Trained for spiritual battle

Photo Caption: Angela Telthorst, a Mahomet native, joins more than 200 FOCUS missionaries in making a profession of faith at St. John’s Catholic Chapel.

By: By Tom Dermody

CHAMPAIGN — Fresh out of boot camp, Ryan Purcell is ready to go to battle. His destination?

The University of Illinois.

Purcell is one of 86 first-year missionaries in the Fellowship of Catholic University Student (FOCUS) who last week completed a five-week training session at St. John’s Catholic Newman Center at the University of Illinois.

The training — described as part graduate school, part retreat, and part boot camp — eventually brought together 225 young men and women involved in living and spreading the Catholic faith as missionaries on college campuses in 25 states.

All members of the group were commissioned for the coming year of service during a Mass celebrated by Bishop Daniel R. Jenky, CSC, at St. John’s Chapel last Friday. Thanking FOCUS for its witness in the Diocese of Peoria — the organization is active at Bradley, Illinois State, and Western Illinois universities as well as the University of Illinois — the bishop assured the missionaries that many in the diocese are “praying with you and for you.”

Among those in attendance at the July 3 commissioning Mass was Curtis Martin, president and founder of FOCUS, who led the young missionaries in a profession of faith and an oath of fidelity.

“Go set the world on fire,” Martin said in a final charge before the group — which had bonded spiritually and socially during the intensive training — went their separate ways. He urged them to remain based in a regimen of prayer established during the five-week sessions, including daily Mass and devotions such as the rosary and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.

Martin called the group part of “a heroic and dynamic generation” bringing the Gospel to “a multitude of students who are dying of loneliness and despair because they don’t know our Lord Jesus Christ.”

FOCUS missionaries engage college students through Bible studies, one-on-one mentoring, and large group outreach, inviting them to examine the meaning and purpose of their lives.

The newly expanded St. John’s Catholic Newman Center provided a “great environment” for the organization’s 12th annual training session, said Martin. “We’re really grateful for what God is doing here,” he said, adding that not only were the facilities ideal but “the staff, down to the last person, were helpful.” He expressed special gratitude to Msgr. Greg Ketcham, chaplain and director at St. John’s, and to Bishop Jenky for staffing the Newman Centers in the diocese with priests who are such “men of God.”

“When we put young Catholic students in touch with priests who love the Lord, exciting things happen,” he said.

Over the past eight years, 30 University of Illinois graduates have joined FOCUS as missionaries.

Purcell, a native of Wichita, Kans., who graduated in May with a degree in philosophy from the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota, said the intensive summer training session — even the 6 a.m. physical exercise drills — prepared him for service at the University of Illinois this fall.

“We are going into a spiritual battle on the college campus,” he said, “but we are fighting side by side with some of the greatest soldiers in the Catholic Church today.”

The highlight of his summer training, he said, was “the time spent with people so in love with Christ and the Church.”

Angela Telthorst, a Mahomet native who has served as a FOCUS missionary at the University of Illinois and Bradley University and is now the organization’s senior regional director for the Midwest, likes what she sees in the newest missionaries.

“They are exceptional,” she said in an interview following last Friday’s Mass, calling them “men and women who are courageous and have a zeal for Christ.”

Telthorst was among those offering the new missionaries training in how to engage students on campus, win them for Christ and the church, build them up in the faith, and then send them out on the mission to which Christ is calling them.

In the oath of fidelity taken by all FOCUS missionaries, they promise “to always preserve communion with the Catholic Church whether in the words I speak or in the way I act.”

In his homily, Bishop Jenky said he “totally believes” in the mission of FOCUS, which was brought to the University of Illinois by his predecessor, Archbishop John J. Myers, and has spread to other campuses during his seven years as shepherd.

“What is so good” about FOCUS is its peer-to-peer model of ministry, said Bishop Jenky. Most of the missionaries are recent college graduates and relate well to the current students on campus.

“People expect priests and religious to share Gospel values,” said Bishop Jenky. “They don’t always expect other young people to be fired up, to give of their time, to witness in their own way to the faith that has changed their lives.”

He encouraged the missionaries to “honestly share with other people your story of what Christ means to you, using your own words.” No matter what they say about Christ, however, the Lord is “always greater, more loving, more perfect and true.”

The commissioning was done during a Mass celebrated on the feast of St. Thomas the Apostle, known for expressing his doubts about the risen Lord. Calling Thomas an example of those of us who “sometimes get it wrong before we get it right,” the bishop told the missionaries to encourage questions in their own lives and in those they serve. The missionaries themselves must always be open to the Holy Spirit and “ready for the Lord to illuminate minds and set hearts on fire.”

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