‘Apostolate of friendship’

Called by the Holy Spirit to immerse themselves in the Catholic Faith, a diverse group arrived at Franciscan University of Steubenville in the 1990s and soon forged an “apostolate of friendship” as they studied the Faith together and prepared for God’s next big assignments.

The small campus set in the hills of northeastern Ohio served as the launching pad for these friends to start national and international ministries. Two decades later, they continue to help each other promote the Faith to millions.

The roughly two dozen ministry leaders — including Jeff Cavins, Patrick Coffin, Tim Gray, Marcus Grodi, Sister John Dominic, Curtis Martin, Curtis Mitch, Tom Nash, Leon Suprenant and Edward Sri, among others (see sidebar) — were drawn to Franciscan by the university’s intellectual fervor, by the teachings of Pope St. John Paul II and by another friend, former Presbyterian pastor now-Franciscan University professor Scott Hahn, who shared with them his deep understanding and zeal for Scripture and the Faith.

A perfect storm

Jeff Cavins
Curtis Martin

The Steubenville campus was a fertile environment for spiritual growth, study and Christian friendship. This group of friends helped each other discover truths of the Faith and brainstormed about ways to share them at a time when many other Franciscan students were doing the same.

“Steubenville acted like an evangelical Catholic magnet,” said Jeff Cavins, creator of the Great Adventure Bible Study Program. “It was a Catholicism that was dynamic. It was different, fresh. And when you went on campus, you realized intuitively there were opportunities for us.”

The friends were like-minded but not alike; some were in their 20s, others were moving into a second career; some were married, others were single. Former members of Protestant churches shared experiences with cradle Catholics. “In the vortex, it really was greater than the sum of the human parts, not reducible to one person,” said Hahn, who is the Father Michael Scanlan, TOR, chair of biblical theology and the New Evangelization at the university as well as a speaker and author.

Despite their different backgrounds, their intellectual curiosity and desire to communicate the Faith effectively were the basis for “eternal, lifelong friendships,” said Curtis Martin, founder and CEO of the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS), a Denver-based outreach ministry serving 113 U.S. campuses.

Living the Faith

Discussions started in the classroom but often didn’t end there. If they did, the friends found other opportunities to talk about Scripture, St. John Paul II’s encyclicals and whatever else came up, sometimes over midnight coffee.

“Besides our classes, there were amazing people studying with us from all over the world,” said Tim Gray, president of the Augustine Institute, a Catholic graduate school in Denver. “We would push ourselves and sink our teeth in.”

Faith wasn’t just discussed, it was lived, without competition, they said. “What was going on in the classroom was being lived outside,” said Tom Nash, an author and EWTN theology adviser. “That strengthened relationships.”

All shared a passion for evangelization, said Edward Sri, a professor and chancellor of the Augustine Institute.

“It wasn’t just theology — that we wanted to learn about it because we wanted to be teachers,” Sri said. “We really wanted to have an impact on the culture. We wanted to evangelize souls and be part of the New Evangelization.”

What they learned, they planned to share. “With that network of friendships, we were really spurring each other on and sharing a common passion to say, ‘People need this,’” said Curtis Mitch, research fellow and trustee of the Steubenville-based St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology.

They honed their individual evangelization styles, said Patrick Coffin, host of Catholic Answers Live, part of a lay-run apostolate of Catholic apologetics and evangelization based in El Cajon, California. “The way I approach evangelization is unique to me.”

Tim Gray, Edward Sri, Curtis Mitch, Patrick Coffin

Sources of inspiration

Franciscan University faculty also played an important role in their formation, and none more than Hahn, who stirred intellectual activity in and outside his Scripture courses, Cavins said. Hahn also invited — and continues to invite — students deeper prayer and faith, Martin said.

“Scott Hahn was the hub of the wheel, and he befriended all of us,” Cavins said. “It was not unusual for us to find ourselves at Scott’s house just talking theology.”

Zoe Romanowsky
Sister John
Sister John Dominic

Mitch recalled asking Hahn a question in the campus library and receiving a stack of 13 books to read. Others described the professor’s own vast library, complete with a sleeping bag for nights of uninterrupted study.

While Martin and a few others came to Steubenville with the vision for a ministry, all prayed to discover God’s plan. “There was always a great sense from everyone I talked to that God had brought them there, and they were trying to figure out what that was all about, what he meant for them in bringing them there,” said Zoe Romanowsky, lifestyle editor for the Catholic network Aleteia.

Dominican Sister John Dominic, a founder of the Ann Arbor, Michigan-based Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, prayed as she saw the seeds of future ministry come up for some of the friends. “When the Holy Spirit was starting to percolate these things in people’s hearts, you’re kind of hearing, and you’re thinking, ‘Wow, that’s really going to become something.’”

Seeking ways to work together in ministry, the friends offered Martin input as he began developing his campus apostolate FOCUS. Some contributed to Hahn’s Scripture and catechetical book series, “Catholic for a Reason.”

During a 1993 blizzard, Martin trudged in the snow to Sri and Gray’s house, and the three drew up plans for Emmaus Road Publishing, in part so they could publish books they planned to write together and individually. The Steubenville-based company publishes Catholic nonfiction.

Creating ‘a renewal’

Marcus Grodi
Leon Suprenant
Leon Suprenant

While each is busy with his and her own obligations, several decades after leaving the university, the members still collaborate on projects, give talks, teach, train and do radio shows and videos together.

“It’s great to know that we have friends fighting battles with us that we can contact if necessary for prayer, support and friendship,” said Marcus Grodi, president of the Zanesville, Ohio-based Coming Home Network.

The bonds are still strong, Sri said. “In many ways, the respect for each other and also the desire to continue learning from each other, helping each other and working together has only increased over the years,” he said. “We were formed together and have a similar kind of approach, and so it just binds us.”

Along with enduring friendships, they’ve learned other lessons. “I’ve acquired a certain way of approaching things, learned how to think with the Church and gained a lens for understanding concerns, questions and problems,” said Leon Suprenant, head of the diaconate program in the Archdiocese of Kansas City, Kansas. “I feel I’ve been equipped to think like a Catholic.”

The friends who have gained national recognition studied with many others who aren’t famous but are changing the world, Grodi said. Another wave of leaders may emerge, Hahn said. In the meantime, the friends will continue to let the Holy Spirit show them new ways to reach souls for Christ.

“It’s nothing that any of us planned,” Gray said. “It’s certainly a work of the Spirit. I think that there was a lot of grace ... Obviously God wanted to bring something together to really create a renewal in the Church.”

Susan Klemond writes from Minnesota.

Additional Friends
Along with those interviewed, the following are among the Catholic leaders who formed friendships while studying at Franciscan University of Steubenville in the 1990s: