FOCUS Missions started its first mission trip of very organic origins to in Peru in 2004. Individual FOCUS staff members recognized the tremendous value in mission of this nature and, based on their own international experiences and contacts, put together an initial trip. Over the following years, FOCUS Missions grew to represent a full-time work position at FOCUS’ national support center in Denver and now represents a whole department within FOCUS. Today, many of our mission trips are still established through the experiences and contacts of our missionaries. Given the trajectory of growth and the effectiveness in evangelization, the sky is the limit for the future of FOCUS Missions!
FOCUS Missions represent a key component of the overall ministry of FOCUS. In basic conformation to our Catholic Faith, if we truly wish to fulfill the Great Commission we are called to actually GO therefore and make disciples of all nations. With the call for the New Evangelization representing new method, new ardor, and new expression, we recognize that we now have unprecedented new means to reach the ends of the earth. There is no lack of clarity in the Gospel message that serving the poor is an essential component of following Christ. This being said, we not only seek to address the physical needs of the poor, but also recognize the desperate need for the message of hope in Jesus Christ that is desperately needed in every corner of the earth. We seek to accomplish every aspect of our missions in, for, and through, the truth of the Catholic Faith. In sum, FOCUS Missions is essential for us as a Catholic missionary organization to authentically pursue and share the fullness of our Faith around the world.
On another front, as we work to serve the poor and evangelize, there is a phenomenon of reciprocal evangelization that takes place. Consistently, the missionary experience brings new, life-changing wisdom and perspective to the students who serve on the mission. The transformation of the participants we sent is truly remarkable! This newly enkindled wisdom, zeal, and perspective is then brought back to college campuses where it can be projected back into our own culture. Participants return with a fire to serve the mission of the Church and serve poverty in all its forms.
Considering that many students come back with a desire to enter the seminary or religious life and multitudes of students answering the call to become FOCUS Missionaries after their FOCUS Missions experience, Missions itself represents one of the most highly effective tools that we have to evangelize our own campuses, spread our Catholic Faith, and implement the New Evangelization around the world.
FOCUS Missions seeks to have a universally positive impact on both the communities that we serve and the student missionaries that participate in our missions. When establishing new mission sites we strive to gain a particular sense for the authentic needs of the community. Furthermore, we make every effort to make sure that our on-the-ground programs and projects are sustainable and not just a one-time “slash and burn” effort. The first way we ensure these values is by plugging into existing Catholic ministries around the world. All of our programs and projects are established at the suggestion of local clergy or lay missionaries who have a keen, long-term familiarity with the on-the-ground reality and needs of a given community. The second way that we work to ensure these values is by returning year after year to the same locations. Overall, we also strive to conform all of our action to the social teachings and truths of our Catholic Faith.
Regarding specific themes that characterize the vision for our missions, especially as they impact students, consider the hallmarks of our mission program:
Encounter with Christ in the Poor
It was no mistake that Jesus was born in Nazareth, a town analogous to so many of the places where our missions take place. It was no mistake that He was born into complete poverty, and it is no coincidence that we are able to have a profound encounter with Him when we serve the poor. It could even be asserted that, unless someone has an experience of meeting Christ in the poor, they are actually missing a significant understanding of the true character of Christ. When you experience the heroic generosity of people offering you food when they do not have enough to eat themselves or giving you their bed leaving them to sleep on the dirt floor, you encounter Christ. Missionaries consistently report students being notably different from whom they were before the trip — and this is logical because any true encounter with Christ always transforms lives!
Vulnerability to the Holy Spirit
Answering God's call to proclaim the gospel to all nations comes with risk: It takes an inherent vulnerability and leap of faith to go on mission. Students are taken out of their comfort zone. Subsequently, two things happen: First, they open their heart to take this step in faith, even if it’s just a crack; and second, they are forced to trust God like they have never trusted Him before. The Holy Spirit takes full advantage of this openness and vulnerability and radically changes their lives. This vulnerability cannot be produced on a retreat or in an average college setting: It is a special time of grace, which comes about only on mission.
