At a time when students are tempted to stop practicing their faith, campus missionaries in the Diocese of Orlando are bringing the good news of Christ to colleges locally and across the U.S. creating opportunities for students to grow in faith, and encouraging renewed discipleship. Stephen Robbins and Dominic Alexander, who began serving in the Diocese of Orlando in August 2016 are two of five missionaries assigned to the campus of University of Central Florida, working alongside the university’s Catholic Campus Ministry through an organization called St. Paul’s Outreach.
“Missionaries are a huge help for us,” said Catholic Campus Ministry director Missionary at the Precious Blood Father Ben Berinti. “They work as full-time team members alongside us in ministry. Because of their age, they are able to reach more students on campus, able to invite more students to share in the community, and get more student participation. The faith they model is a tremendous fruit; it’s vibrant, and their enthusiasm and love for Christ brings so much energy.”
Robbins said he was a shift manager at a coffee shop in Minnesota when he started looking into ministry work. “I was seeing a thousand people a day, serving each latte with love and acknowledging each person. This led to thinking about more opportunities to serve and minister than what I was doing there, and I felt called to a deeper faith,” he said.
On campus, Robbins and other missionaries are reaching out to students by inviting them to participate in sporting events, developing deeper personal relationships with students through bible studies and retreats, and becoming spiritual mentors.
“We talk with them, pray with them, invite them into a deeper encounter with the Lord, asking them to trust that he will equip them with what they need on the journey,” said Alexander who came to Central Florida from Ohio where he was influenced by missionaries on his college campus. Alexander said that some of the students he sees are carrying family and emotional wounds, some as a result of the choices they have made, and from feelings of ‘not being good enough’.
“Retreats are powerful, and they can receive healing there,” explained Alexander. “It’s a combination of love and acceptance in the community that encourages deep brotherhood and sisterhood relationships, and cuts through the walls to begin the healing process.”
Because of the example of the male and female missionaries at UCF, freshman Zoe Smith has considered becoming a missionary as well.
“The first Sunday I came to Mass, everyone wanted to know who I was and were genuinely interested in knowing me. They made it easy to want to come back. If you have a question about faith, friendship, family, you can ask them. Even with car problems, they can help you out,” remarked Smith.
Joseph DiPaolo from Nativity Parish in Longwood and Shawn Sterling from Annunciation Parish in Altamonte Springs are serving campuses outside the diocese while being supported by local parishioners and friends. As part of their program, missionaries commit two years of work and personal sacrifice and fundraise their own sources of support.
DiPaolo is serving with the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS), an organization that forms college missionaries and has 550 missionaries on 125 campuses across the U.S. He says that a big part of his mission is to help students develop what he called authentic friendships. Quoting 1 Thessalonians 2:8 which says “With such affection for you, we were determined to share with you not only the gospel of God, but our very selves as well, so dearly beloved had you become to us” DiPaolo said that it’s important to invest in people as doing so creates disciples, who then go out and make other disciples.
Sterling is serving with the religious order, the Brotherhood of Hope, whose outreach includes college students at secular universities through campus ministry programs. He is in his second year working on the Rutgers University campus in New Jersey. Sterling noted that, “More so than a high school ministry, college ministry is important because people think they are going to recreate themselves and fall back away from the faith. They are away from parents for the first time. Sometimes school is difficult or they doubt their worth compared to others. It’s a time of transition, and figuring out who they are. Those who find themselves lonely or broken in some sense, also find emptiness in the party lifestyle. In Christ, they find who they are meant to be.”
Asked how working as a missionary has changed his life, Sterling explained, “I’ve had more time to pray, and also realized the importance of taking more time for prayer. My passion for the faith has increased. My sense of relationship with God has deepened and I have realized that God has a lot more control than I do. I can be out there evangelizing and nothing happens, until God changes their heart. I am there as a channel dispersing the seed, God has to make it grow. I’m there to love them the best way I can.”