Edwardsville — Willie Jansen would have never guessed the path God had for him. Growing up in Dieterich, he went to high school in Teutopolis. Thinking about the vocation of priesthood, he studied in the seminary for our diocese for four years and graduated with a philosophy degree from Marian University in 2015.
Fast forward to today, and he is still doing God’s work, although he’s now married to Maria and the couple has a daughter, Magdalene. His calling now? Team director for a missionary team of Fellowship of Catholic University Students or commonly known as FOCUS. For the first time, FOCUS missionaries are on the campus at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville (SIUE).
“We are excited to work with campus ministry in understanding the specific needs of the campus and students,” Jansen said. “From there, we will be meeting new students by getting out on campus and spending time with students on their turf. Our team will be inviting students to campus ministry events, Bible studies and the sacraments. We are also looking forward to inviting students to mission trips as well as SEEK21 which will be held in St. Louis. All that we hope to implement can be tied back to what Paul wrote in 1 Thessalonians 2:8, ‘So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the Gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us.’ As missionaries, we will be sharing not only the Gospel with students, but our very selves by entering deeply into their normal everyday lives! We desire to imitate Jesus in the way he spent time with others, in flesh, meeting them where they are, both spiritually and physically.”
Jansen is one of four full-time missionaries and two part-time missionaries at SIUE. Prior to this assignment, Jansen was a missionary at college campuses in Georgia, Alabama, and Missouri. He says the faith-filled impact FOCUS has on college students can be life changing.
“I have witnessed students move from atheism and agnosticism to baptized believers and students of our Lord,” Jansen said. “I have witnessed students return to confession who have been away from the sacraments for years, at times since their first confession! I have seen God move hearts from duty in simply fulfilling the Sunday Mass obligation to passionate love for God and neighbor. I have watched as God freed students from chains of addiction. I have seen students begin to share Christ and his church with others in their daily lives because they are living a daily relationship of prayer with the Trinity. As missionaries, we have the privilege of meeting students where they are spiritually and physically, growing in friendship and inviting them to take the next step deeper in response to God’s love.”
For Father Rob Johnson, chaplain at SIUE’s Newman Center, the arrival of FOCUS this year will bring back fond memories as he worked as a FOCUS missionary from the spring of 2010 (right after college) to the spring of 2012 (right before seminary). Both years, he was a missionary at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Since 2018, Father Johnson has been praying about getting a FOCUS team to SIUE. He credits Bishop Thomas John Paprocki for his encouragement as the process took months. Father Johnson eventually received word in May that FOCUS had enough missionaries to send a team.
“Eighty percent of students who begin their college career as practicing Catholics are fallen away by the time they graduate four years later,” Father Johnson said. “That literally keeps me up at night, not because of what it might mean for Mass attendance 20 years from now, but because I want people to know Jesus and that statistic means something is majorly wrong. Good things are happening at SIUE Newman, but we cannot just take care of the students that come to us, we have to go out on campus and try to reach students in an authentic way. This might be biased, but no one does that as well as FOCUS today. I honestly can’t express what a gift it will be to have missionaries on campus to work alongside our campus ministry staff and the good things already happening to reach more souls for Jesus.”
Father Johnson and Jansen encourage college students to get involved in their local Newman Center, and if they are fortunate to have a FOCUS team on their campus to get to know the missionaries.
“We really view what is happening at SIUE Newman as an important piece of what is happening in the diocese,” Father Johnson said. “The world is changing a lot, but the appeal and power of the Gospel is as real today as it ever has been. We hope what we do on campus is a continuation of the evangelization, discipleship and stewardship being cultivated in our schools and religious ed and communities, and that the disciples and saints formed at SIUE are our future teachers, parents, priests, religious, catechists, evangelizers in the world — missionary disciples on fire and in love with Jesus and his church.”