European campuses present unique challenges, opportunities for FOCUS missionaries

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A few university campus missionaries from the United States are getting oriented to their new surroundings in Bonn, Germany. Some of them arrived in the country this week and just got the keys to their apartments.

“The missionaries we send to Europe are experiencing a very severe mission. It’s no small thing for a young person to leave their country for multiple years, to go and be a missionary,” said John Merkle, the regional director for the Fellowship of Catholic University Students’ European mission.

FOCUS, a college missionary evangelization apostolate based in Colorado, is expanding its international footprint this academic year by sending a campus missionary team to the University of Bonn, which is FOCUS’ fifth European university campus mission.

In the last five years, FOCUS has established campus mission programs in Germany, Austria, England and Ireland. Merkle, 32, who lives in Vienna with his wife and their two daughters, told Our Sunday Visitor that FOCUS hopes to expand its European outreach in the coming years.

“Where and when that happens depends on prayer, what God wants to do and who God brings to us,” Merkle said. “This whole European mission happened because it became very clear that God was putting the right pieces in place, opening the right doors, and he has blessed it abundantly so far.”

Bringing a team of American missionaries to university campuses in Europe happens only after FOCUS leadership meets with the bishop of the local diocese and the campus chaplain and reviews the viability and sustainability of forming a partnership. Only after securing the support of the bishop, chaplain and campus ministry will FOCUS send missionaries to a campus.

That method has long been how FOCUS, which was founded in 1998 by Curtis Martin and Edward Sri at Benedictine College, has established its presence at American universities. In the 2019-20 academic year, FOCUS recently announced that it is partnering with 14 new campus ministries at schools across the United States.

More than 730 FOCUS missionaries will serve on 164 university campuses this year, which in Europe now includes the University of Bonn, the University of Passau in Bavaria, Germany, the University of Vienna in Austria, the University of Southampton in England and a university in Dublin, Ireland.

“We’re beginning the fourth year of our mission in Europe. It’s been slowly growing,” said Merkle, who attributed the establishment of FOCUS’ European expansion to a small conference in Samos, Spain, about eight or nine years ago. Merkle said the attendees expressed interest in bringing FOCUS to Europe, and that friendships formed after the conference and led to the first two FOCUS European campus mission teams arriving in Austria in the fall of 2016.

“One of the natural things for our missionaries has been navigating the realities of culture shock,” Merkle said. “Anytime you go into a new culture in a foreign land, there are a lot of things that happen in the transition. We’re helping the missionaries to be prepared for that.”

Part of that preparation is helping campus missionaries to be aware of the historical and cultural contexts of their European host countries, which were first evangelized centuries ago and over time have had long and complicated, sometimes strained, relationships with the Catholic Church.

“There are certain things countries have been through that are very significant and are outside of our American experience,” Merkle said. “It’s very important for our missionaries to understand those things and actually incorporate them into their mission.”

Besides the cultural differences, there is also the challenge of a language barrier in the German-speaking countries.

“It’s a huge deal to be able to communicate with somebody in their mother tongue,” said Merkle, who commended the “very heroic” FOCUS missionaries who volunteered for the campus missions in Austria and Germany.

“Initially, most of the missionaries who went to those places spoke zero German, but they were able to learn,” Merkle said. “We got them into classes, and they grew steadily to the point where they were able to have friendships that were fully spoken in German and have Bible studies that were fully led in German.”

Reflecting the reality of how secularization has swept through Europe in recent decades, Merkle said FOCUS missionaries on that continent often find themselves having to do more “primary evangelization,” where they are introducing Jesus and the Gospel to many for the first time.

“We’re giving our missionaries more training in the ideas of connecting with people in the areas of what is true, good and beautiful,” Merkle said. “They’re looking to connect with people at a level that is before Christianity, before the Gospel message, but at a level of human happiness, of the universal goods that we all desire and all pursue.”

The FOCUS campus missionaries’ efforts in Europe have borne fruit, but they have also experienced their share of rejection. As young adults, the FOCUS missionaries living and ministering in a country different from their own have had to reflect on what it means to let go of attachments for the sake of the Gospel.

“When you’re in a new place and you’re alone and you don’t have any of the support structures that you typically have when you’re in the states, your love is purified,” Merkle said. “To learn to continue to go forward in the midst of those things is a challenging thing, but it’s a beautiful thing.”

Brian Fraga is a contributing editor for Our Sunday Visitor.

Brian Fraga

Brian Fraga writes from Massachusetts.