Curtis Martin, Founder and CEO of the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS), spoke with Monsignor James P. Shea, President of the University of Mary, on a video call on January 21, 2021, to discuss his experience in evangelization and the formation of university students.
Monsignor James P. Shea (MShea): Curtis, could you speak to your background a bit – about your early involvement with Campus Crusade for Christ and the founding of FOCUS?
Curtis Martin (CM): The background to it all – as the founder of FOCUS, as a lifelong adult Catholic, and as a prodigal – is that I returned to my Catholic faith during college. I met some evangelical Protestants who had a great love for Christ and a great love for objective truth. They challenged me, and I accepted the invitation to turn my life over to Christ. It was a great opportunity for me to be asking and getting answers to some of life’s most fundamental questions at the beginning of my adult life. While those questions and answers pointed me home to the Catholic Church and eventually led to the founding of FOCUS, I have always been grateful to have been able to sit with people of goodwill and ask great questions, seek great answers, and recognize that Christ is the heart of all those answers. He is the way, the truth, and the life.
Inspired by my experience of the good work of evangelicals and Campus Crusade for Christ – now known as Cru – and also Navigators, InterVarsity, and other groups, FOCUS has tried to provide a Catholic presence in that arena. It’s been an exciting path. We’ve been blessed with what we’re trying to do. I’ve watched young lives being transformed, and while many things have changed in the world, those things that are core to our ministry won’t change because they touch upon human nature.
MShea: The immense fruitfulness of the apostolate of FOCUS has been a surprise to everybody, and a beautiful surprise at that! But I’m sure that for you, Curtis, it strikes your heart in a particular way to see the Lord with all his energy working behind the scenes to enliven the charism and gift and grace that he placed in your heart.
CM: No one is more surprised by the fruitfulness of FOCUS than I am, because I’ve been sitting at its heart for nearly 25 years, and I’m a big problem. There’s a huge sin problem inside of me, and I keep getting in God’s way. Despite my occasional efforts to get in the way, he’s blessed us, because of this fundamental reality: if you can place people who are experiencing renewal and transformation in Christ in contact with other people, beautiful things will happen. There’s no better place than the university for that – as the president of one of our great universities, you know that, Monsignor – in fact, I’m getting ready to fly my son to visit the University of Mary! And I know you had a great experience at your alma mater, the Catholic University of America. We want to get young people who are living a life of transformation, who are living a life of sacraments and prayer, in close contact with other young people. That’s a recipe made in Heaven.
We’re so grateful to have watched at first a few, then dozens, then hundreds, and now thousands and tens-of-thousands of young people responding to Christ. And not just turning to Christ, which is the first part of the Gospel, but also, after maturation, acting upon the wonderful realization of being called to go to others and to invite them to Christ. The approach has allowed them to incubate in the life of the sacraments, in the truth and the teachings of the Church, and then it has sent them back out. It all creates a spiritual snowball. So part of our success is not surprising – I’ve always trusted in the recipe and in the Lord. It’s in our own feeble efforts that I don’t trust, most of all my own, and so it has been a gift to watch the extraordinary reality unfold.
Something we hadn’t given much thought to at the beginning was that those young people would eventually graduate and accept positions throughout the world, throughout the Church – as priests and nuns, businessmen and -women, politicians and teachers. It’s been wonderful to watch, and they’re continuing the work of renewal in those positions. I just heard the story of a young woman who served as a missionary for a few years who now works in the financial world and is living with a woman she had worked with as a student. She’s still working with this young woman and mentoring ten other women, six of whom are also mentoring other women! The snowball effect continues well beyond campus. The university is the wellspring of evangelization, but it’s just that – a wellspring. The real work of evangelization will take place in families, in businesses, in the political arena. We’ve been able to watch the fruits of the apostolate rippling into the second and third generations – our earliest missionaries not only have children, but those children are going to college! It’s been exciting to see the manifold realization of spiritual multiplication.
We want to get young people who are living of life of transformation, who are living a life of sacraments and prayer, in close contact with other young people. That’s a recipe made in Heaven.
