by Kristen L. Byrd, Special to The Catholic Virginian

College can be a wonderful time full of self-discovery, opportunity and education. It can also be a time filled with temptation and distraction, where the party culture abounds and religion is often left on the back burner. It’s easier to open bottles instead of Bibles and attend mixers instead of Mass. So how can one win the hearts, minds and souls of youth?

UVA FOCUS students and other students from around the country pictured during their mission trip to Peru.

In 1998, Curtis Martin, the founder and CEO of FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students), visited Pope St. John Paul II to discuss how to get the younger generation involved in the Church.

Martin explained his vision for the future of Catholic campus ministry, the pontiff simply said, “Be soldiers.”

Since then, FOCUS has been dedicated to serving as Christ’s foot soldiers to win souls for Christ through its campus outreach ministry which operates at colleges and universities nationally and internationally.

FOCUS missionaries serve at four schools in Virginia, where they coordinate with each diocese’s campus ministry program to reach students: University of Virginia, Virginia Tech, James Madison University, in the Diocese of Richmond, and George Mason University, in the Diocese of Arlington.

Kathryn Mullin, a student at the University of Virginia, said, “This…cannot be won without developing true friendships and relationships with those around us.”

The emphasis is on true. In today’s world, social media has replaced actual social interaction; texting is more important than talking; and Facebook followers hold more value than true friends. Creating true friendships is accomplished in small steps, FOCUS missionaries say. It can be meeting another student for ice cream and talking about his or her own personal relationship with Jesus or inviting that person to Bible study to examine God’s Word.

It can mean traveling on a mission to spread God’s love. Each step leads to another until a lasting, virtuous and spiritual relationship is born. God is made a central part of everything FOCUS does, believing that a heart that knows Jesus is a heart that needs to be shared.

“The challenge for Catholic college students is that living out our faith is totally countercultural,” said Virginia Tech student Chris Puzio. In the palm of their hand millennials have instant access to everything: food, entertainment, drugs and sex. The possibilities are endless, and so are the dangers. It is easy to go down the wrong path when all the arrows are pointing in that direction.

Brittany Fontana, a student at James Madison University, explained, “The world says that who you are in college is defined by your GPA, your sorority or fraternity, your social status, how many people you’ve been with, etc. However, the Lord tells us that only He can satisfy. If we don’t have a sturdy foundation of knowing our true identity, then we will live a restless life.”

FOCUS strives to counteract this by reconnecting students with Christ. Its goal is to win students’ hearts, build them up in the faith and send them out into the world to share their experiences, hopefully winning more hearts along the way. FOCUS works one-on-one with students across the country, while also affording them the opportunities to reach out to their communities and spread the Word of God through Bible studies, discipleships, conferences, mission trips and other activities. It builds a true community not only within a particular campus, but throughout the country and even the world.

Each FOCUS member featured in this article has taken part in mission trips, from Los Angeles’ Skid Row to a home for abandoned women in Mexico City to a shanty town in Peru, all leaving a lasting impact.

“No matter how many mission trips I go on, God always finds a new way to stretch me and teach me something,” said Ms. Mullin. FOCUS offers programs from Africa to Asia to Latin America. Here, students work with local priests, doctors and teachers to spread the news of God, teach English to children, feed the hungry, build churches and more.

“The missionaries have taught me what it means to be a disciple of Christ for the rest of my life until heaven,” Ms. Fontana said.

Of course global travel isn’t required for religious revelation. The same sense of spirituality can be found by knocking on a neighbor’s door and simply starting a conversation, regardless of their faith.

“The biggest thing I will apply is that with the truth and joy we have experienced from our faith, we must do everything we can to share it with the world, primarily by building friendships and loving those around us,” Mr. Puzio attested.

FOCUS doesn’t end when students get their diplomas. This is a lifelong mission. Students take what they learn through FOCUS and apply it to all aspects of their future: relationships, jobs, friendships, families and more.

There are 20,000 FOCUS alumni scattered throughout the world, continuing the mission of Christ. Hundreds of them have gone on to become priests, nuns and deacons.

“Faith is a continual journey, not just a checkpoint we try to herd people toward then forget about,” Ms. Mullins said.

“When we are able to step out of our comfort zone, put our phones down, place our confidence in the Holy Spirit, love others and share the Gospel, we win the war. The Lord will do the rest,” echoed Ms. Fontana.

To learn more about FOCUS, visit www.focus.org