry has been characterized by a “we’ll leave the light on for you” or a “light on the hill” approach. That is, campus ministers maintained a welcoming environment for students. They were there for students, wherever they happened to be on the faith spectrum and whenever they were ready to come through the church doors.

FOCUS and similar groups—like Evangelical Catholic and Opus Dei—have more of a “we’ll bring the light to you” approach. They’re on campus, too, but are more actively seeking out students and getting them to talk about their faith. FOCUS missionaries organize retreats, invite students to Bible studies, and enter into one-on-one mentor relationships.
Since its founding in 1998, FOCUS has quickly grown in influence and today enjoys the support and appreciation of many U.S. bishops. In December its founder and president, Curtis Martin, was appointed by Pope Benedict XVI as a consultor for the new Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization.

So far, the organization has already set up bases at nearly 60 university campuses, and they plan to add 30 more next year. The Catholic Campus Ministry Association estimates there are more than 400 Catholic campus outreach centers in the United States, though an official tally hasn’t been taken in more than a decade.

The missionaries do their recruiting once or twice a week. Most of their time is spent on developing friendships with students, through which they hope to serve as mentors and evangelize by example. Observing a holy hour, praying the rosary, and daily Mass attendance are all part of the job description.


Success, such as getting a student’s phone number, isn’t achieved every time, Peterson admits. Sheena Byrne, who works alongside Timberlake and Peterson, says some students don’t want to talk about faith at all. “But it’s rare,” she says.

New focus

In 2009 Phoenix Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted communicated a new vision for campus ministry. Arizona State’s Newman Center is in Olmsted’s diocese and directly experienced this change. Diocesan leadership explained the transition as a renewed focus on vocations to the priesthood, and the FOCUS missionaries, in their first year on ASU’s campus, are part of that. The organization boasts of having brought about more than 330 vocations to the priesthood and religious life.

FOCUS missionaries won’t enter a diocese without permission from the local bishop, and often work in conjunction with existing campus ministers. Timberlake says thus far they haven’t been able to get into California. While Olmsted has welcomed the missionaries, some bishops and campus ministers simply aren’t interested in having them in their dioceses.

“The root of being welcomed or rejected is a question of the orthodoxy of a Newman Center,” Timberlake claims rather boldly. The implication that a center of Catholic campus ministry that does not welcome FOCUS missionaries cannot be orthodox reveals that there’s more at stake than just competing visions for how to be a presence on college campuses. Rather, there are two different styles of ministry—and resulting tensions—that accompany these different visions.


“I’m interested in spiritual growth, not so much jumping on the bandwagon of a cause,” say Father Rob Clements, the new director of Arizona State’s Newman Center. “I’m interested in knowing God and knowing what he wants of me by knowing him better.” This emphasis on a particular type of spirituality is echoed on the website of FOCUS, where the mission statement reads: “To know Christ Jesus, and to fulfill his great commission by first living and then communicating the fullness of life within the family of God, the church.”

Dominican friars served the ASU community for 41 years before being replaced last year. Clements says the move wasn’t from any dissatisfaction with the Dominicans. “This is a whole new vision for campus ministry as opposed to what’s been here in the past. It’s been culture shock for a lot of people that have been here.”

One size fits all?

Emily Kempe, a junior at ASU, has struggled through the transition. Dominican Father Fred Lucci, former director of the Newman Center, invited Kempe to a social gathering while she was walking through campus one day. She wound up getting involved with the Newman Center, serving on a student leadership team, and receiving the sacrament of confirmation. She was also hired as the social justice intern, but that fell through.

She remembers attending a program called Theology Underground, which consisted of students discussing church teaching with Dominican Father James Thompson. “Father James wouldn’t do a lot of talking until the end. It was an open, free, safe place to get your questions answered,” Kempe says.


Students didn’t always agree with church teaching “100 percent,” Kempe says, but it was accepted as part of  “a process.” After the transition at ASU, Kempe felt other students rejected her passion for social justice. Her peers even called her a heretic. She’d hear students banter about liturgical norms and just threw up her hands.
“Don’t you think feeding someone is more important than whether or not we hold hands during the Our Father?” she recalls saying. She says some of her peers are “like canon law police. I feel like I don’t fit in there anymore.”

Kempe’s sense of isolation may be an indication that the “whole new vision” for campus ministry doesn’t appeal to all students, but only to a particular kind of student who already has an interest in a certain model of spirituality and responds to the FOCUS style of ministry.


