By John Heuertz
Special to The Catholic Key
ATCHISON, Kan. — Curtis Martin energized a large, enthusiastic audience of Benedictine College students at the St. Benedict’s Abbey church in Atchison, Kan., last Thursday night with a call to “Go Set the World on Fire.”
But “How do I live in such a way as to set the world on fire, in this culture, in this time?” Martin asked.
He quoted freely from the New Testament, the Catechism of the Catholic Church and some of the Church’s greatest saints in his answer, encouraging his Benedictine student listeners to be soldiers of the “New Evangelization” of the world promoted by Blessed John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI.
Martin believes that Catholic schools will be the salvation of American culture because enough Catholic college and university students will become the soldiers that Christ needs to make that happen. “And no place is more prime for the New Evangelization than Benedictine College,” he said.
“Benedictine is about the only place in the country except perhaps for Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio, where the flag was planted in the 1980s and people said, ‘We stand with Jesus Christ.’”
But standing with Christ is hard. In Martin’s trenchant words: “Christianity hurts.”
He observed that “We have more cool stuff than ever before, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Except it’s distracting, and if we are to set the world on fire we need laser vision.”
Martin continued, “The Devil is the king of this world and we live in enemy territory. We’re part of the Resistance. He fills the world with every kind of distraction to get us off our game. But the world is waiting for you to become what God has intended you to be from before the beginning of the world. There is no backup plan for you if you don’t do what God put you and you alone, here to do.”
But mostly he talked about God the all-loving and all-compassionate Father of everyone, whose love is like a fire – an insight into Divine Providence with very deep roots in the Catholic psyche.
Martin recalled a famous Desert Fathers’ analogy comparing God’s love to a fire and the soul to a cold, hard iron beam that the fire can make so hot it can spread fire itself.
He mentioned St. Ignatius of Loyola, who sent his Jesuits to “set the world on fire,” and the great 14th century Dominican mystic and Doctor of the Church St. Catherine of Siena — who famously taught that “If you are as you are meant to be, you will set the world on fire.”
That night was also a homecoming of sorts for Martin, who is the co-founder and guiding spirit of FOCUS, the Fellowship Of Catholic University Students. FOCUS first saw the light of day at Benedictine in 1998.
By the late 1990s, Curtis Martin had started to think in terms of Catholic outreach by — and to — American Catholic college students as a practical answer to Pope John Paul II’s call to a new evangelization of the world.
Dr. Edward Sri, a friend and Benedictine faculty member, was familiar with Martin’s thinking and invited him to present his ideas at Benedictine in 1997.
Martin was enthusiastically received, and he, his wife Michaelann, along with Dr. Sri, established the FOCUS pilot program at Benedictine the following January with two staff members and 24 students.
FOCUS now serves over 2,000 students at 58 U.S. college and university campuses in 22 states, including Benedictine, UMKC and the University of Kansas in Lawrence.
About 90 percent of FOCUS schools are state schools.
“That’s where God led us,” Martin said.
Teams operate at the invitation of the local bishop and with the support of the local pastor. “No one does a more dynamic job of reaching college students for Christ than FOCUS,” said Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, newly installed archbishop of Philadelphia.
But the invitations and the support are not universal.
“Sadly, we have had staff persecuted from within the Church,” Martin said. “I’ve seen them beet-red with anger, or with tears running down their cheeks.
“I’ve offered to move them. But they always say, ‘Oh no. We’re going back.’”
Martin concluded a positive address on an upbeat note. “The Catholic Church has never shrunk in any century, although it has been pruned dramatically in your lifetime,” he said.
“The Church has been through a deep, dark winter. But now it’s spring. Let’s pray for one another that we will be zealous.”