The New New Testament

The Catholic Church has had a rough couple of decades. Can a 51-year-old layman from Westminster help turn things around? The pope thinks so.

October 2012

On a June night at the University of Colorado Boulder, FOCUS missionary Joseph O’Loughlin and a half-dozen CU students gather for what O’Loughlin calls “pipe night.” It’s a weekly get-together of young men in which everyone smokes tobacco from artisanal wooden pipes and chats informally about all aspects of life. (FOCUS also recruits female missionaries to work with young women, and all FOCUS missionaries must raise their salaries—about $1,500 per month—from friends and family.)

The young men sit around a tattered table and drink British tea as they smoke. The conversation, which covers topics such as the Virgin Mary, Taco Bell, man cards, and hydrogen bombs, drifts past midnight. O’Loughlin hosts a few of these same guys on a separate night for Bible study, and he told me he hopes more of the pipe-night guys would soon join the Bible group.

When Martin was young, he didn’t attend pious gatherings like these. He grew up passively Catholic in Ventura, California, more interested in partying than in an apprenticeship with Jesus Christ. He recalls, on numerous occasions, sitting in class in a booze- or drug-induced haze—sometimes both. During his senior year, Martin got his girlfriend pregnant, and he helped her get an abortion.

After attending a nearby junior college, Martin enrolled at Louisiana State University. The day before he left for school, his mother handed him a copy of the New Testament. He packed it to appease her. Months later, Martin found himself drawn to the stories on its pages, specifically to the paradoxical Jesus, because, Martin says, “At one time, he’s able to show mercy to sinners and challenge the religiously hypocritical.” He began hanging out with a few Protestant classmates, playing golf, watching Monday Night Football, and going bass fishing with them. The men impressed Martin with their lofty morals and strong character. “The foul language wasn’t there,” he says. “They would talk about women, but when they did, it was respectful.” He soon joined their Bible study group. “I found myself a thousand miles away from home and a million miles from where I’d been in high school,” Martin says.

While studying graduate theology at the Catholic Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio, Martin noticed the dearth of collegiate Catholic organizations. “There’s a Catholic Church either on or near every campus in America, but students don’t choose to go there,” Martin says. “Why is there not an outreach to meet them where they are and engage them in friendship? No pressure, just invitation.”

In 1993, Martin was still living in Ohio when he traveled to Denver for the annual World Youth Day—a celebration of Catholicism for young people. En route, he stopped in Rapid City, South Dakota, to visit friends who worked for a young bishop named Charles Chaput. Martin told Chaput about his vision for Catholic youth outreach. The two stayed in touch, and soon after Chaput was named archbishop of Denver in 1997, he asked Martin to move his new organization to Colorado. Martin soon launched FOCUS at the University of Northern Colorado Greeley and the Catholic Benedictine College in Kansas.

The Church’s struggles to attract and retain members make Martin’s efforts that much more impressive. Since its founding in 1998, FOCUS has spread to 74 schools in 29 states and has grown from two staff members to more than 400. FOCUS has brought hundreds, maybe thousands, of new members into the aging Church. Even the University of Colorado Boulder, Playboy magazine’s top party school of 2011, has a strong FOCUS presence.

Although the Pontifical Council aims to adapt the Church to the modern world, that mission won’t include any shifts in Catholic philosophy. The Church remains vehemently opposed to abortion, same-sex unions, contraception, and in vitro fertilization—and FOCUS adheres to these tenets. Martin concedes that the alleged priestly abuse is “scandalous” and that the Church must be held to a higher standard. Still, he insists many great priests remain. “You’ve got hundreds of faithful priests, and 10 percent of them are off-the-charts amazing guys.”

Amid controversy, however, Martin sees opportunity. “The last 60 years have been a pretty brutal time for the Catholic Church,” he says. “I’m not an expert in history, but what frequently happens through those scandals is that the Church gets smaller and stronger, and then experiences new growth.”

Martin educates Catholic officials throughout the United States about FOCUS and speaks regularly at Christian men’s conferences, all while raising eight kids with Michaelann, his wife of 22 years. He worries about rearing them in a society that has abandoned Christianity. “I’d like to think things are going to get better, because raising eight kids in this culture is challenging,” Martin says. “If it’s getting worse, it’s going to be really brutal for my kids to raise my grandkids.”