MShea: As you know, Curtis, at Prime Matters we aim to awaken the Catholic imaginative vision, so we’re always looking around to see what’s at the foundation of things and what needs to be carefully considered. That’s one of the reasons I have been so eager to engage you in this conversation, because you’ve worked with university students for more than 25 years, and it’s given you a unique vantage point for seeing both the Catholic Church and the wider culture, since so much of your work involves tangling with secular universities and their atmospheres. Given all that you’ve seen and experienced, then, I have a few questions for you that will be helpful for us at the University of Mary, and for our students, and for anybody of goodwill who happens upon this interview. What would you say are the biggest questions, challenges, and opportunities facing the Church in our time? How do young Catholics need to be equipped to navigate the world that’s emerging now?
CM: That’s a great question. My preamble would be that Prime Matters is the most recent idea from an anointed leader and from an anointed place – the University of Mary. I’ve really watched the Church and the culture wrestle for most of my adult life. What’s going on at the University of Mary and is manifested in Prime Matters is a Neo-Tractarian movement, I think. Cardinal Newman, the patron of the Newman Centers, was working with students in England and realized the importance of asking the right questions, of introducing the right ideas, and he did so through a set of tracts, provocative short essays on the most important issues. I see Prime Matters as filling this role, and it’s a role that has desperately needed to be filled for quite some time.
There are so many questions. We live in a time of tremendous, deep, and almost-absolute skepticism. The first question, I think, is: “Do you believe in truth? Are there any truths?” We’ve been taught since we were young that truth is like ice cream: “You like Rocky Road, I like Mint Chip, c’est la vie.” And some matters are, in fact, questions of preference. But the great questions touch upon objective truth. Is Jesus God – yes or no? Is the Catholic Church the Church that Jesus Christ founded – yes or no? What other truths can we know? The question of objective truth applies not only to the world of physics and metaphysics, but also to faith and morality.
When I began, and really when I came of age, the moral issue of the day was probably abortion. Certainly there has been no let-up in that issue – it’s still a primary issue – but what has eclipsed it on college campuses and in the culture is the whole question of sexuality, of homosexuality and transsexuality, and we’ve been taught in the world that all of our desires are innately good. The world says that our desires are innately good, and that seems like a benign claim, but Jesus Christ reveals a different reality that says we’re good, but we’re wounded, and some of our desires are actually what we would call ‘temptations.’ So we don’t give in to all of our desires. The question of which desires to embrace and which to avoid, then, becomes a fundamental issue.
Another important issue of our day is that of the unity of Christians. This is near and dear to my heart, having come to Christ through Cru and evangelicals. They hold enormous pieces of truth, delivered by Christ to the Church, and at the same time, they miss out on others. So we must consider how we as Christians can enter into dialogue about philosophical, metaphysical, theological, and moral truths, and trust that there is one answer to these most fundamental questions. I love the fact that Prime Matters is asking a plethora of these questions. What is a front door for me into these conversations might be a back door or side door to others, and so we want to have a lot of doors and windows.
So often, these doors and windows appear in different aspects of social doctrine. Christians – followers of Jesus Christ – do more to feed, clothe, educate, and provide healthcare for more people than anyone else on earth! If there were no Christians, the world would be a colder and darker place. Christians are confronting issues of slavery – traditional slavery and sex trafficking – to this very day. There are more slaves today on earth than at any time in history. We’re also looking at the breakdown of marriage and the family in a serious way.
I could give you a list – and I’ve already given you something of a list – of the most pressing issues, and some issues will be more important to others. There are so many fundamental issues that need to be addressed. I love that Prime Matters is listening and then responding, because we sit with a literal treasure of truth – the deposit of faith – that can speak to any aspect of human life. I love the idea that you’re getting the best hearts and minds in the work of Prime Matters and that you’re harnessing them and redirecting that back through the great work of the University of Mary into the lives of young people all over the world.
MShea: I was moved but not surprised that you brought up care for the poor. So often there’s a bifurcation between the serious moral issues of our time – a concern for the right standards of conduct that the Church has taught in a perennial way – and the questions of social justice and Catholic social teaching. To tear those apart is a grave error, but oftentimes that’s what our hyper-political atmosphere provokes. But it’s true, isn’t it, that we need to see those things as united? Young people today recognize that, and a compassionate approach has a particular appeal for them.
