When Eileen Piper thinks about evangelization, she’s struck by a truth: the stakes are really high.
“Hell is real. Heaven is real. And they’re for eternity,” she said. “We’ve got the best news, but the culture tells us we have to keep it to ourselves. This is about forever, and we can’t be cavalier about that.”
Piper is the vice president of lifelong mission for The Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS), which places young adult missionaries on college campuses to share the Gospel and form missionary disciples. In 2015, FOCUS expanded its model of spiritual multiplication from the college campus into parishes; this year, 861 missionaries are serving at 193 campuses and 23 parishes around the country and internationally. In the Archdiocese of St. Louis, FOCUS missionaries serve at Lindenwood University and Immaculate Conception Parish in Dardenne Prairie.
Knowing that the stakes are high doesn’t mean we should start shouting at people from street corners, Piper said. Evangelization is about “accompanying each other toward an encounter with the person of Jesus,” she said. “That’s when lives are transformed.”
If we are willing to share with others God’s love and his invitation to relationship, “You could change eternity for them, through one minute of stepping outside your comfort zone,” she said. “They’re such high stakes.”
Win, build, send
When McKayla Overton moved into her dorm room at Lindenwood University in August 2020, one of the first things she and her roommate wanted to do was find the Catholic student center.
“We drove past just to scope it out. And we saw people sitting on the front porch, so we decided to stop and say hi,” Overton said. “It’s not something I would have usually done, to go say hi to a bunch of strangers. That’s when we met the FOCUS missionaries.”
Overton, a graduate of St. Joseph School in Cottleville and St. Dominic High School in O’Fallon, quickly started attending a FOCUS Bible study led by missionary Marie Putbrese. FOCUS follows a “Win, Build, Send” model: win the hearts of college students through authentic friendships rooted in Christ, build them up in love and knowledge of the faith, and send them into the world as evangelizers. The missionaries form students as disciples, who then mentor (or “disciple”) other students, growing deeper in their own faith and learning how to share it with others.
After a semester of Bible study, Overton also started discipleship with a senior from her group. “She’d invite me to go to dinner with her or Mass at the Catholic center, and we just spent a lot of time together,” she said. “We developed an authentic friendship, and she was a great role model of living the Christian life for me. Being invited into that, personally, and having that one-on-one time, allowed me to grow deeper in my faith because it was a very true friendship.”
Now a junior, Overton leads her own Bible study, made up mostly of girls in her sorority and dance program. Most of the girls are Christian but not Catholic; Overton said she asked the Holy Spirit who she should invite and started making the invitations.
“Before, we had something in common, like our sorority or dancing. But now, being able to walk with them and watch them grow in faith and have those deeper conversations has been really awesome, and it just brings me so much joy,” she said.
“I’ve gained confidence to reach out to other people to talk to them about Jesus, and I think that will definitely serve me well later in life and help me form those authentic friendships that are so important,” she said.
A lifelong mission
On a warm Wednesday afternoon, Jacob Grass, a FOCUS parish outreach missionary at Immaculate Conception in Dardenne Prairie, met Blaine Sinak and Mathias Whitworth for lunch at the picnic tables at Chesterfield Valley Athletic Complex.
Over lunch, the conversation flowed easily: weekend plans, the previous night’s St. Louis Blues game, the best soft pretzels in the St. Louis area. And then, just as naturally, they broke open their Bibles for lectio divina. “Come, Holy Spirit,” Grass began, before reading the Gospel for the upcoming Sunday.
Sinak, a lifelong parishioner at Immaculate Conception, works as an engineer at LangeTech Inc. The athletic complex where the trio met is just across Highway 40 from LangeTech, making it easy for Sinak to spend his lunch break with the small group.
“With our busy schedules, to be able to take some time away for important things like faith brings a lot of peace for the rest of the day and the rest of the week,” he said. “It gives us the chance through reflection to grow in our own faith life and also to grow with each other.”
Grass, who grew up in Sacred Heart Parish in Ozoro and attended Valle Catholic High School in Ste. Genevieve, joined missionary Amanda Manion at Immaculate Conception Parish in July 2022. Manion grew up in Immaculate Conception and has served at the parish since FOCUS’ launch there in August 2019.
“One of the most exciting things coming into the parish was getting to work with people of all ages, and realizing that this call to discipleship with Jesus is for everyone,” Manion said. “This model is an effective way to reach anybody, whether it’s a college student or a 90-year old woman in the parish, because everyone wants to be known and loved and cared for.”
The missionaries’ goal is to “accompany parishioners, wherever they’re at, in their spiritual journey,” Manion said. For some people, that’s just getting coffee together to build trust and friendship; for others, it’s inviting them to join a Bible study; and others are already invested in the faith and ready to learn how to effectively share it with others.
“We call it the little way of evangelization — the idea is that you invest deeply in a few people, and then help them to invest in a few, and it multiplies out,” Manion said. “That’s the model that Jesus used.”
In a parish of people at all stages of life, Manion sees disciples form relationships and share the Gospel in all kinds of ways.
“I have one young adult woman that I work with who started a Bible study with a group of her young adult friends,” Manion said, “but she’s also a nurse at a hospital, so she tells me stories about conversations she’s having with other nurses at work about the faith.”
Another woman has made it a weekly practice to invite other women to the adoration chapel to pray together. “It’s drawn so many into knowing the heart of Christ, just seeing the way she has loved them and the way she’s brought them to Jesus. And it really can be that simple,” Manion said.
Msgr. Ted Wojcicki, pastor of Immaculate Conception, said that the presence of FOCUS missionaries in the parish “gives witness to the entire parish family of the central role of evangelization in every aspect of parish life.”
“Two keys to the evangelization efforts of our parish FOCUS missionaries are promoting divine intimacy and authentic friendship,” Msgr. Wojcicki said. “ICD is blessed that our FOCUS missionaries live these qualities and model them for others — they actually share these authentic friendships with our parishioners over time, assisting one another to grow in faith and virtue.”
>> SEEK 2023
The national SEEK 2023 conference, presented by the Fellowship of Catholic University Students, will be held Jan. 2-6 at America’s Center Convention Complex in downtown St. Louis. The conference includes tracks for college students, ministry leaders and parishioners and will feature Catholic speakers, dedicated prayer time, fellowship and entertainment.
On the evening of Wednesday, Jan. 4, all are invited to join SEEK for keynote talks by Sister Miriam James Heidland, SOLT, and Father Josh Johnson, followed by adoration and prayer time. There is no cost to attend, but reservations must be made in advance. For more information, visit stlreview.com/3DO9LeX
For information about the SEEK conference, including archdiocesan price discounts, visit archstl.org/seek.
To learn more about the SEEK event schedule and speakers, and to register, visit seek.focus.org.
>> What is the Gospel message?
As Catholics, we need to be ready to share with others not only how God has moved in our own lives (which we often call our testimony), but also the story of how God has moved in the world throughout all of human history — how His plan for the redemption of the world came about.
You might hear this called the Kerygma — the core Gospel message.
Read about the Kerygma and how to share it from the archdiocesan Office of Evangelization and Discipleship: stlreview.com/3DQrG4t