PROVIDENCE — For Maria McDonough, a missionary with the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS) and team director at the University of Rhode Island, the call to serve Christ came in the form of a knock on the door during her first year studying at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas.
“A student who was a sophomore knocked on my door in my freshman dorm and invited me to join a Bible study,” she told Rhode Island Catholic during a phone interview. “I joined her Bible study, and through my time with her in my freshman year, my life was transformed.”
McDonough is now in her fifth year serving as a missionary with FOCUS, an organization that provides Catholic outreach on 125 college campuses around the country. After that first knock from a FOCUS missionary during her freshman year, she became involved with the ministry at Benedictine College and, following graduation, served as a missionary for three years at George Mason University in Virginia before coming to URI in 2015.
FOCUS was founded in 1998 by Catholic speaker and author Curtis Martin, who started the program at Benedictine College before expanding it to other campuses. The organization’s goal is to supplement traditional college ministry by evangelizing to students on campus, encountering them on a personal level and encouraging them into a deeper relationship with Christ.
“We spend a lot of time just on campus meeting students where they are,” said McDonough. “We fill our time not only trying to meet students but trying to build them up in friendship, teach them to pray, teach them to evangelize.”
As missionaries, McDonough and her team – a typical team includes four missionaries, two men and two women – live near campus and participate in extracurricular activities but do not take classes. Instead, they focus full-time on developing relationships with students and extending invitations to participate in ministry. On campuses that already have an established Newman or Catholic Center, like URI, they work closely with existing ministry and chaplains to expand opportunities to engage students in the faith.
“I know throughout a lot of my experience, the existing campus ministry had a strong presence and a lot of great programming in the building where they exist,” said McDonough. “As missionaries, my experience is we just go out and find people to bring back to those amazing programs. Helping them to have an evangelical heart.”
Last fall, a second group of FOCUS missionaries began outreach at Brown University. Catherine Gallerizzo, team director, said she felt the call to become a missionary while on a silent retreat following her graduation from the University of Maryland two years ago. A FOCUS missionary who became a close friend had played a large role in supporting her through a difficult period of college, and she wanted to support others in the same way.
“Based on the experiences that I had in college with boys, dating, hookup culture, I knew that I wanted to encounter women in college who were going through the same thing. God used that to bring me back to him,” she said.
According to Gallerizzo, the FOCUS team at Brown organizes between seven and eight Bible study groups that engage more than 30 students each week. The missionaries spend time each day in Mass and holy hour and have weekly team meetings, as well as dedicating time to their fundraising efforts (each missionary must fundraise their living expenses independently). In their remaining time, the missionaries do campus outreach and work to develop mentoring relationships with the students in their programs, training them to lead Bible studies of their own.
“That’s essentially what we’re doing as missionaries — to build up students in prayer and teach them how to evangelize,” Gallerizzo said. “The reason we’re here is to intentionally invest in the students that we meet.”
Summer Brunoe, a freshman at Brown, began attending a Bible study after meeting FOCUS missionary Anna Smith at an ice cream social hosted by the Brown-RISD Catholic Community in the fall. As a young woman born into a Catholic family but not active in her faith during high school, Brunoe said the missionaries played a large role in drawing her back to the faith.
“They’re very sensitive to and thorough in answering my questions about the Catholic faith,” she said. “It’s a very relaxed and welcoming environment.”
Brunoe now serves on the Brown-RISD Catholic Community Pastoral Council and is preparing to receive the sacrament of confirmation in April. One of the highlights of her year was attending SEEK, a conference for college students hosted by FOCUS in San Antonio, Texas, in January.
“I think it was just really empowering to be around college students who were reaching towards this goal of Catholicism and a personal relationship with Christ,” she said
Deacon Dr. Timothy Flanigan, who teaches at Brown University Alpert Medical School, first learned about the work of FOCUS missionaries through his sister, a religious sister living in Alabama. He said he was glad to learn that two Brown students had approached Chaplain Father Albert Duggan about inviting FOCUS missionaries onto campus after attending a SEEK conference in recent years.
“I think it’s really a big deal. It’s just exciting to have them in Rhode Island and they just offer so much,” he said.
According to Deacon Flanigan, FOCUS meets an important need on college campuses, evangelizing to previously unreached students while traditional campus ministry offers a place to direct these students for long-term programs and catechesis. The missionaries also provide support to college chaplains and lay ministers as the availability of priests and other resources dwindles nationwide. As Deacon Flanigan pointed out, many of Rhode Island’s smaller colleges and universities do not have full-time chaplains, which presents both an opportunity for ministry and a limit to the growth of FOCUS, as the program is intended to work on college campuses with an established Catholic ministry.
“The ministry on campus is really driven by the dedicated missionaries working hand in hand with the college campus ministry,” said Deacon Flanigan. “So a lot of the challenges are, what you do when you don’t have a full-time chaplain, which is a lot of schools in Rhode Island.”
For now, FOCUS concentrates on expanding its two existing ministries in the state at Brown and URI, reaching a larger number of students and encouraging them into a personal relationship with Christ. According to Anna Smith, who serves as a missionary at Brown, the experience has been equally rewarding from the missionary perspective.
“It’s been beautiful. Very humbling. It’s been such a radical act of trust,” she said. “Everything we do has to come back to God.”