CHICAGO, Illinois – The Fellowship of Catholic University Students wrapped up a record-setting Student Leadership Summit on Saturday following a week of keynote addresses, training, and prayer.
“Just being here with people who have the same beliefs as me, [sic] and who really love God, you can just feel the joy as soon as you walk in the room,” said Isabella Kotval, a freshman at Spring Hill College.
FOCUS was founded in 1998 to evangelize on college campuses, primarily those of non-Catholic universities. They are currently present on 137 campuses, most of which are in the United States.
The Student Leadership Summit, held biennially, aims to train college students to evangelize at their schools. The selected theme for this year’s gathering, which met Jan. 2-6, was “Inspire & Equip.”
SLS18 hosted 8,000 participants, far surpassing FOCUS’s expected 5,000. The previous conference saw around 3,400 attend.
FOCUS takes as inspiration in its evangelizing techniques the example of Christ and his apostles, and centers its ministry on forming “small groups living in authentic friendship that want to pursue Christ radically,” as FOCUS founder Curtis Martin said in his keynote on the last night.
SLS “gives you the tools… to identify the people in your life that God is calling you to share your story with, and to help them encounter Jesus,” said Erin Shay, a senior at Temple University who has been accepted as a missionary for FOCUS in the 2018-19 academic year.
The first afternoon of the conference opened with Mass, followed by keynotes from Kelsey Skoch, a regional director for FOCUS, and Bishop Robert Barron, an Auxiliary Bishop of Los Angeles. Participants were then divided into the small groups with whom they would spend the conference learning and training.
Speakers throughout the conference included bishops, priests, and lay men and women. Among these was an appearance by Jim Caviezel, who played Christ in Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ.”
At training sessions throughout the week, members were instructed in a different skill each day. They then returned to their small groups to relay what they had learned, allowing them to teach what they had just been taught. Topics included leading Bible studies, providing effective personal testimonies, and inviting others to become missionary disciples.
The talks “gave us tools and insights, and then we got to be able to share it with the friends that we made, so that we could build those authentic friendships,” said Nicole Kotval, a senior at Spring Hill College.
In addition to keynotes and training sessions, a number of “Impact Sessions,” drew from a wide variety of topics, including philosophy, moral theology, speakers’ personal stories, application of Church teaching, and spirituality.
In addition to the approximately 5,000 college students who were in attendance, Martin told Catholic News Agency, “our alumni are here, seminarians are here, and finally, parishioners are here, parish leaders are here.”
Among the alumni in attendance were Conner and Jennifer Wurth, missionaries assigned to Southeast Missouri State University. They are married and live there with their newborn daughter, Isabel.
Both Conner and Jennifer experienced reversions to the Catholic faith while undergrads at the University of Tulsa through the FOCUS missionaries there. The two told their stories to CNA.
Jennifer said that “I didn’t go to Mass going into college for most of my freshman year.” When she did return to Mass at the end of that year, “my heart wasn’t in it.”
In her next year, however, a FOCUS missionary at Tulsa invited her to a Bible study, through which she was able to receive the idea “that I was made to be in relationship with Jesus.”
“I felt like they loved me back to Jesus,” Jennifer said of the missionaries at her campus, “and they were Jesus for me in a lot of ways, that they loved me enough to share the truth with me.” A key part of this was the consistent desire of missionaries to meet her where she was, a trait she says she strives to bring to her ministry.
Her husband, Conner, tells a similar story, saying his family stopped practicing the faith regularly while he was in grade school. This, he said, led to a decline in his moral and spiritual life.
However, “something in my upbringing told me church is at least somewhere you should go,” he said, and he began attending Mass at irregular intervals shortly before starting at Tulsa. It was after the first Mass of the school year at Tulsa’s Newman Center that he met an older student, Adam, who would eventually become his fraternity pledge father and was involved with FOCUS missions.
At this point for Conner, “I was still living the same exact life that I had been living.” However, after several invitations from Adam, he ended up attending FOCUS’s other large biennial conference, SEEK, in 2013.
It was at the SEEK conference that he took the opportunity to return to confession.
“It was that which brought the desire in me to go back to confession for the first time since my Confirmation five years prior,” he said. “During the night that I was going to confession, there was also adoration. That was the first time that I had experienced adoration, so I had never had the opportunity to see Jesus face-to-face like that before.”
In addition to Mass offered every morning at SLS, perpetual adoration was available in a makeshift chapel, and the penultimate night of the conference on Thursday was dedicated to an adoration and confession service.
This adoration service profoundly moved attendant Chris Rueve, a freshman at the University of Missouri – Columbia.
“During adoration, I was overcome with the most joy that I’ve ever experienced, and I realized that I need to give this to other people and not just keep it for myself,” Rueve told CNA after the conference.
The final day of the conference consisted of three additional keynote speeches before Mass was celebrated by Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago.
Mike Sweeney, former first baseman for the Kansas City Royals, urged attendees to “set the world on fire as who we are, as who God wants us to be.” He spoke about the importance of friendship with Christ, invitations to others, and an “eternal mindset.”
The next speaker was Lisa Brenninkmeyer, of the women’s ministry Walking With Purpose, who spoke on spiritual warfare, drawing from her experience as a mother raising children in the faith.
The final keynote speaker of the morning was Jason Evert, co-founder of the Chastity Project, who highlighted the importance of prayer over constant action, even in ministry.
“If you’re hyper in the apostolic life, it is a sign of spiritual laziness,” Evert said. “No commitment to the works of the apostolate, no matter how urgent, can ever replace the need for prayer.”
The closing Mass was celebrated by Cupich, who said in his homily, “We need to claim who we are and focus on who Jesus calls us to be.” He highlighted the importance of family life, saying, “we can’t evangelize in the world unless we find the Gospel in our own families.”
He also called attention to various social issues, referencing Pope Francis’s 2015 encyclical on care for our common home, Laudato si’, and highlighting issues concerning both abortion and undocumented immigrants.
“You in your generation should be particularly focused on the unborn,” he told those gathered, “because there are many who are not able to be in this auditorium today because they were not allowed to come into the world, and they’re your generation.”
He urged those present to allow themselves “to be immersed in the concerns of the world, so that we don’t have a Church, or a group of people who say they are Catholics and Christians, who are self-referential,” borrowing a term used often by Francis.
Cupich also highlighted the importance of the Eucharist in Christian life.
“It gives us a touch of eternity that we should allow to influence our entire life,” he said, “that we live with this sense of transcendence, that we’re not alone as we take up the issues of the world.”
“Today, take the next step of the journey of your life, to see where you are going,” Cupich said, concluding his homily. “Embrace this moment, cherish it as an opportunity for you to begin the journey of life in a fresh way.”
SLS alternates each year with the SEEK conference. SEEK2017 was held in San Antonio, and attended by approximately 13,000. The next SEEK conference, as announced Wednesday night at SLS, will be hosted in Indianapolis Jan. 3-7, 2019.