The college years offer a great opportunity for young people to discover, renew or affirm their Catholic faith, and young missionaries from around the country have been providing support in that process over this past year at the University of Rochester.
The campus’ Newman Community brought the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS) program to Rochester after years of discussion about the evangelization model, said Father Brian Cool, director. Through a large donation and additional fundraising, the community was able to house four FOCUS missionaries for the 2018-19 school year, he explained.
The four students live off campus and receive a small stipend for their missionary work, he said. The program is now under evaluation on those assignments for next year, Father Cool noted.
From its onset last fall, he said he received positive feedback about having the four FOCUS missionaries on campus.
“There’s always a need for better evangelization or new evangelization on campus that engages students in a different way,” Father Cool said. “(FOCUS) certainly meets that need ‚Ä¶ (despite) its challenges working on a secular campus.”
Timothy Gillen, the FOCUS team leader, said students have been receptive to conversations and invitations to attend Bible study. He and his fellow missionaries engage with students by inviting them to coffee or a meal, playing intramural sports, or going for a hike or walk, he said. They also offer Bible-study sessions to provide students with an opportunity to step away from their busy days to form friendships and reflect on their faith, said Gillen, who is from Lansdale, Pa.
“(The students) are very hungry for God,” he added. “They’re hungry to learn more about the faith and more about how to pray. ‚Ä¶ They’ve been very welcoming to us.”
As missionaries, they are following Jesus’ command: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations (Mt. 28:19),” said Gillen and Heather Fleury, originally from Scarborough, Canada, and a University of Kentucky graduate.
“Our method is simply imitating our master, Jesus Christ,” Gillen added. “He shared life with his apostles. ‚Ä¶ We win students through sharing life with them and investing in them. We build upon that friendship in Bible studies by teaching them how to pursue Christ wholeheartedly, and then we send them out so they can teach others what they have been taught by starting their own Bible studies and raising up more leaders for the church through their own outreach.”
Gillen said he didn’t become active in his Catholic faith until college, and he became involved with a FOCUS group at Temple University. He signed up to become a missionary in his senior year, he said, and served at Boston University for two years before coming to the University of Rochester.
The college years provide the kind of reflection that makes a person open to answering questions of “Who am I” and “What am I meant to do with my life?” noted Becca Rodeheffer, a Mt. View, Calif., native who graduated from the University of Denver.
“Not only is college a time of immense challenge, but one of immense opportunity to set the future leaders of the world and the parents of the next generation on fire with love of Christ and his church,” she said.
Rodeheffer and Fleury said they were fortunate to have been raised in families that provided a strong Catholic foundation.
“I, of course, had to come to a relationship with Christ on my own ‚Ä¶ but I am immensely grateful for the gift of faith I received in great part from my parents,” Rodeheffer added.
She made the decision to become a FOCUS missionary in her senior year and has found the work to be challenging and rewarding. Two of the students she met this year have already committed to a mission trip offered by the organization to Togo, Africa, in July, Rodeheffer said.
“I receive so much life and joy from investing in them (UR students), simply knowing and loving them, and then seeing them grow in love of God and one another,” she said. “I have big hopes for this campus, and I know God’s plans are even bigger.”
While attending the University of Kentucky, Fluery’s best friend introduced her to a FOCUS missionary and she eventually went on a monthlong mission trip to Tanzania, Africa.
“Christ has always been the center of my life, and I am honestly just following his will,” she said. “Christ has brought so much love and joy to my life, and it brings me happiness to be able to spread that contagious joy back into the lives of college students, and to deepen their relationship with Christ.”
James-Russell Davey’s faith journey was a bit different than his counterparts. The Brunswick, Maine, native was not baptized until elementary school and only went to Mass once a month during high school, he said.
When FOCUS missionaries came to his campus at the University of Maine during his junior year, Davey was skeptical until getting to know them as authentic, caring people who “revolutionized” his prayer life and helped him understand God’s love for him.
While the atmosphere at the University of Mary in Washington, D.C., where he previously served was more conducive to the work of FOCUS, being at the UR is where he needs to be, Davey said.
“(Christ) has a plan for the spreading of the Gospel on this campus, and we just need to trust him,” he said. “The college campus is where we can interact with the next generation of leaders in the world. And by changing the hearts and minds of college students, we can change the world for Christ.”