CM: I love Pope Benedict’s statement that the end of evangelization is to address poverty in all its forms. And you and I have spoken about this, Monsignor, about the anointed generation that God has invited us to be servant leaders to. I would argue that one of the unique aspects of this anointed generation is that unlike their parents, maybe, the “Baby Boomers,” who held this division between moral truths and social truths, young people today don’t see an either-or there. Young Catholics today say, “I would like to help the poor and also be chaste, and I don’t understand why those can’t go together – I want the both-and.” There’s a robust desire for all of the truth and all of the beauty of the Tradition, but sometimes young people don’t know how to get it, and sometimes even despair of being able to get it. That’s a separate problem, but the hearts of this generation are desirous of the all – of the both-and – and that’s something unique to them. I don’t see debates among young people today about whether social doctrine or moral doctrine is more important, which is a beautiful thing. Their desire for the both-and invites the Church to provide not only a robust articulation of the social doctrine and the moral doctrine, but also an articulation of the unity of the social and moral doctrine.
It’s only when we live these truths out that we’re going to be living out the invitation of Jesus Christ, who left the greatest of all riches – Heaven, life in the Blessed Trinity – to become desperately poor and to die naked on a cross, exiled from his people. He embraced poverty and the poor in a very powerful way. The call of Christians has always been the same. As somebody who is committed to the work of evangelization, I would argue that historically it has been when the Church has been most committed to the poor – whether in caring for those who have the plague or whatever the need of the age might be – whenever the Church has been present with people in need even to the point of personal risk, that hearts have been transformed more than at any other time.
The social doctrine’s insistence that we care for basic human needs, and at the same time recognize that the deepest human need is a spiritual need – the need for eternal life – is so profound. If I’m hungry, I don’t want to talk about theology – I want a hamburger. But once you’ve fed me or clothed me or cared for my wounds, now I trust you and thank you and am open to hearing about what’s most important to you. That’s where it all weaves together in a beautiful way. The integrity of it all leads to interior joy, and I would argue that joy is the greatest bait, so to speak – it is what all of us long for. When I find somebody who is joyful, I lean in because I want to know how they are living and what the wellspring of their joy is. As Christians, we can bear witness to the fact that there are many gifts from God, but the greatest wellspring of joy is God himself. And that’s what the Church offers.
MShea: That’s such a great encapsulation of the challenges of our age in a broad sense. Perhaps we could hone in a little bit now. This is a conversation you and I have had before, because in our various roles we grapple with the challenge of leading well and caring well for the rising generation. I wonder if you’ve seen any major shifts in your time working with students – in other words, are the challenges for students now entering college different in a significant way from those that existed when you first started working with college students? I ask this the day after the inauguration of a new president, and so much is on the move. How do we read the signs of the times, here and now?
CM: I would say the fundamental shift that I’ve seen in the half-generation I’ve been honored to serve is the profound brokenness of this generation. And I would say this brokenness is due primarily to the breakdown of the family, but there’s also more going on. The breakdown of the family is kind of like a hole in your roof, but there is also a storm outside, and that storm is the question of what your life is about, about what you were made for, and about where you are heading. Here, the good news is the bad news. These young people are wounded, and that’s the bad news – but the good news is that they know they’re wounded, and so they’re looking for a better way.
We live in a culture that offers many false options. I liken the modern culture to someone offering saltwater to the thirsty. At first, it sounds like a good idea: “You’re thirsty, here’s some water.” But we all know that drinking saltwater actually worsens the problem. It doesn’t make you less thirsty, it makes you more thirsty. If you drink it for too long you’ll go mad, and if you drink it much longer than that you’ll die! Our culture is offering saltwater solutions for hearts that long for pure and everlasting water, a water only God can provide. And so to acknowledge this brokenness, which exists in me and in our young leaders and in the students they’re reaching out to, is such an important step.
...I would argue that joy is the greatest bait, so to speak – it is what all of us long for. When I find somebody who is joyful, I lean in because I want to know how they are living and what the wellspring of their joy is.
