by Jack Figge
Special to The Leaven
ST. LOUIS — After two days of listening to breakout sessions and keynote speakers, and connecting with thousands of other Catholics, 30 members of the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas gathered for an intimate dinner with fellow participants from the archdiocese. There, they testified to how the Lord had encountered them so far, shared impactful messages heard during sessions and discussed what they still hoped to gain over the final two days of the SEEK23 conference.
Since its founding in 1998, the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS) has been dedicated to inviting college students into a relationship with Jesus Christ and active participation in the Catholic faith through sending recent college graduates to be missionaries on campuses across the world. Currently, FOCUS serves 216 locations through the ministry of 861 individuals.
Beyond the on-campus evangelization efforts, FOCUS hosts the SEEK conference every year, bringing in prominent Catholic speakers and leaders to inspire and speak to attendees about the struggles and joys of being Catholic. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, SEEK had been canceled for the past two years. The conference returned this year on a large-scale, hosting over 19,000 attendees at America’s Center Convention Complex in downtown St. Louis.
“The first year I went to SEEK, there were maybe 3,000 people. And I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, this is so cool,’ to see how it has grown is a testimony to the work of FOCUS on campuses,” said keynote speaker Father Mike Schmitz in an interview with The Leaven. “The reason people are here is because every single day, on a college campus, there are missionaries who are reaching out to college students and calling them higher and inviting them into relationship with the Lord.”
For college students, the week offered plenty of opportunities to grow in their faith, both through hearing the testimony of speakers who shared practical ways to practice their Catholic faith on their campuses and through time for prayer and reflection through eucharistic adoration, Mass and confession. Throughout the week, FOCUS also provided students with numerous opportunities to relax and socialize with other Catholics, through events from swing dancing to a concert by the popular musical artist Ben Rector.
“The biggest realization for me this week was that my life and how it goes [are] directly related to how my prayer life or my lack thereof goes,” said Nate Jones, a freshman at Benedictine College in Atchison.
Topics treated by the speakers ranged from the Catholic view on suffering to how to make a good confession. This variety allowed participants to personalize the conference and learn about subjects that fit their interest.
“The most impactful part of SEEK were the impact sessions,” said Ben Stove, a senior at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. “I really enjoyed having the freedom to learn more about the Catholic faith with uncommon topics. I was able to take a lot of notes and now have a lot to pray about over the next couple of weeks.”
Benedictine College sent the largest group of attendees out of any school represented at the conference, with over 200 students traveling to St. Louis. The University of Kansas sent 75 students from its Catholic Campus Center to the conference.
Included in the conference this year was a separate track designed for parish leaders and members who desired to learn how to effectively evangelize within their own parish communities. This track attracted over 3,500 participants, including many from the Kansas City area such as Angie Bittner, the rural youth ministry outreach coordinator for the archdiocese.
“I hope to take back a renewed vigor to build the kingdom for Christ,” said Bittner. “I want to really know him better so that I can tell his story to people. I want to be bold, to be courageous, to be informed, to have a relationship with him so I can work for him in every aspect of my life.”
On the final day, attendees were tasked with a mission: to continue to foster the types of experiences and encounters they’d had this week and go out to their parishes and college campuses sharing the Gospel with others. Church leaders including Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann saw the positive response that attendees gave this call to action and the conference itself as a great sign of hope for the future of the Catholic Church.
“SEEK gives me great hope for the future of the church,” said Archbishop Naumann. “When you see this many young people really engaged and the prayerfulness of the liturgies, it provides a great sense of hope.”