However you might mark the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe this week, the missionaries and leadership of FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students) will be doing something distinctive. FOCUS, dedicated to evangelization on college campuses and parishes in the US and Europe and with service trips across Latin America, will consecrate their efforts to the protection of Our Lady of Guadalupe and the intercession of her great herald, Saint Juan Diego. Under the inspiration of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Saint Juan Diego sought converts, who became disciples, who became missionaries, who in their turn fostered the process of conversion, discipleship, and mission.
The leadership and missionaries of FOCUS will make this corporate act of consecration because the Virgin of Guadalupe and Saint Juan Diego are their role models of FOCUS’ primary missionary method, which is “spiritual multiplication.”
Spiritual multiplication is the heart and soul of the FOCUS missionary strategy. It is based on the dynamic of “WIN-BUILD-SEND.” In phase 1 (WIN), the missionary makes contact with college students on campus, in a variety of settings, and wins their attention and trust through authentic friendship. In phase 2 (BUILD), the missionaries work to cultivate the students into true Christian discipleship, rooted in divine intimacy and leading to a fervent sense of mission. In phase 3 (SEND), the students go on mission among their peers, first to serve as disciples and then to become disciple-makers themselves.
Curtis Martin, founder of FOCUS, explains the role of spiritual multiplication: “In a way, you can think of spiritual multiplication being to FOCUS what Elon Musk can see batteries being to Tesla: [Tesla’s] Powerpacks can scale on a global basis faster than the cars do. … Batteries could be the core business of Tesla, though they are primarily utilized in Tesla’s cars, which is what they’re best known for. Likewise, spiritual multiplication is the core business of FOCUS and the most fruitful place to leverage that model has been on college campuses. However, the model of spiritual multiplication is transferrable and should be transferred to other contexts, such as parishes.”
In a letter to the FOCUS membership about the December 12 consecration, Martin wrote:
I am excited to write to you about the consecration of our spiritual multiplication efforts to Our Lord through Our Lady. Many of you are familiar with the miracle the Blessed Virgin worked in the 1500s, where around 10 million indigenous people were baptized into the Catholic Church within 10 years. The pagan Aztec culture was a singularly cruel culture. Our Lady worked this miracle through a lowly peasant, St. Juan Diego, who caused a peer-to-peer chain reaction, resembling our model of spiritual multiplication—a model based on the life of Christ.
Jesus called the apostles to him by name, and sent them out in pairs to proclaim him. Likewise, FOCUS evangelizes starting with a one-on-one encounter, inviting individuals to the Lord. As conversion leads to commitment, disciples join together to call others to Christ, as they themselves were called.
That’s what FOCUS says on paper. What do the missionaries meet in the field? FOCUS missionaries are being sent to cultivate a field that is made up largely of rocky ground. American college students, of whatever religious identity, have almost certainly been poorly schooled and formed in matters of religious faith and morals. Most have stopped practicing any religious faith at all, if they had ever started, and show little interest in returning to religious faith. While at school, they are most likely in an environment that has enshrined relativism and hedonism—exactly the opposite of what is necessary to foster a transcendent religious faith and moral clarity. There is a certain kind of heroism FOCUS missionaries display as they move onto those campuses, and invite their contemporaries to meet Christ and the Church he founded, through Bible study and prayer, service and worship, catechesis and friendship. This is the impoverished environment in which the FOCUS missionaries work; it is this same environment in which most FOCUS missionaries have been formed.
Nearly all FOCUS missionaries grew up in the same cultural milieu that formed their contemporaries, whom they now seek to evangelize. The religious indifference, ignorance and skepticism, the moral relativism—all the spiritual elements inimical to receiving the Gospel and entering the Church that have adversely affected most American college students—these same elements have surrounded the FOCUS missionaries as they grew up and studied at school. How can the missionaries avoid running afoul of Jesus’ warning to not let “the blind lead the blind”?
I raised these questions and more with Antoine Kazzi, newly appointed special assistant to Curtis Martin at FOCUS headquarters in Denver, Colorado.
“‘The blind leading the blind?’ It is impossible for the missionaries to avoid this pitfall,” Kazzi stated. “They rely on Jesus to carry them over it.” Knowing that grace builds on nature, FOCUS strives to find the right kind of people for the mission, and then puts them through a rigorous period of training that is at once broad and deep. Each new Missionary participates in an intense period of formation, covering spiritual, intellectual, and pastoral dimensions, conducted full-time over a six-week period. Further formation occurs throughout the missionary’s time with FOCUS, such as through team director summits for those who are immediately responsible for the care of missionaries.
“Missionary work is not for the faint-hearted,” Kazzi admitted. “Operating in teams greatly assists in building fortitude, with two men and two women assigned to each campus in imitation of Jesus sending out his disciples two by two. The missionaries rejoice together and weep together—as St. Paul says they should—seeking to build a deep, authentic friendship of support and encouragement.”
The FOCUS missionaries often find themselves in campus settings wherein the Catholic faith may be viewed with mere curiosity, incomprehension, or outright hostility.
“The missionaries have grown up and serve in a post-Christian society, whose basic tenets are often antithetical to the Christian worldview,” Kazzi noted. “Fundamental differences stand out, such as a prevailing anti-life mentality, a zeitgeist hostile to the Christian way of life, deep hurt in many, and a corresponding absence of real hope. Such challenges manifest themselves in even more concrete fashions, such as the creation of ‘safe spaces’ on college campuses that silence dialogue. These challenges are real and every part of the apostolate is affected. FOCUS, like many others, is faced with challenges like the HHS mandate, which it had to respond to with the filing of two civil suits. Thus, missionaries will have to increasingly learn to deal not just with the spiritual, but with the political, the legal, and the absurd.”
Reports on Catholic higher education by the Cardinal Newman Society indicate that the list of schools with dubious policies and cultures is long; the Society’s list of recommended Catholic colleges is short. And the FOCUS missionaries are also on state campuses that have no semblance of Catholic culture at all. Does Kazzi ever wonder whether the missionaries have an impossible task?
He is upbeat: “The Light shines brightest in the darkness, and often persons living in that darkness have been the ones to respond with the greatest love to Jesus’ message of hope.”