College students SEEK out life changing conference

Mark Hart, executive vice president of Life Teen International, speaks to the crowd of more than 12,000 at the SEEK2017 conference in San Antonio. PHOTO COURTESY OF SEEK2017

by Karen Bonar
Special to The Leaven

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — “Lord let my heart be open to whatever you desire — to whatever doors you want to open in my life.” Rebekah Straub prayed this before attending SEEK2017 in San Antonio.

Little did she, a sophomore at Benedictine College in Atchison, know the change that would come following the biennial conference, which was hosted by the Fellowship of Catholic University Students Jan. 3 to 7.

After a week of listening to dynamic speakers, Straub returned home to Shawnee. When classes resumed at Benedictine, Straub said she was sitting in class the first day of the semester and struggled to pay attention.

“I was thinking, ‘Lord is this really your great plan? Is this the great glory you have made me for?’” she said.

Up until that time, she planned to major in communications and minor in theology because she wasn’t sure she could handle the academic rigors of the theology program.

“In that moment, I said, ‘Lord, if you want me to do this, you are in control and you’re going to have to do it for me,’” Straub said.

And, pushing her fears aside, she changed her major to evangelization.

“I think that was the first time I had the trust in the Lord that if he’s calling me to do something, he will give me the grace, knowledge and motivation that I need,” Straub said.

“It was the first time that I truly trusted that if he’s placing this desire and love for him in my heart, he will give me the tools I need to live and share it,” she added. “When I doubt myself, I’m doubting the Lord’s ability to work through me.”

Straub was one of 350 students from Benedictine and one of more than 12,000 college students from across the country who attended the conference. An additional 550 FOCUS missionaries, hundreds of men and women religious and other FOCUS alumni brought the conference numbers to nearly 13,000.

Audry Salvador, a FOCUS missionary at Benedictine College, said that is natural to reevaluate one’s spiritual journey after experiencing something like SEEK.

“After SEEK, people have the courage and trust to renew the calling and following of God,” Salvador said. “It can be a change in personal life, or even a change of major. It’s not uncommon for people to reexamine how they’re following Christ.”

Father Scott Wallisch is the director of vocations for the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas. He lives in Lawrence, is involved in the St. Lawrence Catholic Campus Center at the University of Kansas and makes monthly trips to Benedictine College. In order to spend more time with a variety of youth from the archdiocese, he opted to ride with the students from Kansas State University to SEEK.

“As grueling as the bus rides can be, it’s a good time to get to know the students,” said Father Wallisch. “It’s easy to mill around and get to know them, and they can get to know you, too. As vocation director, it’s important to establish yourself as someone they’re comfortable coming and talking to.”

Aaron Waldeck, a senior at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, was among 130 students from the St. Lawrence Center who attended SEEK.

Graduating in May from KU with a degree in classical languages, Waldeck will enter Kenrick-Glennon Seminary in St. Louis in August for the archdiocese.

He attended SEEK in 2015 when it was in Nashville, Tennessee, and said his entire college experience with the St. Lawrence Center aided his vocational discernment.

“Both times I’ve gone to SEEK were amazing times to witness and see firsthand the importance of the priesthood,” he said. “One of my favorite parts about the conference is the long processions in Mass where you have all of the seminarians, deacons, priests and bishops walk in. Every time I would see those processions, I had a strong desire to be involved in them.”

Inspiring speakers

But the conference was more than processions. The lineup for the conference included nearly three dozen Catholic speakers from around the country.

Julia Keiter, a junior at Kansas State University in Manhattan, attended SEEK for the first time. One of about 180 students from K-State who attended, she said she was looking forward to hearing Father Mike Schmitz, the director of youth and young adult ministry for the Diocese of Duluth and chaplain for the Newman Center at the University of Minnesota-Duluth.

Keiter said several friends attended in 2015 and introduced her to Father Schmitz’s podcasts.

“I listen to his podcast every week,” Keiter said. “During the conference, I ran into him in the hallway and freaked out.”

During one of his Keynote talks, Father Schmitz compared SEEK to a greenhouse.

“A greenhouse is where they grow the plants inside so they can be uprooted and planted in other environments,” Keiter said of the speech. “He said this conference is like a greenhouse, but you’re not meant to live in a greenhouse. He said we were meant to be rooted in the real world and share our faith with everyone.”

She also enjoyed Leah Darrow, a former model who speaks about modesty, dignity, mercy, chastity and conversion.

Waldeck said he enjoyed Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput’s talk about building bridges toward other people as a means of evangelization, while Straub said speakers Scott Hahn and Sister Bethany Madonna resonated with her.

Maureen Graham, a junior at K-State, said she enjoyed speaker Audrey Assad, the daughter of a Syrian refugee and a speaker, producer and songwriter/musician. Graham said women waited in line for two hours to hear Assad speak.

“All these women wanted to hear her story of truth and the healing and forgiveness found through Christ and the church,” Graham said. “She wasn’t scared to share things that were very real and that people don’t often like to talk about.

“I learned that no matter what you’ve done or where you’ve been, there’s healing that comes.”

Moving forward

Graham said students from K-State who attended SEEK are now encouraging others to join them in attending daily Mass.

And in her personal life, Graham said she has taken a serious look at her daily prayer life.

“Now that I have so many tools from the conference, I am seeing what I am doing and what I can change to be holier and a more devout Catholic every day,” she said.

One area Waldeck said he’s long understood is the importance of centering one’s life around prayer.

“I often struggled with making a specific time to pray,” he said. “I learned that instead of building prayer around my schedule, I need to work on building my schedule around prayer.

“Prayer is the cornerstone, rather than me trying to fit it in.”

Salvador said taking 350 students to SEEK was a blessing. As a missionary, she hopes to continue to build on the opportunities for encountering Christ.

“We’re trying to boost Bible study and retreat sign-ups,” she said. “We are working on different activities to help students take what they experienced [here at this conference] and put it into action.

“This isn’t intended to be a one-time event. The real win is when they take what they learned and turn it into a living relationship with Christ.”

Karen Bonar is the editor of The Register in the Diocese of Salina.

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