“If Bible study is all that’s offered, that’s a problem,” says Lourdes Alonso, a former campus minister at Arizona State. “You’re going to attract students that are already engaged.” She estimates that 80 percent of students at Stanford University in California, where she serves now, aren’t currently involved with their faith.

FOCUS, for which a primary effort includes organizing Bible studies, is “a piece, but not the whole,” she says.


After leaving ASU, Alonso learned that community members had secretly accused her of “watering down” the faith. She felt undermined. “People want to do it one way. We all think we know what people need, but we really don’t know until we listen.”

Now, Alonso attends rallies—including recent Occupy Wall Street demonstrations—seeking out and finding many Catholic participants. Catholics are drawn to service, she says. “It’s not our job to indoctrinate everyone. It’s our job to witness love.”

Alonso helps Catholic students plug into service opportunities already offered through the university. She’s also getting Stanford groups, such as MEChA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán, a progressive Latino student organization), to “invite the Catholics.” Students from the Catholic community go on missionary trips to places like El Salvador and an HIV/AIDS center in Las Vegas.

Kempe has also seen many non-practicing Catholics get involved in social justice and sees it as another avenue for evangelization. “It’s not more important than the rosary or eucharistic adoration, but they can work together.”


Stanford has an active rosary group, too, which Alonso has been working with. Where some members used to say everyone “should” pray the rosary, now they say everyone “can” pray the rosary. “It’s not where everyone connects, and we want everyone to connect,” Alonso explains. “That’s the important thing.”

Management change

Thompson, who served as interim director during the transition at ASU’s Newman Center, says he’s met a number of students more comfortable with prayers like the rosary and the Divine Mercy Chaplet.

“Our Newman Centers have been slow to adapt to that,” he admits. “But we’re catching up.” Some “seekers” are turned off by more traditional practices and “charismatic, almost Pentecostal-style of worship,” he says. Thompson has counseled students that it is OK not to raise their hands during worship.

Some students don’t feel “holy enough” to attend certain events. Young Catholics who are drawn to a more evangelical style can at times form a “holy clique,” which can be off-putting for those in the “seeker stage.” And evangelical Catholic students tend toward uniformity, he says.

“We have a new synthesis that’s going to look more traditional, but have its own focus as well,” says Thompson, who now serves as an itinerant preacher for the Western Dominican Province. “It’s hard to get people in the door; you don’t want to give the impression of conformity. You need balance.”

A peer-to-peer approach—like FOCUS—can help tailor outreach to students’ needs, “but it’s not one-size-fits-all,” says Father John Kartje, chaplain and director of the Sheil Catholic Center at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. Some just won’t come until they’re ready.

“You certainly hear ‘I’m spiritual and not religious,’ ” he says. Yet something about the church still calls to them. “It’s part of the Catholic sensibility. Even if someone has a negative experience of the institutional church, there is this deep-seated sense that this is where the spirit is active in my life.”

FOCUS’s model does seem to be working, at least with some students, who go on to be leaders themselves. A semester into their work at ASU, the four FOCUS missionaries have 67 students signed up for Bible studies. Some students are interested in becoming FOCUS missionaries themselves. In a way, that’s how FOCUS measures success, Timberlake says, when students take ownership of the mission.


Junior Craig Koenig has done that. He’s now a FOCUS student leader and heads up Bible studies. Koenig wasn’t involved with campus ministry but eventually felt called to study the Bible more. The FOCUS missionaries showed up, and it was a natural fit.

“It’s challenged me to grow in all aspects of my faith,” he says. Maintaining a holy hour every morning transformed his faith and prayer life. “For evangelization, it’s key to invest in the person, to build a relationship.”

Koenig speaks of non-practicing Catholics he knows well, and of his struggles to lead by example. It’s easier to do that—and maintain a constant missionary mindset—when like-minded Catholics surround you.

Getting results

Father Martin Moran, executive director of the Catholic Campus Ministry Association, the national association of Catholic campus ministers, applauds groups like Evangelical Catholic and FOCUS for embracing Pope John Paul II’s call for a “new evangelization.”

“It’s great to see so many groups looking to have an impact on campus ministry,” he says, adding that there’s more to campus ministry. “It’s great to get them in the door, but how do you partner the new evangelization with catechesis?” he asks.

