The FOCUS International Conference

A post by: Chiara Kadelburger, Daniel Cunningham, Jenny Badcock, Becca Harrison & Rosanna Cassidy

FOCUS, which is the Fellowship of Catholic University Students, is an American outreach organisation that meets university students where they are and invites them into a growing relationship with Jesus Christ and the Catholic faith. In response to Pope John Paul II’s call for a ‘new evangelization’ their mission statement is “to know Christ Jesus, and to fulfill His great commission by first living and then communicating the fullness of life within the family of God, the Church.” FOCUS sends teams of trained post-graduate missionaries to campuses across America to reach students with the gospel in a culturally relevant way through bible studies, mentoring and large outreach events.

FOCUS began in 1998 with four missionaries at Benedictine College (Kansas) and has since grown to more than 260 missionaries serving on 58 campuses in 28 states. In this short space of time 336 young adults have entered the seminary or religious life after their involvement with FOCUS. Thousands more have graduated from university firm in their determination to continue to live out their lifelong Catholic mission.

This year, FOCUS held its first ever international conference, during the week leading up to World Youth Day 2011. Five students from The University of Nottingham attended this life changing conference. We were given a rare and beautiful opportunity to be able to spend a week with over 170 young Catholics from all over the world who are really alive in their faith. We met so many beautiful and inspirational people and the whole experience was amazing; both physically and spiritually challenging but most importantly grace-filled.

The conference took part in the Northern part of Spain in Galicia in a 6th Century Monastery in the town of Samos. The name ‘Samos’ means ‘a place where people pray’, and was a phenomenal location for us to experience and participate in a deep legacy of prayer. A group of about fifteen Benedictine monks occupy the monastery and they generously supplied us with accommodation. All our meals were provided by the ‘Hostel Victoria’ located across the road from the monastery.

A typical day at the monastery consisted of getting up at around 6.30am to have a shower (mostly cold) and be ready for breakfast at 7.30am. At 8.30am, the morning session began in the main church with Lauds, prayer and worship for an hour, followed by a keynote speech on either a specific topic or a testimonial. After a coffee break, we would have the option of going to two out of four talks given by different FOCUS staff on a variety of topics – e.g. contraception, bible study, being a disciple, Lectio Divina, confession, and finding Jesus in our ordinary lives, etc.

Lunch at 1pm would then lead into ‘siesta’/recreation time until 5.30pm, used to catch up on some sleep, explore the town of Samos or go into the church/small chapels for prayer. At 5.30pm we would be given a character development talk. After this we would split off into our ‘colleges’. These colleges consisted of 6 to 8 people, either girls or boys, led by one FOCUS missionary. In these smaller, safe groups we were able to share the highs and lows of our day, ask questions about the talks, and discuss how it had affected our faith or spirituality. Finally we would celebrate mass in the main church, after which we would have supper and then head off, exhausted, to bed!

The schedule gave great importance to our combined prayer life. This was one of the most moving aspects of the conference, because too often prayer is viewed as something private and hidden, something that is a burden to make time for. However, with FOCUS, prayer was a central part of every day and something that felt natural to share with others. The early morning ‘holy hour’ was always so peaceful and so reverent that it was impossible not to feel the presence of Christ with us in the chapel.

Rosanna’s experience:

‘The community’s firm belief in the power of prayer was highlighted for me when I was ill, as at least sixty people- staff and students- came to me individually to tell me that they had been praying for me. The dedication to prayer that I experienced on the conference has encouraged me to continue to develop my own prayer life now that I have returned to ordinary life at home.’

One of the highlights of the conference was the 14km walk from the monastery in Samos to the nearby town of Sarria. This was part of the famous camino or pilgrimage walk towards the historical Sanitago de Compostela, the location of the tomb of St James on the coast of Spain. We started the pilgrimage at five o’clock in the morning which tested us all physically and spiritually as we encountered all kinds of terrain in the dark, unable to see our way. We also walked in silence in meditation and prayer to give us the space and time to process all the spiritual information we had gained and to really listen for the voice of God in our lives.