When you think of the lives of the saints, some of the first things that come to mind are their stories, particularly their conversion stories. St. Francis of Assisi encountering a leper on the road — and in seeing Christ in this leper, St. Francis’ life was changed forever. This was an iconic moment for St. Francis, and his transformation through this experience changed the world. Imagine taking college students who are used to the comforts of college life out to meet today’s lepers or to stay in shacks with the poor. Missions produce these iconic moments in students’ lives, which is a recipe for creating saints.
Imparting Charity in Truth
“Without truth, charity degenerates into sentimentality. Love becomes an empty shell, to be filled in an arbitrary way. In a culture without truth, this is the fatal risk facing love. It falls prey to contingent subjective emotions and opinions, the word ‘love’ is abused and distorted, to the point where it comes to mean the opposite.”
(Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, “Caritas in Veritate”)
Missions combine the fullness of the Church’s teachings and puts truth into action. As Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI alludes to in the encyclical “Caritas in Veritate,” without truth, love ceases to exist. Mission trips impart a larger spiritual reality, recognizing that not all of our sentiments come from the Holy Spirit. If our sentiments are driving our actions, then even with “loving” intentions they may lead to disastrous results. Because love is the essential motivator of our actions, we must cling to the fullness of the Church’s teachings, which is the fullness of truth.
In an age of unprecedented transfer of information, not all understanding of reality is perceived accurately. In the first world, the concept of world reality tends to blend with our ceaseless intake of entertainment. It becomes far too easy to divorce ourselves from reality by simply changing a channel. This is a dangerous circumstance, especially since our society frequently sets the policy and cultural trends of world. Our society has been exporting the so-called “MTV” culture at an unprecedented rate. The result is that foreign cultures either embrace this false path to “happiness” or ferociously reject it, along with the whole society that produced it. When the imported culture is embraced, it oftentimes takes off unchecked by reality and corrupts very vulnerable and innocent people. When ferociously rejected, results can be as extreme as war and terrorism.
What is truly needed on both sides is a worldview calibrated with reality. It is difficult to hate an immigrant when you can put a name, face, and circumstance with their situation. Likewise it becomes difficult for a brother or sister in a foreign land to hate a whole society when they have had a true, loving experience coming out from that culture. Recognizing a universal Church, a universal Catholic worldview is essential, more so in this age of globalization.
FOCUS Missions naturally works to instill these truths in students and peoples throughout the world through first-hand international experiences.
Encounter with Christ in Community
FOCUS Mission trips draw students from every walk of life from every corner of the United States and even the world. The unifying factor of this group coming together is to make known the love of Jesus to the world. It is in His name that we gather and it is in His name that we are sent. We are taught in scripture that “where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20). On mission, we can recognize the fact that the community itself, drawn together in His name, attracts the presence of Christ. In this manner community facilitates an encounter with Christ. His presence can often be recognized by the fruits born within the mission team. Holy friendships are formed and as one life at a time is touched by Christ, it gives permission for others to be vulnerable to the Holy Spirit and have their lives transformed as well. Missions actively facilitates this encounter through purposeful teambuilding and reflection on shared experiences on mission.
Translation of Poverty
When a student encounters poverty and suffering on mission, love for humanity and motivation to take action becomes a reality in their lives. After living in such a radical way for a series of weeks on mission, the group reflects on how they were inwardly motivated to help the poor while on the trip. When did they take action? Why did they take action? In exploring these questions, students are then challenged to translate this experience to campus. They can ask new questions as they look around on campus: How many of my peers are suffering? How many around me are spiritually starving? How many around me are covered in spiritual leprosy and are dying? Students are then challenged to recognize poverty in all of its forms, including those in disguise, and to be moved with the same compassion they had while on mission to take action in their daily lives. We are not meant to live mission just for a short, clearly defined period of time. Our lives must be a mission.