By Kiki Hayden | OSV News
(OSV News) — Whether bringing students to adoration, leading reflections on grace and forgiveness, or planning a pilgrimage, attendees of this year’s SEEK23 are already sharing the fruits of their conference experiences with others.
“It gave me hope,” Sister Maryam Caritas, a member of the Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity, said about her experience with the SEEK23 Conference, held Jan. 2-6 in St. Louis, Missouri. Hosted by the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS) and open to anyone interested in encountering Jesus Christ, the conference was “renewing,” according to Sister Maryam, both for herself and others “serving at really challenging places.”
SEEK23 boasted approximately 19,000 registrants, many of whom have since returned to their parishes and college campuses to spread the Gospel. The conference featured speakers such as Edward Sri, Father Rafael Capó and Sister Miriam James Heidland, a member of the Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity. Daily Mass brought these thousands of participating Catholics together, and the adoration chapel was full to bursting.
Serving both the religious education and youth group programs at Christ the King Parish in Corpus Christi, Texas, Sister Maryam paid close attention to where people gathered during SEEK23. She remarked that the adoration chapel was “so crowded. They even had to shut the doors one day.”
“For me, that was just convicting my own heart that the young people really want Jesus,” she said.
The day after she returned home, Sister Maryam called a friend to come play praise and worship music for her youth group teens during adoration. “Take ’em to Jesus,” she told OSV News, “because that’s what works and that’s what we want anyway. We want Jesus.”
Javier Lugo, a 26-year-old FOCUS missionary at University of Miami, internalized a similar message at SEEK23. On Jan. 17, SEEK23 attendees from the University of Miami gathered for a “mini SEEK reunion,” a time to discuss their experiences.
“It’s important to have a time for [the students] to process,” Lugo explained. At the reunion, Lugo discussed his renewed conviction to “prioritize a part a time for prayer each day … to not let any other thing interfere with my time of prayer.”
Lugo experienced “a lot of hope” watching his students experience SEEK23.
“As a missionary and I guess as any other person that’s working in a Catholic apostolate, I think discouragement can be quite present,” he said. “A lot of my graces were just seeing my students encounter Christ and seeing … their eyes open to the Catholic world, the Catholic family.”
Martha Griswold, FOCUS missionary at Our Lady of the Valley Parish in Windsor, Colorado, is no stranger to the discouragement Lugo mentioned.
“Especially during those seasons when sometimes it feels lonely to believe what you do and be fighting for what you do and really be trying to pursue Christ, sometimes it’s really lonely,” she told OSV News. “But I think SEEK reminded me again I’m a part of the mystical body of Christ.”
At 34, with 12 years of service as a FOCUS missionary, Griswold has attended FOCUS conferences since before they were called SEEK. At SEEK23, Griswold was reminded of “the importance of prayer; bringing parishioners to pray.”
After SEEK23, Griswold shared one of the talks with her small group about forgiveness. She also encouraged her fellow parishioners to attend the SEEK Where You Are experience at Our Lady of the Valley, speaking with conviction: “If this is actually God, if you’re struggling to believe that, or if that’s something that is hard for you to accept, then this weekend is for you and it’s the most important question that you can ever answer.”
Griswold knows that she must allow Jesus to pursue her first.
“Everything I’m doing as a missionary,” she said, “has to flow from … letting him continually redeem me and bring me deeper into his heart.” She acknowledged that working on behalf of the church sometimes brings a kind of “subconscious” temptation that “we’re almost trying to earn God’s love through how we’re sharing Him — and that’s not how it works.”
This is a timely message, as many dioceses and parishes are undergoing changes all over the country. Father Andrew A. Auer, 29, associate pastor at Saint Clare of Assisi Parish in Ellisville, Missouri, drew confidence from his experience at SEEK23.
“I’m most open to [upcoming changes] because I believe that Jesus is in charge, and the Holy Spirit is still the one who’s animating the church,” he told OSV News. Being at a conference with so many Catholics together encouraged Father Auer. “It gave me a lot of hope for leading people closer to Jesus for a really long time.”
One impact Father Auer has already seen within his own parish is the growing solidarity between generations.
“I think there’s an excitement there, like the parishioners see young people returning to the Lord and whether they’re in their 40s, 50s, 60s or 70s, they also want to be a part of it,” the priest said. He felt that SEEK23 showcased “the older church really wanting to join arms with the young Catholics who are ready to boldly profess the faith.”
That boldness was visible in the adoration chapel, open from morning to evening each day of the conference.
“That chapel was pretty much always full the entire week,” Father Auer said. In a chapel with approximately 1,100 seats, Father Auer saw “kids — and the older people too — sitting on the ground because there’s no place to sit. … There were people who were intensely pursuing the Lord and they wanted to know what his beating heart was saying to them in adoration.”
The priest said Catholics at SEEK23 prioritized having that time with Jesus in adoration.
“They would forgo hanging out with friends during mealtime; they would forgo going to some talk so that they could stay with Jesus in adoration,” he said.
For Father Auer, SEEK23 was “enough of a jolt, enough of a wake-up call for me to begin a new process of reconversion.”
“We really do need retreat-like or conference-like experiences to go deeper in our faith,” he said. In his own parish, Father Auer is organizing a pilgrimage to France in April that will, among other places, visit places like Lisieux (where St. Therese of the Child Jesus grew up) and Lourdes (where the Virgin Mary appeared to St. Bernadette).
The SEEK conference is expected to continue making an impact on participants’ own renewed missionary adventure over the course of the year. Sister Maryam said just “seeing the Church alive and active” was a “shot in the arm.”
“To see the young people gives me such a hope for the church,” she said. “Not just of the future … I’m talking about the now.”