With ‘students bleeding out from faith,’ young Alaskan responds

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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.leiner@focus.org.


'With ‘students bleeding out from faith,’ young Alaskan responds' have 1 comment

  1. September 2017 @ 10:46 pm Joseph John Lang, Ph.D.

    I am 74 years old now. I left regular church attendance in 1967, when the Vatican II “thing” happened. I was attending Mass every Sunday in Toronto, Canada, with another male student who was studying Classics (Latin and Greek) at the graduate school level. I had stopped appreciating going to church when I had lived with my parents and we moved to a suburban area of Buffalo, NY. There was a “drive-in” “Mass” for a new parish that I absolutely detested. But in Toronto we had St. Michael’s Cathedral, with a great choir, a High Latin Mass on Sundays, and the beauty and majestry of the traditional Roman Catholic Church. Suddenly, however, the Mass changed from Latin to English. My friend and I hated this, as did most of the parishioners. Not only did it turn to English, but to colloquial English. The Altar was turned around to face the church-goers, not the Divine. We hated that too and thought it was “ridiculous.” Then the choir had to abandon the Chant (which is gorgeous and which is so much of the Mass), and it started singing colloquial English too. We noticed that church attendance was falling off.
    We went all over Toronto to find a Mass that we could respect. We visited Ukrainian, Armenian, and many “ethnic” churches. Their services were more to our liking than what we were left with, but we didn’t feel a real union with the parishioners, many of whom did not even speak English at all.
    I and my friend from the university stopped attending church at all. My path led me back to the USA for graduate work in Wisconsin, and the social atmosphere was thoroughly one of rebellion (the Vietnam War stoking much of it), but there was rebellion generally (feminism, “student rights,” opposition to marriage as a way of life, etc., etc.). I stayed away from the Church for many years, through a career as a Psychologist (including in Alaska) in many jobs and roles.
    In about 2000 I had found myself in Arizona, taking care of my mother, who was dying. I desperately felt the need to “return” to church, but I was not going to go to one of these “people’s churches” of the Vatican II character.
    I looked up “Catholic churches” in the Yellow Pages, literally. I saw in bold print “LATIN MASS” and notations that there was a church that had NOT adopted the changes that Vatican II had brought about. One Sunday I rather nervously staggered into the church whose ads I had seen. Doing so constituted a RENEWAL and INSPIRATION that was tremendous. The Mass was a High Mass all in Latin. The priest came amidst those attending the Mass to shake Holy Water on them as the Choir chanted “the Asperges.” The beautiful smell of incense came about. The Choir chanted the whole Mass in Latin, and everything was in Latin. I was moved to tears to experience what I had first experienced as a child in a church in Buffalo, NY that had been named “St. Mary of Sorrows.” Ironically, this new “Traditionalist” church I had discovered in Phoenix, AZ had the name “Our Lady of Sorrows.”
    As I met with many who regularly attended Mass in the Phoenix church, most of them were “return-ees” to going to church regularly and living a dedicated holy life. Most of them reported having been moved to tears upon finding “church again,” and most of them were very angry about the Vatican II changes that had happened. They brought their children to Mass, and young children were being brought up in the Church that I had been brought up in.
    I know there is tremendous debate about the “Traditionalists” vs. the “Novus Ordo Vatican II Catholics,” and this debate is amazing to me.
    I don’t have time or space to move into this debate, but I am sharing the experience I have had to assert that I believe the changes of Vatican II did irrevocably hurt the Roman Catholic faith. When I go to a “Novus Ordo” “Catholic?” church service these days, I feel as though I am in a Protestant church.
    I don’t believe young people (or people of any age) can “look UP” to something that is “on their level.” Some “Novus Ordo” church people say to me, “Well, people have to be able to understand the Mass,” referring to the removal of Latin. I ask them if they could really believe that people who attended church every week and followed their “Missals” would really be so stupid as not to be able to understand the Mass.
    This is not just a matter of “ornamentation” or “decoration.” The changes were liturgical and theological also in the late ’60s. The “new order” (Novus Ordo) church DOES flagrantly oppose the Traditionalist Roman Catholic renewal. Given the major topic of your news (“stludents bleeding out from faith”), I believe my experiences say much. I realize many would oppose what I’ve said. I thank anyone who listens.

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