I always take solace in the promise that where sin abounds, grace abounds still more, because I’m convinced that while the problems can be a bit overwhelming, the healing God provides allows for a happy fault: the very things that have wounded us become the source of our confidence and our joy. Mary Magdalene was a great saint, St. Augustine was a great saint, St. Paul was a great saint – all of them had to go through radical conversions. There’s another path, of course, for those who live in the Church and have great families and grow up in a healthy environment – St. Thérèse had a great family, St. John the Evangelist had a great family. We’re not favoring one path over another, but the path of brokenness seems to be a superhighway in this generation.
MShea: It’s been my conviction for a long time – and I’m sure you share it in at least some measure – that many of the most serious wounds in our culture are intellectual wounds. I wonder if you could speak a bit about the importance of good, solid intellectual formation. In the work we do in FOCUS – I’m privileged and honored to be associated with FOCUS as a board member, a teacher at New Staff Training, a donor, and an intercessor – we find of course that it’s not enough simply to be high-hearted. One also has to have a particular ballast of intellectual formation. Why is that important?
CM: The Church, because she is the Mystical Body of Christ, takes the human person seriously. The human person is a complex of realities: the intellect hungers for truth, the will is made for goodness, and the emotions rejoice in the good, the true, and the beautiful and are repelled by evil and disharmony. We have to feed and care for the intellect and we can’t choose a good if we don’t know what good is, so intellect and will are connected, and the emotions can’t be tamed if the intellect and will aren’t first harnessed. So we have to meet people where they are, and part of this is recognizing the truths of the human person.
One of the most piercing sets of Christian insights is Christian anthropology, the understanding of humanity in the light of Christ. Vatican II said that Christ reveals man fully to himself. This is the power the Church brings: we can speak to people, understand them, meet them where they are, and help to get them where they need to go.
A large part of this is the combination of felt needs and unfelt needs. Sometimes our unfelt needs are more important than our felt needs. You can equate it to a disease like cancer: if I have cancer and don’t know it, I still have cancer. A good doctor will look at the felt symptoms, sure, but will look for deeper problems and indications, as well. As doctors of the soul, we have to recognize the way that the human soul was meant to work, which means that the intellect must lead. That’s why asking the right questions and giving the right answers, showing how all the pieces fit together, is so necessary: it’s only when I know what is true that I can embrace what is good and then rejoice in it.
It doesn’t work the other way around. If I follow my emotions, I will choose things that are bad for me. We are told in the first chapter of Romans that if we choose badly, our intellects will be darkened. So for Christians, according to St. Paul, praising and thanking God orders the soul rightly. We do this primarily and most perfectly at the Mass, but we do it in all of our life and through our intellectual pursuits. Again, this is why I love Prime Matters as such a great articulation of the Faith. The Faith shines its truth and its goodness on all the various aspects of our lives. Jesus Christ is the Lord of all, so his lordship touches every aspect of life. There’s nothing that his light doesn’t shine upon, and there’s nothing that fails to benefit from our bringing it to him and viewing it through his eyes.
We need to ask ourselves frequently, “Do I see the world the way Jesus sees the world?” When a woman comes to us in the midst of an unexpected pregnancy, do we see the situation primarily as an issue of life or as an issue of choice? They’re both true in certain ways, but Jesus sees the issue primarily as life, and we are to order our choices accordingly.
Again, we have this question of poverty and the Church’s social doctrine. When we view the issue as Jesus views it, we recognize that the more I have – be it because of my resources, skills, or position – the greater responsibility I have. Archbishop Chaput has said it simply: if we don’t serve the poor, we’re going to hell. The story of Lazarus and the rich man is a cautionary tale – as far as we know, the rich man may have gone to synagogue, been kind to his parents and to his friends, and so on. The only sin we know he committed is that he walked past the poor man Lazarus every day, and he went to hell. This is a bone-chilling reality, because nearly everyone who might come across this interview is wealthy by the world’s standards.
Intellectual formation is so important because we have to understand how to live in order to live the Gospel. We are called to live generously – and the Gospel is clear that we are not called to “give until it hurts” but actually to “give even after it starts to hurt.” We won’t be able to make those sacrifices until we understand reality. That’s where the truths Prime Matters is addressing help to rightly order the soul, which allows us to behave as we ought by the grace of God.
