In the 2015-2016 school year, the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS) sent over 500 missionaries to their college campuses. One of these missionaries was Elyse Cunningham, who returned as a campus missionary for the 2016-2017 year. However, this year’s mission was a very special one — serve college students at the universities in Graz, Austria. “For the past couple of years, a few missionaries from Austria have been coming to FOCUS’ summer training to learn from what we are doing in the United States and translate the model for the European college campus,” explained Elyse. “By their work with FOCUS and the invitations of the bishops [Cardinal Schönborn of Vienna and Bishop Krautwaschl of Graz] and the campus chaplains, FOCUS has been able to send missionaries to Vienna and Graz this year.”
While evangelizing abroad might be intimidating to some, living in Austria is not uncharted territory for Elyse. She had the opportunity to study abroad in Gaming, Austria, as a part of Franciscan University of Steubenville’s study abroad program. “During this time, I encountered God’s personal love for me in a profound way,” reminisced Elyse. “Since that time, Austria has always had a special place in my heart.” When she received a call in March from the FOCUS offices, she was more than ready to say “yes” to this new mission. “I am so excited to have an opportunity to bring the faith back to the Europeans, who first brought it to us, especially starting from a country where God already so deeply loved me.”
Certainly, to return to a country where one encountered the Lord is truly a blessing. But sharing in Christ’s life also means uniting oneself to His sufferings, which means encountering challenges as well. For Elyse, one of these challenges is manifested through the language barrier. “Although most people know English, it is not the primary language. This barrier can limit the depth of conversations that we have with the students we are meeting; sometimes they might not know how to express themselves in English like they would be able to in their mother-tongue.” Despite this difficulty, the missionaries persevere and attend German classes so they can better relate and minister to the Austrians.
The FOCUS Austria team may be serving in a different country and experience culture shock and language barriers, but sharing Christ’s message to young people and other evangelization efforts remains the same and continues to bear fruit. The teammates live in various dormitories around the city of Graz in order to live, share and pray with the students. Some of the team have begun Bible studies with the students. “From the Bible studies, we are praying for the Lord to raise up leaders who will also be interested in going on mission to invite their peers into a relationship with Christ,” described Elyse.
Elyse shared a story of how she and her team were able to be witnesses to Christ to some university students. By traveling to the different campuses around the city of Graz, they hoped to spark conversations about our Lord with some of the students. One of Elyse’s teammates, Ermanno, brought a young man who was being mentored to become a better disciple of Jesus, accompanied the FOCUS missionaries on this particular mission. The young man, Sebastian, had never done “anything like this”, but was “excited to be bold and share the Good News of the Gospel with his colleagues.” Later that week, Elyse and her teammates met two Protestant students at an adoration event, and discovered that it was Sebastian who had spoken with these students, who said they “had a great conversation with Sebastian.” “It is these and other conversations that we have with people that give us hope that even when things are just getting started, the Lord is working deeply.”
As the missionaries continue their work abroad, they hope to stay true to their mission. “Our hope is that throughout the time that we get to work with these students, we can help form them into life-long evangelists who can bring the joy of the Gospel into the workplace, their families, and parishes,” said Elyse. However, she recognizes and finds joy in those people who began this evangelization prior to FOCUS’ arrival in Graz.
“One of the greatest joys for me has been getting to know many courageous people who have built the foundation for the mission work here. Before FOCUS came to Austria, some alumni of the universities in Graz served as missionaries and started to do in Graz what they saw us doing in the United States. These men and women heard the Lord’s call to make disciples of all nations and began to do it in the way they understood best. The relationships and community that they have already formed here have been enormous blessings to walk into. We have also been welcomed by many generous and faithful benefactors who believe in the mission of FOCUS and so desperately want to see the New Evangelization explode for their fellow Austrians. Their hope and trust in what God has called us to do is a great source of encouragement.”
FOCUS is an outreach ministry dedicated to serving students on college campuses. Their efforts are manifested in three primary ways: 1) to know, love and serve God, 2) to build virtuous friendships, and 3) to teach others to share Christ. This year, they have over 550 missionaries serving on 125 college campuses. To learn more about FOCUS and their missionary work, visit www.focus.org.