BOCA RATON | Meet Sarah Freddino, Allison Naftanel, David Hamilton and Max Zamzow: four 23-year-olds inspired to personally grow in faith while serving the Lord and passing the faith to others.
The young adults, who come from across the United States, are missionaries who arrived in Boca Raton Aug. 13 just before Florida Atlantic University began classes on Aug. 20. The missionary team is part of Fellowship of Catholic University Students ministry, or FOCUS, which is celebrating a five-year anniversary working on the campus. They work closely with Father Brian Lehnert, who is diocesan campus minister and part-time chaplain at Florida Atlantic University as part of the young adult and campus ministry of the Office of Catechetical Leadership and Youth/Young Adult Ministry Formation Office. Father Lehnert is also director of the diocesan Office of Vocations/Seminarians.
Both Father Lehnert and the four missionaries help students find spiritual pursuits and develop into the best version of the person God created them to be.
“We want to engage the students here in activities,” said Hamilton, a 2018 graduate of the University of Tennessee in Chattanooga. “It is a good way to start conversations. We want to reach as many people as we can.”
The missionaries work with the Newman Club, a campus organization dedicated to bringing Catholic students together in fellowship and faith. Along with the Newman Club, the missionaries work to help young people — Catholics, those of other faiths and those of no faith — develop relationships with Jesus through spiritual, educational, social and volunteer activities and opportunities.
Carlos Osorio, a Newman Club member and a Florida Atlantic graduate, took on the role of Newman Club president last year. “We work in conjunction with FOCUS ministers. We work side by side,” Osorio said. “They help us plan events. They help us be good disciples of the Lord.”
“The FOCUS team has been an invaluable Catholic presence on the FAU campus,” Father Lehnert said. “They have been a tremendous support for me, since I’m a part-time chaplain, with their willingness to spread the Gospel with their words and actions. Their faithful presence continues to be an inspiration to me and my faith journey.”
As the shepherd on campus serving the spiritual needs of all Catholic students, Father Lehnert makes sure that he or another priest are there to celebrate daily and Sunday Masses. He provides the sacrament of reconciliation and opportunities for adoration. He is a spiritual guide and a Catholic presence.
“He has been great,” said Freddino, the FOCUS team leader and a graduate of Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio. “I can call him whenever we need him. He is like a father figure.”
Newman Club members are happy to have a priest available. “He supports us,” Osorio said. “He is our mediator between the campus and the diocese. He helps us with the Masses here on campus. He is great. God bless him.”
FOCUS ministers don’t live on campus, but rent an apartment near the university. As part of FOCUS, missionaries commit to two years of ministry work. They raise their own financial support for living expenses while on mission. As soon as they arrived in Boca Raton, they began planning their fall agenda.
“We are starting with a back-to-school barbecue. It is a launch for the year,” Freddino explained about the event, one of many that will be held as part of the FOCUS calendar. “We want to spend time getting to know the students. We want to get people engaged.”
FOCUS organization, which was established 20 years ago at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, was created by a small group of young people who were passionate about changing the world and helping others know Jesus and the true meaning and purpose of life. Today, FOCUS ministers are on college campuses across the United States and here in the Diocese of Palm Beach.
The Boca Raton missionaries hope to make an impact on the lives of young people and change statistics that indicate that more young people are leaving the Church than ever before.
College years are formative times when young people have newfound independence away from parents and away from the parishes where they grew up. They are faced with decisions. A recent Pew Research Center study reveals that 78 percent of Catholics who leave the Church do so by age 23. Shockingly, 50 percent of Catholic millennials, who were baptized and received the sacraments, no longer identify as Catholic today.
“Students on campus are from all backgrounds,” Hamilton said. “College is a place where questions are asked. There are a lot of paths you can take. A lot of people are directing you in all ways. The temptations are there. FOCUS was on campus for me at the University of Tennessee. They helped me to meet the challenges of the ‘big three’ — chastity, sobriety and excellence.”
Florida Atlantic University is a school community of over 30,000 students representing 40 different countries, 50 states and the District of Columbia. The university opened in 1964 as the first public university in southeast Florida with 867 students.
The Newman Club is just getting organized and underway for the new school year. The club typically has 40 to 50 members, according to Osorio, but one can only guess how many students are on campus who were baptized Catholic and then left the faith. Those are the Catholics that diocesan and FOCUS ministry are hoping to win back.
The FOCUS missionaries will do a lot of personal one-on-one meetings with students. They will walk the campus with friendly smiles. They will organize Bible studies. They will hang out and start up conversations, and join in and help with Newman Club activities including adoration, prayer, and praise and worship at daily and Sunday Masses on campus. Most importantly, the entire time while the missionaries are on campus, the young adults will live their faith and evangelize through witness, turning heads and hearts.
Freddino is in her third year with FOCUS and said she receives rewards as she serves others. “I have never experience so much joy,” she said. “Bringing people to the faith brings me so much joy.” n
For more information, call Father Lehnert at 561-775-9552.