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Sean SalaiFebruary 04, 2015
Father John Lager, O.F.M. Cap. (FOCUS)

Father John Lager, O.F.M. Cap., has been the National Chaplain of FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students) since September 2013. He previously served the Capuchins as vocation director, associate pastor, high school campus minister and as the order's Director of Development/Missionary Activity. In 2001, he became executive director of Samaritan House for the Archdiocese of Denver providing services to homeless families, veterans and single men and women. Father Lager is co-founder of Marked Men For Christ Ministry where he offers retreats with Monsignor Ken Leone in the Archdiocese of Denver. Since 2001, over 5,700 men throughout the world have attended a Marked Men retreat.

On Feb. 2, I interviewed Father Lager by email about FOCUS and his work.

Curtis Martin and his wife Michaelann founded FOCUS in 1998, but many American Catholics still do not know about it. How do you explain it to them?

FOCUS is a peer to peer ministry. Through friendship, FOCUS missionaries help students encounter the person of Jesus Christ, build them up in their faith, and then send them out to share the gospel and help make disciples of their peers. FOCUS seeks to equip college age students with tools to grow in their faith through Bible Studies, one-on-one mentoring and involvement in the campus ministry programs offered by the Newman Center or the parish. While the work of FOCUS happens on the college campus, the goal is actually to use the campus to prepare the students for a lifetime of committed Catholic life, so that these students can be leaders in their parish, community and workplace for decades after their formation in college.

How has FOCUS grown since it started?

FOCUS began at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas in 1998 and the following year expanded to the University of Northern Colorado, the University of Nebraska in Lincoln and the University of Illinois in Champaign, IL. FOCUS now has about 425 missionaries serving on 100 campuses, from the University of Maine, MIT, Harvard and Columbia all the way to California at UC Berkeley, UC Santa Barbara, USC and San Diego State.

What led you to be named the national chaplain of FOCUS?

I have been associated with FOCUS since 2008 in a part-time way when I was vocation director for my community of Capuchin Franciscans in Denver. After being elected to our provincial council, I was asked by the provincial minister to continue my involvement with FOCUS in a much more involved way. It was in 2013 that Curtis Martin asked if I could become their national chaplain, and my community agreed it would be a great way to serve not just FOCUS but also the mission of the Capuchins.

What do you do as national chaplain?

I primarily serve as the spiritual father for those working at the FOCUS national office in Denver, through providing spiritual direction, sacramental support in the form of Mass and confession and offering retreats and days of spiritual reflection to the staff. Another important role is serving on the executive leadership team, where I am able to offer my perspective as a priest and give guidance to the important decisions made by that team. I also have the opportunity to help out in a similar way with other departments at the national office, including the recruitment, development, formation and international mission’s team. Finally, I have the privilege to preach about the New Evangelization in parishes around the country. 

Unlike the Newman Center at a secular university, FOCUS consists of recent college graduates working as missionaries on primarily secular campuses. How else is FOCUS distinct from traditional campus ministry?

FOCUS is always very closely connected to the Newman Center or parish assigned to the local campus. We are an extension of the Catholic campus ministry, serving out on the campus as the heart, hands, feet, and face of the Newman Center. The missionaries work on campus to reach out to both Catholic and non-Catholic students, meeting them wherever they are, at the gym, in the cafeteria, in their dorms, on the lawn, in varsity sports, and in the fraternities and sororities, and inviting them to encounter the person of Jesus Christ. Missionaries welcome students back to the Newman Center where they can be immersed in the life of the community, so that they can grow in faith and eventually be witnesses of the good news themselves.

How have you addressed any tensions that have developed with traditional Newman centers?

One of the cultural virtues that FOCUS staff members strive to live is vital unity. Jesus tell us that the way the world will know we are His disciples is by the love we have for one another.  If we cannot model Christian charity with others serving in the vineyard, how do we expect those we are evangelizing to believe in our witness? We have found that two things in particular help to alleviate the conflicts that will inevitably arise in regular day to day labor. First, we try to pray regularly for and with the campus chaplain and their leaders in campus ministry. Second, we work hard to make sure there is regular communication and dialogue. Keeping the lines of communication open and flowing is half the battle. Finally, we are there to serve the greater mission of the Newman Center or Catholic campus ministry.  If we are unable to help the greater mission, then it would not be a good fit for us to serve at that particular campus. We try hard to have open discussions so that each party is clear about expectations for the beginning and throughout our service to the school or Newman center. We will never go to a secular or Catholic university without the invitation of the local ordinary and the support of the chaplain.  Our mission is to always complement and collaborate in the New Evangelization. 

In your experience, what sort of impact is FOCUS making on U.S. college campuses?

There are presently about 15,000 college students involved in our program on the college campus, of which over 11,000 are involved on nearly a weekly basis. Many of these students were among the 9,500 people who attended our five day SEEK conference in early January. These are students who are growing deeper in their faith, learning to live a life of prayer, and growing in the virtues. By 2022, FOCUS anticipates graduating 75,000 alumni, who will then enter into parish life. America has about 17,500 parishes, which means that, on average, by 2022, each parish in the United States will have four former FOCUS students. The young people add such life to the parish, and we are very excited about how these graduates will help the parish reach a new generation with the good news.

An additional blessing of our presence on college campuses is that since 1998, 495 young men and women involved in the FOCUS program have entered into seminary or religious life. While the work of FOCUS is primarily evangelization rather than vocational discernment, when you introduce students to a life of deep faith with a loving Father, they will naturally ask whether God is inviting them to consider serving him in a religious or priestly vocation. It has been a real blessing to help these young men and women discover their vocations today. 