Chiara’s experience:

‘The previous day I had had a chat with Sister Mary Madeline, one of the Dominican sisters who came with us on the trip. The morning after, while we were all gathering outside the monastery (at 5am!) before heading off, Sr. Mary Madeline took me aside and told me she that while she had been praying for me during Mass the night before, she had felt her whole body shaking and heard God telling her to let me know that He loves me so much and just desires me to trust Him and that He wants to heal me. I had no words and felt so incredibly touched and loved. Walking the Camino with these words on my mind was amazing. We had all decided to be in complete silence for the whole 14km. It was a beautiful sight to see this never ending line of people walking and praying amidst the forest and the fog.’

Becca’s experience:

‘Initially the pilgrimage walk seemed to be an exercise in trust – traveling through the pitch dark on steep dusty paths covered in rocks and tree roots. However, as the dawn light emerged, and the silence became more tangiable, I was able to more peacefully communicate with God about some important things. I meditated on a personal and painful relationship issue and just presented the situation to God as an open ended question, as if to say ‘what do I do about this?’, and then just paused, waited and listened for a response. Almost immediately, the first line from Psalm 139 rushed into my head ‘You have searched my heart and you know me’, along with a great sense of peace. I realized then that I don’t just need to trust God with steep paths in the dark, but I need to trust Him with everything!’

From Sarria we thankfully took a bus the rest of the way to Santiago! When we arrived we joined in with the Pilgrims Mass at noon and afterwards we were able to explore the city as well as view St James’ tomb which, as Jenny said, ‘was amazing. It took my breath away!’.

Inspired by the example of the St James and the early church, a powerful theme of the conference was the evident eagerness to share the love of Christ with others. We spoke a lot of Christ’s great commission (Matthew 28:19-20), in which he instructed his followers to “go and make disciples of all nations”. It was a wakeup call that these instructions were to all Jesus’ followers– including us. Despite initial fear at the consequences of this realisation, we were quickly reassured that there are many ways to share the good news that don’t necessarily involve making speeches! One of the missionaries perfectly captured it by saying; “it is through relationships that Jesus has designed the proclamation of the faith.”

The FOCUS staff and students really lived this out in their lives– Jesus shone through them as they lived in compassion and love, and they were not afraid to tell people about their deep passion for their saviour. It was refreshing and inspiring to meet young people who are not embarrassed about sharing their faith with others. After all, as Catholics we are privileged that we get to receive Jesus in the Eucharist, but for many others, the only vision of Christ that they will see is us. “We should go out as an army of walking tabernacles to share Christ with the world” – Fr Julian Green

One of the huge blessings of the week in Samos was the time we were able to spend in Eucharistic adoration, especially during an all night vigil after the trip to Santiago.

Chiara’s experience:

‘For me it was probably the first real adoration I’ve ever done. We started off at 10:30pm with some praise and worship and then the Blessed Sacrament was exposed. I don’t think I’ve ever prayed so intensely like that night, even though I was dead tired. I wanted to make the most out of this moment, so I stayed and prayed until midnight. There were FOCUS missionaries praying over people during adoration, but I was too scared and so decided to go and take an oh-so-needed shower instead. While I returned, I remembered what the Lord had told to me through Sr Mary Madeline that morning. When I arrived back at the chapel, all the missionaries had left. I thought I’d lost my opportunity, but at that moment I spotted a missionary called Alicia, and she prayed over me. This was the first time that had happened to me and I felt so blessed.’

The pattern of prayer, mass and talks and at the conference made a huge difference to the way we looked at our faith and the Catholic Church and it has inspired positive changes in all of us. It was also a brilliant way of preparing for WYD as it served as an adjustment period, allowing us to become open to examining our spirituality and increasing our knowledge of God’s love for us, prior to the huge graces of World Youth Day.

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This blog is a forum for discussion of ideas from a faith-based perspective. The views expressed on it are those of the authors and cannot be held to represent those of the Diocese of Nottingham or the University of Nottingham Catholic Chaplaincy.