By Dominique Johnson
Nearly nine thousand Catholics ended 2019 and started 2020 learning how to be missionary disciples during the FOCUS SLS20 (Student Leadership Summit) conference. The five-day conference held this year in Phoenix, Arizona, challenged college students and parish leaders to share their faith with those in their community.
Archbishop Christophe Pierre, Apostolic Nuncio to the United States, celebrated Mass during the second day of the conference. In his homily, he said people in our communities are searching for the fulfillment that Christ offers. “Often, they seek them in the things of the world, but these never satisfy the deepest longings of the human heart. It is your task as disciples and missionaries to show them the way, mediating the encounter with Jesus — the way, truth, and life. It is not easy, particularly as the world becomes more hostile to the life of Christian faith. Do not lose courage: The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness could not overcome the light.”
Katie Dossett, a young adult leader at Holy Name parish in Ketchikan, said the conference made a significant impact on her faith life. “It helped me learn more about what it means to be a missionary disciple,” Dossett added, “I learned how important it is to have a strong faith community to lean on for support and to be active in it.”
This was the first FOCUS conference Dossett attended. She was invited to join the FOCUS Digital campus group for young adults attending the conference by themselves. Dossett shared that there isn’t a lot of young adult involvement in her parish community, but SLS20 “lit a fire in me that I want to keep burning even after the conference,” and “I hope to bring ideas from the conference to create more opportunities for them.”
With over 4,500 college-aged students and young adults participating in the conference, given the tools to accompany their peers, how can parishes accompany these students in the faith as they return to their parishes on fire for their faith? In an interview with Damon Owens, founder and executive director of “JoyToB: Proclaiming the Joy to Be” he said, “It is a general challenge to engage young people in parish life, just like all demographics or groups.”
What Owens believes will help parishes grow the participation of young adults is helping them find “a sense of belonging.” He added that “Friendship is not just an abstract idea; it really has to be an encounter.” Owens shared that making that encounter with people in your parish can be challenging because “You have to be vulnerable and attentive to someone else.”
Owens, the keynote speaker on the second day of SLS20, continued saying that in the past, parishes would put together programs and wait for people to come. Though that worked in the past, today, people in church communities long for something more. He said parishes should work at building relationships and remember that “We are a family of families, and they will participate if they know they belong.”
Having real encounters with others on their faith journey is following in the footsteps of the early Christian disciples. Owens said we need to “eat together, talk together, travel together, and we get to know the good and the bad about ourselves and others. And experience what it is like to be loved and love someone because of who they are.”
As parishes work to build community and missionary disciples, the examples of parish leaders can help those who have fallen away from the Church return and find healing. Sister Miriam James Heidland, SOLT, explained that our witness to faith must be authentic to lead others. “People can see how we live, and they can intuit, even if they can’t acquiesce to it right away.” She added that “We must speak of His love and be able to articulate it, in a way that blesses people and brings them to goodness truth and beauty.” Heidland, who was the keynote speaker for the third day of the conference, said that being vulnerable is part of Christian leadership, “We have to allow God to heal us in our brokenness and our sin, we must live this ourselves as leaders.”
For those living out the call as modern-day missionary disciples, Heidland says, “Be not afraid. Be not afraid for Christ to convert us. Be not afraid to speak out. Be not afraid to take on hard issues.” She added that we won’t always lead perfectly, “But we have to try. God always leads us in that effort. All we are doing is opening the heart, to what the deepest longing of the heart is, to be encountered by a God who loves us.”
The SLS conference, which took place December 30 – January 3, included three tracks for attendees. Students on the Collegiate Track learned how to go deeper in their faith and form missionary disciples. For post-college attendees, the Making Missionary Disciples Track offered advice to help evangelize families, parishes, workplaces and communities. Campus ministry professionals on the Campus Ministry Track had the opportunity to be renewed for mission and to network with their peers. FOCUS will hold its annual conference Dec. 30, 2020 – Jan. 3, 2021, in St. Louis.