In today’s difficult market, why would a new college graduate want to join FOCUS instead of looking for a job right away?

The new missionaries who offer two or more years of service to God and the Catholic Church on a college campus have had a profound encounter with Christ. They’ve experienced a transformation of behavior from the culture of pleasure, drinking and immorality, to one of wanting to make a difference in other’s lives by sharing the Gospel with their peers who get caught up in the very culture that these young leaders have left behind. The Catholic formation, growth in virtue and strong leadership skills they learn while missionaries stay with them for life through future career transitions. As a chaplain, I am able to witness the profound growth that happens to our missionaries, and I can say unequivocally that there are few things more life changing than serving God in this mission. I wish every young person had the opportunity to do it!

What sort of spiritual formation do FOCUS missionaries receive?

Formation is extensive for a FOCUS missionary. For both first and second year missionaries, there is a mandatory 5-week long training during the summer, which is supplemented by intense on the job formation throughout the school year. The formation involves human, spiritual, intellectual and apostolic formation. The coursework during the summer includes scripture, morality, social doctrine, apologetics, spiritual formation, best practices on ways to share the Gospel and training in fundraising. (Each missionary is responsible for raising 100 percent of their own salary, so fundraising is an important component of our training!)  Each missionary makes a daily holy hour before the Blessed Sacrament, attends daily Eucharist, seeks out monthly spiritual direction and has a protocol of spiritual reading. The training in prayer is deeply rooted in exposing missionaries to the wealth of spirituality in the church, especially lectio divina and both Carmelite and Ignatian spirituality. We have been blessed with many wonderful Jesuit priests and scholastics who have provided great instruction during our new staff training each summer. We also offer our missionaries the opportunity to attend an 8-day Ignatian directed silent retreat, as well as other retreats and days of recollection and continuing formation.

What effect does FOCUS have on the vocational discernment of its members?

We believe that commitment of a missionary on campus is one of sharing the Gospel with their peers but it is also their responsibility to fulfill the great commission in a lifelong mission after they leave the apostolate of FOCUS. During the time in FOCUS there are many opportunities to discover what the Lord is asking of them in their vocation whether it is marriage or religious life and/or priesthood. Each missionary gets to rub elbows with great priests and religious as well as faith-filled, dedicated married couples. In fact, many of the missionaries discover their spouses among those who have been a part of FOCUS!  One interesting thing to note is that FOCUS asks first year missionaries to “fast” from dating for one year while they learn the program and learn to rely fully on Christ. This year of fasting really helps the missionaries listen to God and discover His loving plan for their lives.

What influence has Pope Francis had on FOCUS?

Pope Francis has been a great encouragement for our work. His apostolic exhortation, "Evangelii Gaudium," has provided a great reminder and challenge for FOCUS to go out to spread the Gospel to those who are so caught up in the worries of the modern world, whether it be seeking out their careers, pursuing pleasure and comfort, or allowing distractions to pull them away from the faith. The pope, in his humble and candid way, confirms for our missionaries that we must provide a "culture of encounter" for our college students to experience Jesus and the Body of Christ in a genuine way by speaking and living the truth and offering genuine friendship.

In your view, what does FOCUS need most right now to grow and thrive?

FOCUS is limited in our growth only by the ability to hire great leaders who can help us expand to the many invitations to further the mission of evangelization on college/university campuses. We follow the scriptural model of sending two men and two women to the campuses we serve, and so hiring passionate and committed recent college graduates is always a great need. We also need continued professional personnel to adequately care for our missionaries in the field and the financial resources to meet the expenses of expansion on new campuses. All of the missionaries and many staff raise their own salaries, so we are grateful for the continued support of our benefactors. We are continually looking for ways to increase our awareness among others in the Catholic community, who want to support an apostolate that is changing the culture on campus—and beyond.

Do you have any hopes for the future?

There are about 2,800 four year colleges in the U.S. today. We currently serve 100 of those schools. I think about what a difference it would make if each of the remaining 2,700 schools of higher education had young people trained to reach out to those who find life really challenging. The partnership that FOCUS makes with the local campus ministry allows for a tremendous impact in the lives of so many college students. There is no other time when people are more likely to commit suicide, face an unplanned pregnancy, question their faith, or experiment with dangerous drugs and destructive behavior than when they are in college. If there were peers ready to reach out to them to provide hope, healing and encouragement, how different would our world be today, and in the future?

The passionate service of the pastors with whom we get to work gives me great hope. The Catholic Church in the United States is beginning to recognize on a deeper level the critical importance of evangelical ministry on the college campus. Whether it is FOCUS or the great work of many effective campus ministries in the U.S., I believe we can change society when young people meet Jesus Christ and decide to make Him their foundation, allowing for growth in virtue, Christian morality and concern for the needy and most vulnerable.

Do you have any final thoughts?

Many of your readers are no longer present on the college campus but may still want to take an active role in evangelization. FOCUS seeks to provide resources for those who would love help learning how to share the faith or how to begin a conversation with loved ones, children, grandchildren, siblings or friends who have left the faith. Our website www.focusequip.org provides dozens of free Bible studies, training materials, audio and video presentations, and much more. We also recently launched the Life App, available on Android, iOS and Windows phones, which equips people to respond with compassion and hope when encountering a woman in a crisis pregnancy situation. We are most happy to provide folks with simple tools to equip them for these sensitive conversations. Or visit www.seek2015.com for free full-length videos from our recent conference. For general information, please feel free to contact us at www.focus.org.

Sean Salai, S.J., is a contributing writer at America.

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