At the end of Stony Brook University’s Catholic Mass on Sunday May 6, 2018, Father Sean Magaldi announced that Bishop Barres approved four missionaries from an organization called Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS) to work alongside Stony Brook University Catholic Campus Ministry (SBU CCM) and its Catholic club, the Newman Club in the fall. Father Sean explained that the missionaries will enhance SBU CCM by bringing in more students into the Faith and increase the size of the Newman Club members by, for an example, leading Bible Study groups.
It was not fully clear to me who these people are who will be coming to our campus in the fall semester. Father Sean said that FOCUS missionaries come to the Newman Clubs that are already successful. I wondered: whywould missionaries come to a place or work with a group that is very successful? Aren’t missionaries supposed to go to places that don’t yet have active communities? The Newman Clubs at Adelphi University and, especially, L.I.U Post have atrophied due to the diocese’s serious neglect.
In addition, these FOCUS missionaries, as Father Sean said, “will not be in be CCM office. They will be out on campus, since being in the office does not bring students in.” I felt this decision was a slap in the face of the members of SBU Catholic Campus Ministry, and it diminishes the hard work done by our campus minister, Joanne Buoncore. We, as Newman Club members, seize the opportunity to invite fellow students to Mass, Newman Club meetings, and Small Group meetings because of how we have been touched and enriched by God through these offerings. Since Small Groups began Spring 2016, our Catholic community at SBU swelled in numbers and students pursued RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) making baptism, communion, and confirmation on their own. No matter where you are on your faith journey, students are always welcomed by Joanne and by us.
Because I had so many questions, I decided to learn more about this organization. FOCUS was founded in 1998 by Curtis Martin, and their mission is to “win the hearts of college students, build them in the faith and send them to the world.” From the FOCUS website, I learned that their missionaries are recent college graduates who return on missions to campuses. As stated on What We Do—Campus Life: “Through Bible studies, prayer, sacraments, service opportunities, mission trips and national conferences, missionaries invest deeply in students’ lives and build them up in the knowledge and practice of the Catholic faith, sharing with them the joy of the gospel.” This right away made me believe that FOCUS activities will interfere with and ultimately replace the CCM at SBU, pulling away new members with attractions we can’t provide as a small campus organization.
We already have weekly Sunday mass on campus; Small Groups; daily prayer (Rosary, Divine Mercy, Lectio Divina); and a half hour Mass, adoration, and confession on Tuesday nights. We offer at least five service opportunities each semester: working with developmentally disabled children at Little Flower, volunteering at Bethel Hobbs Farm, visiting at the Stony Brook Veteran Home, running Karaoke events for special needs adults, and delivering clothes and food to the homeless and those in need as part of our Midnight Runs. We have our mission trips that students serve over spring break. Our CCM community is thriving at SBU. I’m fearful that FOCUS will take all of the credit for all that SBU CCM does already and destroy the community that has been built and is flourishing.
A young man and woman stop short of the Arizona State University Memorial Union. It’s lunchtime. James Timberlake asks Jessica Peterson to lead the two of them in prayer. She asks the Holy Spirit to guide them, to give them the right words as they set out to evangelize students. Peterson spies a female student sitting alone outside of ASU’s Memorial Union. She walks up to her and says, “We’re from the Newman Center. Would you mind if we ask you five survey questions?” The survey is pretty informal, and no one is taking notes. Peterson asks general questions about religious practice. The young woman is a non-denominational Christian. To many of her responses, Timberlake simply smiles, nods, and says, “That’s awesome.” Eventually, Peterson invites the student to a Bible study on Wednesday night, and the young woman agrees to attend. Peterson gets her number dialed into her iPhone.
Religion is a touchy and highly personal subject. I do not share the Faith with others unless I already know them well and trust that they’d be receptive to the conversation. Actionsspeak louder than words. Stony Brook University is an extremely secular campus, and it is not a warm, friendly, inviting atmosphere. Everyone sticks to themselves, and, once you’ve adjusted to the culture, it’s a shock if another student is nice and speaks to you. It’s fast-paced and competitive.
Come the fall semester at Stony Brook University, the FOCUS missionaries will not get the reaction nor response that they will be looking for from students. Long-García’s includes this quote in his article from the FOCUS missionaries from Arizona State University:
Success, such as getting a student’s phone number, isn’t achieved every time, Peterson admits. Sheena Byrne, who works alongside Timberlake and Peterson, says some students don’t want to talk about faith at all. “But it’s rare,” she says.
This is New York. It is rare if a student feels comfortable or open to speaking about religion. Students—and I speak from my own experience of when I was uncertain and uncomfortable about Catholicism—will not appreciate and will be bothered by the motive of the FOCUS missionaries. It is awkward. It is uncomfortable. It is annoying. It’s almost as if the FOCUS missionaries are predators: looking for someone all alone, spotting them out in the distance, and swooping in to get what they want. If I was in the place when I use to be afraid of Jesus and I was approached by FOCUS missionaries, I would remain feeling uncomfortable and remain turned off by religion. I came to the Faith on my own by witnessing the actions of friends in Newman Club and Joanne.