That’s why asking the right questions and giving the right answers, showing how all the pieces fit together, is so necessary: it’s only when I know what is true that I can embrace what is good and then rejoice in it.
MShea: I’m very grateful again for that response, Curtis, and we’re so grateful for your time. I wonder if as a way of wrapping up this conversation I could ask what’s on your mind and heart when you think and pray about equipping young Christians for the world they’re in and the world that they’ll be facing. We’re not as young as we used to be, but we are forming young people for a world that will live on beyond us – unless the Second Coming happens first! So what’s on your mind and heart when you think of how we can do that well? What do we need to provide them with?
CM: Well thank you, and that’s a very good question. I would probably want to begin by drawing a distinction between ‘optimism’ and ‘hope.’ I am not an optimist, and for those who are optimists who have lived through this modern world, I don’t think their optimism is doing very well! Optimism is the whimsical wish that things will get better. Hope is quite different. It’s a virtue, not a wish or an opinion. It’s a virtue that says if I were to invest prayerfully, carefully, intentionally, and sacrificially and give of myself for the sake of the good and the true and the beautiful – who has a name, Jesus – and God were to bless it, things could get better. I would say that I am not an optimistic person, but I am a person filled with deep hope. And I think it’s important that we invite people into that hope. We live in a culture that is almost hopeless, and the virtue of hope is so important.
To come back to the project of Prime Matters again, I love that it gives us the opportunity to look at things clearly. The first thing it says is “there are truths,” and the second thing it says is “once I come to know the truth, I can begin to grow in the truth.” It says, “I am capable of change by God’s grace,” and that’s a fundamental hope we need to bring to this generation. So many young people today have hunger, but hunger without hope is starvation. We had talked about this project before Prime Matters launched, so it’s exciting to see it launched and I’m grateful to God for it. I hope FOCUS can receive well from Prime Matters and, to the degree that we can collaborate, we would want to do so. It’s a great idea, I’m grateful God gave it to you, and as with everything the University of Mary does, it’s great in its execution!
MShea: Thank you for saying that and thank you for your time with us. I want you to know that, on behalf of all of us at the University of Mary and on behalf of so many other people, we admire you and your personal witness and the work FOCUS has done through the years.
I’ll never forget the first time you came to our campus. Even before FOCUS had started to host New Staff Training here at the University of Mary, you came to speak at Prayer Day, which is an annual gathering that has been held every year since the mid-1970s. In all the years I’ve been here, your presentation stands among the most memorable for me. You spoke to our students – to Catholics and non-Catholics alike – with great zeal and love for Christ about the transforming power of the Gospel. I’ll never forget that you said most believers don’t experience the Gospel as good news because they’re in a loveless relationship with God. And talk about bone-chilling – that was chilling for me and for the couple thousand people we had gathered to hear you! Afterward, the local head of Cru came up to me and whispered in my ear, “That was incredible. Catholics 1, Protestants 0!” I slapped him on the back and said, “It’s all for God’s glory!”
CM: It’s a beautiful thing, and again I’m so grateful for the goodness and the truth that our evangelical brothers and sisters live and celebrate. As Vatican II said, those are prefigurements and preparations for the fulness of the Gospel. It doesn’t matter whether you’re Catholic and have never embraced the fullness or you’re not Catholic and have never been able to have the fullness, God is calling us all to fullness – good measure, pressed down, shaken together, pouring into your lap, our Lord says. It’s an amazing thing, and for many of us – particularly in these dark, challenging times, we know we’re not living in a place of an experiential love when the heaviness starts to weigh us down. I was sharing with a friend recently that sometimes in the last year I have felt that I’m running with a backpack on. Nobody runs a marathon with a backpack on. And so when that happens, I know I’m not spending enough time thinking about the good and the true and the beautiful. I’m not spending enough time in prayer, or in allowing the sacraments to saturate my life in the way they are intended to. I tend – we all tend – to be drawn to forget that God has called us to a love-filled relationship with him, rather than a loveless relationship or a loveless marriage.
MShea: That’s beautifully put. God bless you, Curtis Martin, I’m really thankful for you.
CM: Thank you Monsignor, and for all you do at the University of Mary.