Like many college-age Catholics, Justin Leiner found himself drifting from his faith. Attending the University of Idaho, he knew something was awry.
“In my case, I didn’t try very hard, didn’t go to Mass as regularly,” Leiner told the Catholic Anchor. “By the end of freshman year, I felt I was missing something in my life.”
A summer trip back home to Alaska nudged Leiner back to a more active faith life. He attended the Alaska Catholic Youth Conference and worked at St. Theresa’s Camp in the Mat-Su Valley. These experiences brought him back to his spiritual priorities, but he is well aware that this is increasingly rare among today’s young adults.
Now, having just graduated in May from St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn., where he transferred as a junior, Leiner wants to help other students on campus hang on to their Catholic faith. He’s dedicating the next two years to be a FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students) missionary, living on the campus of Bowling Green State University in Ohio and working closely with its Newman Center to foster Scripture study and Catholic identity.
Leiner said that in the 18-24 year age bracket, 80 percent of young adults will leave the faith. And that doesn’t apply just to Catholics. Most mainline Christian faiths are experiencing what Leiner describes as “students bleeding out from faith.”
In many ways, the college years have always been a time of questioning and testing the beliefs instilled in childhood. It doesn’t necessarily mean a departure from the church is permanent, but today’s young adults have the added burden of a society that is suspicious of institutions, including the church. Add to that the growing cultural affirmation of being “spiritual but not religious” and this generation is exiting churches and living without a solid foothold in a Christian community.
“There’s a spiritual poverty and darkness on campus,” Leiner observed.
Founded in 1998 by a layman, FOCUS is now endorsed by Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia and other notable Catholics.
The aim of FOCUS is to work with existing campus ministers and ministries, like Newman Centers and Catholic centers, to bring Catholic students to fellowship, Scripture study and worship. Annual conferences around the country and mission trips to serve the poor abroad further draw young adults into Catholic values and community.
In its nearly 20 years of existence, FOCUS has produced more than 20,000 alumni. Just this fall it has more than 600 missionaries headed toward 137 college campuses.
Leiner will live on campus with one other male missionary, while two female missionaries will live nearby. Usually, he said, teams of four missionaries are sent to each campus. The program is always looking for new campuses and has an internet program for students without a FOCUS presence on campus.
Leiner grew up in Palmer, but attended East High in Anchorage and was active with the youth group at St. Patrick Church there. He returned to Idaho as a sophomore with a commitment to become more involved with his faith.
“I got involved with the Newman Center,” he said. “But I felt called to do more.”
After transferring to St. John’s, he dropped an engineering major and took up theology. He said Hawaii and Alaska do not have FOCUS missionaries, and he believes he is the first Alaskan to be involved in the missionary program.
As a FOCUS missionary, he will spend a holy hour each morning, attend daily Mass and spend time at the Newman Center as well as other campus sites where students congregate. Words like “evangelization” have now become part of his vocabulary.
“Living out my Catholic faith means taking every opportunity to love,” he said. “Each person has a unique call to show merciful love, and we’re all able to share our story of faith.”
Efforts like FOCUS have much work to do. A PEW research study found that the fastest-growing religious demographic in the United States is “unaffiliated.” The FOCUS’ website states that only 30 percent of Americans raised Catholic are still practicing today.
Leiner has spent five weeks in training for his new role and will go through training again next summer. He must raise money to pay his expenses. The FOCUS website includes a list of each of its missionary with instructions on how to support each financially (focus.org/missionaries/justin-leiner). Those interested in contributing to Leiner’s missionary work also can contact him at Justin.firstname.lastname@example.org.