FOCUS missionaries, such as Tim Heyrman (left), have had to adapt during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Submitted photo)

Missionaries from the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS), a Catholic collegiate outreach whose ministry is to bring the hope and joy of the gospel to college and university students, have learned to adapt the way they reach out to students during the COVID-19 pandemic.

With a goal of inspiring and equipping college students for a lifetime of Christ-centered evangelization, discipleship and friendship, FOCUS missionaries, such as Tim Heyrman, continue to work with students, providing the tools needed to pass on the same gifts. For the fourth consecutive year, the Wisconsin native and his team of three other missionaries are serving University of Minnesota-Duluth.

Heyrman was raised Catholic, and attended Holy Apostles Grade School and Catholic Memorial High School. After graduation in 2012, he went to UW-Madison and became an average, party-going college student for the first few years. When he entered his fourth out of five years, he joined a Bible study led by a campus FOCUS missionary. From there, he attended a retreat, began praying daily and went on a FOCUS mission trip to Ecuador in July 2016.

“On the mission trip, one of the FOCUS missionaries asked me if I had thought about being a FOCUS missionary. Coming off that trip, I started to consider that quite seriously. In the fall of 2016, I applied to FOCUS, got a position, and accepted it,” he said.

Heyrman works closely with Fr. Mike Schmitz, who serves as director of the youth and the young adult ministries in the Diocese of Duluth. A Catholic speaker and author, he is also known for his Internet presence, especially his numerous YouTube videos.

“Fr. Mike serves as the full-time chaplain at the UMD Newman Center and oversees it just like a pastor does and is involved in parish life,” Heyrman said. “Fr. Mike is the spiritual father or, in other words, the dad of our community. We look to him as a role model and our leader in helping our Newman community grow closer to Jesus Christ. He plays a very big role in loving and taking care of us missionaries and the students on campus.”

Normally, FOCUS missionaries schedule Bible studies and spend time with students in Eucharistic Adoration, retreats, personal outreach and daily Mass. With the onset of the coronavirus, the ministry moved primarily online in the spring after the pandemic began.

“UMD’s classes moved online immediately following spring break,” said Heyrman. “FOCUS Digital Campus helped the missionaries across the country transition our efforts to go online. Our team of missionaries and some students stayed on campus, but many moved home.”

As the FOCUS mission moved to an online platform, Heyrman said they began working more with students who were already involved in Bible studies by building them up and encouraging them to take the next steps in their relationships with Christ.

While it was limiting in that Heyrman and other missionaries were unable to reach out to students that were not already involved in Bible studies, they used the situation to help others who already had a relationship with Christ.

“We were striving to help people grow wherever they were, whether at home or elsewhere,” he said. “One highlight from online missionary activity last spring is two young men from our Newman Center started up and co-led a Bible study for the first time. The Bible study included at least two guys who are not Catholic but who are now strongly considering becoming Catholic. The Holy Spirit was present and working through them and that Bible study, and it was definitely one of the highlights from the spring.”

With most students back on campus, Heyrman said they continue to do their best to reach students given the circumstances of the pandemic.

“We are still convinced that Jesus wants every heart and soul on campus at UMD to be a part of the Catholic Church,” he said “Freshman students were delayed moving in for a couple of weeks but almost all students are now on campus in Duluth; so we are doing our best to engage them.”

In past years, outreach included bonfires and other large gatherings at the Newman Center, but since those events are not possible this year, FOCUS missionaries are concentrating on smaller events outdoors, rather than indoors.

“We have a small Newman Center; so we have been able to move Sunday Masses and some weekday things to the cathedral in Duluth, which is about a five-minute drive from campus,” said Heyrman. “Our season of fall outreach, where we meet a lot of new students, has been delayed a little bit, but we are striving to meet new students and engage them in our ministry.”

Remaining grounded in faith for the college students during the pandemic and school closures has been challenging for students and missionaries, admitted Heyrman.

“Fellowship, friendship with other believers, is essential to our lives as disciples of Jesus Christ. Being separated from close friends at school was very difficult for a lot of people and it seemed very clear in coming back to Duluth that our students were hungering for connection and relationship,” he said. “Staying committed to a daily prayer life and other good spiritual habits is difficult even when there is a strong community around you; so to have that removed provided big challenges for people.”

With students away from home, likely for the first time in college, there are many distractions for students in preventing them from keeping active in the Catholic Faith and close to Jesus, but parents and grandparents can prepare their children and grandchildren so they don’t lose their faith.

“I think it is important for the parents and grandparents to commit to being all in for Jesus Christ themselves. This includes committing to a daily prayer life. It is so crucial to have a daily prayer life and be striving daily to grow in relationship with God,” said Heyrman. “One of the most compelling arguments for why a loved one should (remain) Catholic and follow Jesus Christ in a society that suggests otherwise will be the witness of the parent or the grandparent. When one follows Jesus Christ, the fruits of the Holy Spirit begin to show in your life – ‘Love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control’ (Galatians 5:22-23) – they are very compelling and attractive.”

If a parent or grandparent follows those practices, their child or grandchild will notice the fruits of the Holy Spirit and will want the same thing in their own life, said Heyrman. He also suggests praying daily for their loved ones and offering up small sacrifices throughout the day for them.

“If someone is open to the faith, it can also be helpful to have conversations with them about it, but I think it should be done in an inviting and merciful and compassionate way; not in a condemning, accusatory manner,” he said.

For more information on FOCUS:


P.O. Box 17408

Denver, CO 80217