While other students were out playing sports or hitting the books on a warm evening at Slippery Rock University, 14 young men and women gathered to pray, study sacred Scripture, and share their Catholic faith.
The new Bible study groups are supported by missionaries with the campus outreach organization FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students), who spread the gospel message to young adults. Their goal is to get them engaged with their faith, so that they become disciples of Jesus and carry his love to others.
The evangelization effort at Slippery Rock, enhancing an active campus ministry program, is funded through sacrificial gifts to Our Campaign for The Church Alive! from donors across the diocese. The campaign is providing critical resources for On Mission for The Church Alive!, which has the goal of transforming parishes into centers of outreach to those who have not been active in the faith.
“People think the church is always saying ‘no’,” said Maria Petrarca, a senior from Madonna del Castello Parish in Swissvale. “They don’t realize our faith gives us so much freedom.”
Like Petrarca, classmate Kailyn Soros, of Fredonia, PA, grew up in a devout family but finds herself in a different culture. “Here at college I’ve taken my faith under my own belt and defended it,” Soros said. “I stand up for my beliefs.”
They are in the minority of young Catholics. A study from the Pew Research Center found that nearly 80 percent of those who leave the faith, do so by the age of 23.
FOCUS encourages young people to pursue truth and meaning in their lives, investing in relationships with Jesus Christ and their fellow students through Bible studies, mission trips, national conferences and further outreach.
“The FOCUS missionaries are showing the way,” said Gary Roney, director for adolescence and college ministry in the diocese. “Through the On Mission initiative, every parish should have a staff member who specializes in outreach to young adults.”
Ryan Ball, Ross Kerr and Spencer Vinroe could have been doing just about anything on a Tuesday night, but they wanted to be at the Newman Center on the edge of campus.
“We’re forming relationships based around Christ,” said Ball, a sophomore from Johnstown. “We’re growing in faith, knowledge and love.”
“It’s interesting to bounce ideas off each other,” said Kerr, a freshman who belongs to Christ the King Parish in Bessemer/Hillsville, Lawrence County. “This makes me a happier person, and keeps me centered and grounded.”
Jacob Grass, 24, is a third-year missionary with FOCUS, partnering with Thomas Mangan, 22, who just began his service.
“We build trust with the students,” Grass said. “We help them see what a real relationship looks like, so they can know what a relationship with God is like.”
“There is a spiritual hunger among the students,” Mangan said. “They have a craving, but they’ve never been invited to learn and share, and the culture holds them back.”
Rebecca Feldkamp, 24, is the FOCUS team director at Slippery Rock. She works closely with missionary Emily Ahlin, 22. Feldkamp agrees the key is relationships.
“Many young people don’t even know who they are,” Feldkamp said. “They have to first know that they are loved by God.”
Father Bob Seeman, director of Catholic Campus Ministry at Slippery Rock and administrator of St. Peter Parish, is grateful for the work of the FOCUS missionaries.
“It is my prayer that their witness and love for the Lord will guide students to a deeper level of discipleship and joyous relationship with Christ,” he said.
Diane Magliocca, the longtime campus minister at Slippery Rock, welcomes the FOCUS missionaries, who relate well to their fellow Millennials.
“Many students today aren’t as active in practicing the faith as the previous generation,” Magliocca said. “They lead busy lives, are affected by cultural pressures and are distracted by social media.
“But so far our students have responded well to the missionaries. There’s an authentic warmth.”
Founded in 1998, FOCUS missionaries serve on 137 university and college campuses, including the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University.