What bothers me and the members of SBU CCM, is that the FOCUS missionaries are posing as college students! This is misleading and deceptive and goes against the truth—the gospel. Jesus and his twelve disciples were never misleading or deceptive. The Bible depicts those traits as belonging to Satan. Young adults will be led to the Faith by God’s gentle and quiet way, if it is His will for them. God uses us and we do not force or push anyone. It is ultimately God’s work to do. It is also misleading that the FOCUS missionaries say that they are from the Newman Center at Arizona State University. If they say that they are from the Newman Club at SBU, it would be false! They are not members. They are not telling students that they are from FOCUS or saying they are FOCUS missionaries. The FOCUS missionaries will be on campus because of Bishop Barres’s underlying motive is to increase the number of men in the seminary, but if the missionaries are not Catholic what good would that be?
Long-García writes in his article that FOCUS has “brought more than 330 vocations to the priesthood and religious life.” Since Bishop Barres’s installment, his main objective has been to bring more men into the priesthood. This has been emphasized more than women entering the consecrated life as a sister. This why FOCUS is coming to SBU. Since CCM is so large already and successful, the Diocese of Rockville Centre has a better chance bringing men into the priesthood. They are not focusing on the general population. Isn’t everyone’s soul important? Long-García demonstrates in his article that this motivation was similar in the Diocese of Phoenix at Arizona State. “In 2009 Phoenix Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted communicated a new vision for campus ministry. Arizona State’s Newman Center is in Olmsted’s diocese and directly experienced this change. Diocesan leadership explained the transition as a renewed focus on vocations to the priesthood, and the FOCUS missionaries, in their first year on ASU’s campus, are part of that.” Clearly, expanding the priesthood has been a primary mission for FOCUS across the country, and our diocese is no different. It’s Diocese of Rockville Centre’s main focus as they are willing to spend at least over $50,000 to have FOCUS missionaries come to SBU. According to Michael J. O’Loughlin, he wrote in his article, With an Eye Toward Tradition, Young Adult Catholics Gather with Focus to Talk Evangelization, published in America Magazine, “The campuses and dioceses that commit to Focus are investing in a program that is not cheap…To bring four missionaries to a campus, the hosting organization helps defray costs by committing $60,000 annually for two years.” This money should be going toward helping Adelphi University’s and L.I.U Post’s Newman Clubs.
When Father Sean gave his announcement of four FOCUS missionaries coming to campus, he failed to be specific that FOCUS’s approach to evangelization is through Bible Studies. “Bible Studies” is, in fact, listed first on their website. According to how-focus-works pdf, a section titled Small-Group Bible states:
After the initial outreach, FOCUS missionaries will invite students to attend small-group Bible studies. These small groups systematically study the Scriptures according to the Church’s guidelines. Bible study leaders are either FOCUS missionaries or student leaders who have been trained in FOCUS’ approach and who demonstrate a depth of faith. The goal of Bible studies is twofold: 1) to know Jesus Christ better and to understand and love the Church He established; and 2) to establish and deepen Christian friendships. Ideally, these studies will happen on campus in places such as the student center, residence halls, etc. to bring the word of God into the public life of the campus.
In Heidi Schlumpf’s article, FOCUS promises to ‘fight for this generation’ on college campuses, recently published by National Catholic Reporter, demonstrates that FOCUS’s approach of training Bible study leaders is worrisome. FOCUS’s approach misrepresents the Faith and Bible study leaders are not fully equipped to guide a student with spiritual issues that may come up in during Bible Study session. Schlumpf writes, “Lack of training and experience in pastoral counseling has resulted in some reports of FOCUS missionaries giving overly simplistic advice, especially in matters of sexuality, some campus ministers said.” In Schlumpf’s article, Fr. Patrick Marshall, chaplain and executive director of the St. John Paul II Newman Center at University of Illinois at Chicago, states, “That was troublesome. … [T]hey just weren’t equipped to respond in a pastoral way.” Fr. Marshall decided not to renew the contract with FOCUS.
With further investigation and research, I found that these Bible studies groups are gender segregated. FOCUS does not state this openly. At Northern Arizona University, for example, Bible studies are separated by gender, year, sorority/fraternity, sports team. On https://catholicjacks.org/groups it is stated:
Led by FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students) missionaries and student missionaries (77 and counting), there are 41 bible studies (with around 160 students) happening weekly around campus. The faith-sharing small groups are broken up year, gender, sorority/fraternity, sports team (football, track, etc), or other category, so you are able to share your faith with people you can connect with.
At Stony Brook University, our small groups are not broken up in anyway and they are held in dorms or other places on campus. Evangelical Catholic, the organization where SBU Newman club members volunteered their time to receive their training to lead Small Groups, do not explicitly have single sex Small Groups. Evangelical Catholic does not take this approach. From my own experience as both an attendee and a co-leader of a Small Group, there was not one word or discussion about separating men and women. We never felt uncomfortable or tempted in anyway as a co-ed group. There is no need to break us up by “year, gender, sorority/fraternity, sports team”; the only common bond we need is our faith in God. This is only discrimination, and we lose learning from the perspectives of the opposite gender. Small Groups are the main reason for our increase in numbers. The gender segregation only serves the diocese’s agenda for recruiting for the priesthood.
I believe FOCUS will undermine the strong Catholic community at Stony Brook, and I believe their methods misrepresent the Catholic faith. I believe we are called to build a faith community from the ground up, approaching our fellow students with compassion and understanding rather than with ulterior motives. Long-García quotes Lourdes Alonso, a former campus minister at Arizona State. “Catholics are drawn to service,” she says. “It’s not our job to indoctrinate everyone. It’s our job to witness love.”