FOCUS missionaries have also been a tremendous boost at Drake University in Iowa, according to Father Joel McNeil, pastor of the St. Catherine Catholic Student Center. He says Des Moines Bishop Richard Pates and his consultants made the decision to bring in FOCUS missionaries before McNeil’s arrival two and a half years ago.

“What FOCUS does well is go on campus, develop relationships with students, and lead them to campus ministry,” McNeil says. More than 60 students are signed up for Bible study. “Because they are recent college graduates themselves, they can really connect with the Facebook and texting generation. Their excitement about their faith is contagious.”

McNeil says weekend Mass attendance went from 100 last year to 250 this year—which is 25 percent of the estimated Catholic population at the university. “Given that Drake University is a private, non-sectarian institution and has a pretty secular culture on campus, those numbers are very strong. And I feel we are just really getting started.”


FOCUS missionaries have been working at the O’Reilly Catholic Center in Springfield, Missouri for the last three years. The center serves students from Drury University, Missouri State University, and Ozarks Technical Community College, among other college students in the area.

“Initially there was an adjustment period. They brought an approach that attracted students who had some spiritual formation. We had to work with this to make sure that all the students would feel welcomed and no one would feel excluded,” says Claretian Father Tom McGann, director of the O’Reilly Center. “Whether you were a fully practicing Catholic or someone on the fringes, I wanted students to feel welcomed.”

When they first arrived, McGann would meet with the missionary director every two weeks to discuss any concerns and to evaluate approaches. “The missionaries demonstrated high standards of faithful discipline, which appealed to many students, but there were others who, perhaps, were struggling in their faith journey. I did not want the latter to feel excluded or neglected in any way.”

The missionaries are now more laid back. “They’re all good people, enthused about Christ,” McGann says, and the numbers at Mass have increased by 20 to 30 students—the attendance average is between 300 to 400 on weekends.When young people are away from home, having someone reach out means a lot, he says.

Relationship status

Students, with a few exceptions, seem to love the missionaries. When as many as two busloads of students go on conferences, they come back raving about adoration and hours praying in the chapel.

Senior Maddie Sellers got involved with campus ministry before the FOCUS missionaries arrived. “The FOCUS missionaries are some of the most passionate men and women I have ever met. They love the students and have a contagious zeal for Christ,” she says. Sellers says college students are “like spiritual sponges” that need Christ-centered friendships.

“I believe the college campus is one of the most difficult environments to cultivate a relationship with Christ,” she says. “Students who are constantly bombarded with secular ideas of temporary happiness eventually begin to crave spiritual sustenance.”

Sellers, who leads a FOCUS Bible study, says she couldn’t make it through college without prayer—but stresses that her prayer is not divorced from service. “Any Christian in love with Christ will serve him.” The Catholic center also organizes a spring break mission trip and service events “as often as possible.”


“Adoration, the rosary, that’s where a lot of young people are today—at least the ones that frequent campus ministry,” McGann says.

At ASU’s Memorial Union, Timberlake gets hungry. He buys a sandwich and makes his way through the tables. Timberlake and Peterson scan the crowd. Most students are plugged into something—laptops or smartphones or iPads.

They choose a student, for some reason or another, and they sit down next to him. The student has earphones on, but Timberlake starts talking to him anyway. “What did you get?” he asks. The student removes his headphones, “Huh?” “What did you get?” Salmon bagel.

“Sitting down for lunch, it’s a natural way to start a conversation,” Timberlake says later. Usually, the guys speak to the guys and the girls to the girls. Having two members of the opposite sex works better, Peterson says. For girls, having a good-looking guy is sometimes a question of status—girls will listen to you. It also seems to help that the missionaries look and dress like college students.

The young man, a Presbyterian, gives Timberlake his phone number and promises to attend a Bible study. He chats with the missionaries long after he’s finished his lunch.

“Different people are drawn to Christ differently,” Timberlake says. For example, Dennis, another missionary, lifts weights regularly with a student who’s not coming to Bible study. “If you show the love of Christ,” Timberlake says, “who’s not going to want that?”

This article appeared in the February 2012 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 77, No. 2, pages 27-31.)

Image: Helena Lopes via Pexels

About the author

J.D. Long-García

J.D. Long-García is the managing editor of the Catholic Sun, the newspaper of the Diocese of Phoenix, Arizona.

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