Catholic missionaries are evangelizing on college campuses and trying to bring back the ‘nones’

More than 20% of all adults and over a third of millennials in the United States are not affiliated with a religion. For at least a decade, this number has been on the rise.

Sexual abuse by clergy and a poor response by the church hierarchy has led many young Catholics to lose trust in their religious institution. Some 36% of those without religious affiliation report having grown up Catholic.

But countering this trend is a movement led by millennials who are devoted to bringing Catholicism back on college campuses – with a modern flair.

Missionaries on campus

I have spent the the last seven years researching these young adults. These millennials are Catholic, and being Catholic is more central to their identity than many of their peers.

These missionaries follow church teachings with an adherence more common with the baby boomers and the Silent Generation. They attend Mass every week, go to Confession frequently, memorize Latin prayers and are devoted to saints. As college campus missionaries, they spend their days inviting college students to be similarly committed to Catholicism.

Though a minority among the millennial-generation Catholics, they are part of a movement that has been running parallel to mainstream U.S. Catholicism for just over 20 years.

Known as the Fellowship of Catholic University Students, or FOCUS, the movement started in 1998 when two male and two female college graduates began working as Catholic missionaries at Benedictine College and the University of Northern Colorado. As students, they had seen the decline in Catholic practice among their peers and wanted to promote an attractive version of Catholicism.

Following the example of Protestant groups like Cru and Athletes in Action, FOCUS began holding Bible studies on campuses. They trained increasing numbers of missionaries to build friendships with college students. As missionaries worked to make Catholicism look relevant to college students, FOCUS established itself as a religiously affiliated outreach program.

Over the course of the next two decades, FOCUS grew rapidly. At first, it was through word of mouth between bishops and priests. Gradually, as more college students attended FOCUS events and began participating in Catholic ritual life, campus ministries on private, Catholic and public universities and campuses began to request a FOCUS team.

Who are these missionaries?

FOCUS partners with Catholic centers on campuses and recruits college students to become missionaries after graduation. Each missionary spends two years on a campus, working with students, promoting Catholicism. Many of the college students that missionaries reach out to describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious,” or a “none.”

The missionaries are much like any other middle-class young adult in the U.S.: They live on their iPhones, drink craft beer, buy pumpkin spice lattes and love March Madness. Some even have tattoos, often with quotes from saints.

They go through much the same relationship issues as other young adults. I interviewed over 50 missionaries about their experiences. Over cups of coffee or while jogging, they shared with me their struggles with depression and alcohol abuse. They also shared the pain of losing intimate friendships.