Early on a Friday morning, four men sat around a small table, reading the Book of Romans. Working through it chapter by chapter, verse by verse, the men talked about what passages struck them the most and how God was speaking to them through the Scripture.
In their selected passage that morning, they read how St. Paul wrote about the Roman Christians, who are presenting themselves to God to be used to accomplish His righteous purposes. In doing so, they have become “slaves of righteousness.”
This gathering at an O’Fallon coffee shop has been a nearly weekly routine for the four men, who are in their 20s and 30s. This Bible study is one of the hallmarks of the Fellowship of Catholic University Students, known as FOCUS. But these guys aren’t on a college campus. Instead, they connected through Evan Costello, one of two FOCUS missionaries who joined Immaculate Conception Parish in Dardenne Prairie a year and a half ago as part of the organization’s newer Parish Outreach initiative.
Parish Outreach takes FOCUS’ model of spiritual multiplication from college campuses to parishes. Experienced campus missionaries transition to the parish mission field and offer their evangelization skills and training to teach parishioners how to pray, evangelize and make disciples of others. The initiative began in 2015 and has expanded to nine parishes across the United States. Immaculate Conception is the first parish in the Archdiocese of St. Louis to host FOCUS missionaries.
Costello, along with Amanda George, joined Immaculate Conception in the summer of 2019. Both of them became involved with FOCUS in college — Costello, as a student at the University of Alabama, and George at Missouri State University in Springfield. Both grew up in the St. Louis Archdiocese.
They see their mission as building relationships with people in the parish and walking alongside them as they encounter Christ in a deeper way. With more than 15,000 registered parishioners — the second-largest parish in the archdiocese — that prospect may seem daunting. But both of them see it as an incredible opportunity to minister in a unique way.
“We meet people who are in different places in their walk of faith,” said George, who grew up in Immaculate Conception, where she attended Parish School of Religion. “There are people I am investing in who aren’t going to Sunday Mass, and I am trying to build a relationship of trust with them. Then there are missionary disciples I am deeply invested in and learning with them how to evangelize others. I am looking for people who know Jesus Christ and want to make Him known. I am looking for people who are faithful who are contagious in that desire to accompany me as we evangelize in our parish.”
Encountering the Lord
When Costello began studies at the University of Alabama, he was what he described as a CINO — Catholic In Name Only.
“It was rare to go to Mass on Sundays,” said Costello, who grew up in Holy Rosary Parish in Warrenton. He attended the Catholic Newman Center, but his personal experience there was “lukewarm.” There he met Marshall, a FOCUS missionary who Costello would later say had a major impact on his life. Marshall invited him to Bible study at least half a dozen times, and Costello would always say no — until he finally relented and said yes.
“That was the first time I truly encountered the Lord in Scripture and started to pray,” Costello said. “I realized that the Bible wasn’t this sort of passive story that is nice to observe, but it’s actually something that we have to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to. At that point in my life, I hadn’t really said ‘yes’ and taken responsibility in living it.”
By the end of his senior year, Costello’s life had dramatically changed. He saw firsthand through his friend and missionary how he made incarnate what others have not yet seen of God’s love. After returning from Christmas break, Costello learned that Marshall’s girlfriend — to whom he had intended to propose — had instead broken up with him.
“In the midst of his pain and suffering, there was this tremendous peace and acceptance that everything was still as God intended it to be,” Costello said. “It was seeing that he was still fully alive and just as much pursuing the Lord as before that happened.”
Finding joy in the Gospel
FOCUS missionaries interact with others within the parish organically. Both Costello and George participate in regular Bible studies with different groups of parishioners. But they’re also encountering people one-on-one, whether that’s at daily or Sunday Masses or through other already existing ministries at Immaculate Conception.
“With 15,000 people in the parish, we have to do something in particular to connect with them,” said pastor Msgr. Ted Wojcicki. “Our missionaries are staying connected with God and witnessing that to others. They’re seeking to be an authentic friend, but it’s more than that. It’s part of Jesus’ Great Commission, where He told the first Apostles to go out into the world and make disciples of all the nations. They’re seeking to form others and make them into disciple-makers as well.”
On a Monday evening, George met in the church vestibule with five women of the parish for their regular Bible study. As part of their routine, they shared examples where God was present in their lives that week, as well as how they stayed in tune with the voice of God. When they’re not meeting, the group keeps in touch via online chat, sharing prayer requests and updating each other on how they’re doing.
The women were reading through the Gospel of John, and on that evening read the story about the death of Lazarus. Chapter 11, verse four recalls the Lord’s words upon hearing of Lazarus’ illness: ” … He said, ‘This illness is not unto death; it is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified by means of it.’”
“I pray this a lot when I am going through a time of suffering,” George told her cohorts. “This suffering ultimately is for the glory of God. When you look at it through that lens, it changes everything.”
Scripture, prayer and the sacraments are all ways to help deepen a relationship with the Lord. But doing those things with others within the context of a faith community brings an awareness of Jesus’ presence in others.
“When you finally experience what it’s like to be loved by Jesus, it changes everything,” George said. “There’s an authentic joy that enters into everything you’re doing. When you experience the love of Jesus Incarnate in the people around you, it brings a joy to your faith.”
>> SEEK21 goes virtual
The Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS) is hosting its national conference, SEEK21, virtually this year. Originally scheduled to take place in St. Louis, the conference now will be held online Feb. 4-7, and is described as an interactive, immersive event bringing thousands of people together in small groups to encounter the heart of the Gospel and share it with others.
Keynote speakers include Father Mike Schmitz, whose new podcast with Ascension, “Bible in a Year,” is the number one show on Apple podcasts. His keynote will encourage people to ask, “How is God calling me?” Other speakers include include Bishop Robert Barron; Sister Miriam James Heidland, SOLT; Sister Bethany Madonna, SV; Francis Chan; Immaculée Ilibagiza; Curtis Martin; Hilary Draftz; Jonathan Reyes; and Edward Sri.
SEEK conferences have ignited the faith of college students, parishioners, clergy, FOCUS alumni, benefactors and others, drawing them into a deeper encounter with Christ and increased zeal for evangelization.
>> FOCUS parish outreach
Parish Outreach is a newer initiative that started in 2015, which takes FOCUS’ model of spiritual multiplication from the campus to the parish. Experienced campus missionaries transition to the parish mission field and offer their evangelization skills and training to teach parishioners how to pray, evangelize and make disciples of others.
FOCUS materials explain that America’s 17,000 Catholic parishes have a critically important role in the New Evangelization. Parishes are the arms of the Church where people are loved and cared for, where the lost are found and where people can encounter Christ in prayer and in the sacraments. But they are in need of renewal.
Parish missionaries adapt the FOCUS model of relational evangelization — win, build and send — within a parish context. They begin by growing in friendship with parishioners, fallen-away Catholics and the unchurched. As these relationships grow, missionaries challenge others in their faith and eventually train them to evangelize others. By doing so, they create a culture of evangelization within each parish, leading to reaching the lost, parishioners deepening their faith and raising up leaders in the Church.
There currently are nine parishes in the United States that host FOCUS missionaries. In the Archdiocese of St. Louis, Immaculate Conception Parish in Dardenne Prairie welcomed two missionaries, Amanda George and Evan Costello, in August of 2019.