Last month, news headlines had their focus set on Florida. From the horrific massacre of 49 people in Orlando on June 12, and the equally senseless shooting of Christina Grimmie (a rising star on the Voice talent show), to the tragic loss, just days later, of the child attacked and killed by an alligator just outside of Disney World in Orlando. These heart-breaking stories flowing from the Sunshine State gripped the nation, and the grieving will certainly go on for those nearest to the families and friends affected by these sorrows. But where sin and tragedy abound, grace abounds all the more. Something else was happening in Florida during that fateful June that didn’t quite make national news.
Way down south at the northern tip of the Everglades, in a little town named Ave Maria, over 500 missionaries, young men and women from across the country, gathered to deepen their faith, receive the sacraments, prayerfully prepare, study, and dream of the great work God is preparing for them this coming fall on 123 college and university campuses across the USA, 6 parishes and 2 international campuses.
FOCUS, the Fellowship of Catholic University Students, descended upon Ave Maria University for their annual five week national training sessions. Faith-filled, joyful witnesses to the love of God, giving a year or more of their lives to furthering the gospel, dynamically engaging others on the front lines of college life with the call to authentic friendship, a life of virtue and discipleship…. what could be more encouraging? I was blessed to offer a final week’s course/retreat for 60 of them who took on an additional study of St. John Paul II’s theology of the body. After driving my wife, four small children, and a family friend who helped out for the week, nearly 27 hours straight (which probably liberated many souls from Purgatory), we arrived!
As a way of condensing the grace-filled time we spent with FOCUS, I’d like to highlight just a few things; four beautiful truths that should pump some light into these recent dark and despairing events of late, from the heart of Florida.
1. FOCUS on the Other
Spending time with this eager bunch of young people revealed to me early on that a key element in the TOB was already being lived in their ministry. They were purely becoming a gift for others. Part of their apostolate is the building up of authentic friendships at a time when sincere altruistic friendship seems like a dying art. Through this disinterested love for the other, they bring joy. Simply by being present and receiving the gift of the other person, they learned that they were in fact living the “paradigm of the gift” already. But evangelization can easily become a numbers game, where souls are seen in a twisted way more like conquests for the victor to tally up at the end of the week than hearts we’ve helped into an encounter with the Lord. We all reflected, with the insights of John Paul the Great, that every human person is a gratuitous gift, made for communion with God, and with others. Celebrating that other in that very place of their identity as a sheer gift of God creates a spirit of reverent stewardship. It teaches not to grasp even with good intentions but to “remove our shoes before the sacred ground of the other. The pace of this accompaniment must be steady and reassuring, reflecting our closeness and our compassionate gaze which also heals, liberates and encourages growth in the Christian life.” (Pope Francis, Joy of the Gospel, 169)
2. FOCUS on the Good, the True, and the Beautiful
I spoke with the missionaries about the style of St. John Paul II, how he approaches the experience of faith, identity and vocation not through a legalistic lens but through that deep desire for liberation. Here we saw how the transcendentals of the True, Good, and Beautiful could become real, rather than external precepts. We love, after all, a Person, not a program. He is the One Who is all Good, and is the Truth, and His Beauty permeates all things! This renewed “focus” began to sink in as our week progressed, setting about a shift in what some might call the proper understanding of evangelization; it is less about winning arguments and playing a defensive position and more about letting ourselves be captivated by His Beauty, His Goodness, and His Truth. This experience is more effective as it hits us all more affectively; right in the heart, the place of true encounter!
3. FOCUS on First Receiving then Becoming a Gift
Anyone who works in an apostolate such as this is bound to, at some point, contract what I diagnose as MMS (Martha Martha Syndrome). We can become so busy about the work of the Lord in His vineyard that we forget Who owns the place! One cannot give what one hasn’t first received. A powerful moment in our time together occurred when mid-week the realization hit the class that this teaching is not first a”tool” to be used in the work of evangelizing, but is first a gift that’s set to work on our own hearts first! As one student shared after our week together, she has a “hunger to know more of God’s love for me and (then) of my love for others.” Another stated that they’ve come to “understand my own heart and desires” and is “excited to enter into a new season of receptivity”.
4. A FOCUS on Christ
Finally, an overall sense of the Divine Romance is what seemed to catch these young hearts most of all. They are themselves still young adults, in a period of discernment on how to love, with the aching pain of who to love. The spousal meaning of the body, our vocation to become a gift, was an illuminating truth for many on the personal level and one that they spoke of bringing to their campuses and universities. This ache which in the end points us to God is indeed and ultimately the longing for Christ the Bridegroom! With all of the talk about sexual orientation these days, particularly in these higher education circles where FOCUS will minister, how beautiful will this realignment of our desires be for the young? We are indeed made for the infinite and only this Infinite Love will complete us!
Thank you FOCUS, for the many ways you inspired us during our time together. Your openness to the gift of the theology of the body and to us truly brought more sunshine to us than we ever thought we’d receive! Even in the Sunshine State!
Bill Donaghy has spoken internationally on faith and the New Evangelization since 1999. Through his work with the Pontifical Mission Societies, Bill gave hundreds of talks on the spirituality of mission to young people throughout the greater Philadelphia area and beyond, creating a teaching and speaking ministry known as MissionMoment.org. He holds an Associates Degree in Visual Arts, a Bachelors in Philosophy and a Masters in Systematic Theology. In addition to his full-time work for the Theology of the Body Institute, Bill teaches at Immaculata University. He and his wife, Rebecca, live outside of Philadelphia, PA with their four children.