Young Catholics converge at SEEK23: ‘I love seeing people fall in love with Jesus’
St. Louis, Mo., Jan 6, 2023 / 15:45 pm
After three years apart, more than 17,000 people — students, adults, families, bishops, priests, sisters, and more — descended on St. Louis this week for the SEEK23 Catholic conference, put on by the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS).
The gathering marks FOCUS’ first fully in-person national conference since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. FOCUS held a national conference in Indianapolis in 2019 and a smaller student leadership summit in Phoenix in the earliest days of 2020. Conferences for 2021 and 2022 were held online due to the pandemic.
The keynote speakers at SEEK23 all told CNA that the conference felt like a return to how the Catholic faith ought to be lived — in community, rather than individually.
“We’re made to be together in person, not on screens. I’m grateful we had the screens in the height of the pandemic and all, but you see the joy on all these young people’s faces, and you can’t quite capture that on a screen,” Edward Sri, a co-founder of FOCUS and a renowned speaker and author, told CNA on the final day of the conference.
“When you see young people responding to the Gospel, young people so joyful, young people wanting to go and stop in the adoration chapel and pray — it’s just very moving.”
Beginning Jan. 2, Catholics of all ages and backgrounds filled the America’s Center Convention Complex in downtown St. Louis, a city with a historically vibrant Catholic presence that earned it the informal moniker “The Rome of the West.” St. John Paul II visited the city in 1999, leaving a lasting impression — especially on the young — despite his age and fragile health at the time.
Whether roaming the halls or cheering in the arenas, the young people at SEEK23 radiated a palpable joy — one that had been lacking from the virtual gatherings of yesteryear. The conference featured talks, workshops, entertainment, prayer, and worship.
Twenty-five years ago, when Sri helped facilitate the first FOCUS conference, only two dozen or so people were present, he said. Official attendance numbers for SEEK23 haven’t yet been released, but they are in the tens of thousands.
“But to me, it’s not primarily about the numbers… it’s what’s happening in people’s souls, and to see the response. I’m hearing stories of conversions. People who weren’t Catholic that are saying, ‘I want to become Catholic now,’” Sri said.
Sri, who along with FOCUS co-founder Curtis Martin is leading an online Lenten Bible study this year, stressed that for the young people in attendance, the experience of a major Catholic conference is not the end of their faith journey but rather an invitation to have deeper conversations with their peers about the faith.
“I think the reason the conference is so impactful is because of everything happening in the years before and the years after,” he said.
“Real evangelization is heart to heart, person to person. That’s what Jesus did. Jesus just didn’t get up and just give a talk and then people had a long-term conversion … Matthew, James, John, Phillip, Andrew. Those are the people he’s been investing in for years. He gives the big sermon, and then he keeps investing in them afterward and he launches them to go out and change the world.”
Attendees and students reflect: ‘Very powerful’
Despite being marketed mainly to students and young people, SEEK23 also included numerous talks and workshops for married couples and other more mature Catholics wishing to deepen their faith.
Jaime and Hannah Haro, Catholic spouses from St. Louis, brought their two young children to adoration on one of the evenings of the conference. Both of the Haros have attended previous in-person SEEK conferences but said they were especially excited to attend the talks geared toward families, as this was their first SEEK experience since becoming parents.
“Bringing them and experiencing adoration as a family was beautiful. I can’t even explain how beautiful it was. Just being there, being able to pray with my husband and showing my girls what this is all about,” Hannah Haro told CNA.
“After COVID and everything, being able to come back and see how many people are here for a specific purpose — I think it’s very powerful,” Jaime Haro added.
“And bringing our girls yesterday, I think just, especially in adoration… It’s just so powerful. Not only do they do great music and just the way they present the Blessed Sacrament is so impactful, but the amount of people that are there adoring him is also part of that experience. I’m glad they brought [SEEK] back because we were supposed to be here in 2021, so I’m glad that they did it here [in St. Louis] again for this year.”
Hunter Nash, a student from Perry, Georgia, who attends Middle Georgia State University, told CNA that the last time he attended a FOCUS conference, he was not Catholic. He attended SLS20, FOCUS’ smaller student leadership summit held in Phoenix, at the invitation of a Catholic friend, despite his family’s objections.
Nash said his experience at SLS20 helped him to become convinced, intellectually, that the Eucharist is the body and blood of Christ, and he proceeded to become Catholic through the RCIA process. In 2021, when SEEK was moved online due to COVID, Nash said he participated in a local, socially-distanced gathering of students at his college town in Georgia and attended a similar local gathering in 2022.
Although Nash found those gatherings enjoyable, “there’s no comparing the COVID years to actually being here in person.” He said he particularly enjoyed the sessions geared toward men at SEEK23 — a handful of the many sessions offered are sex-segregated — and was gratified to bump into a Catholic podcaster whom he admires, Matt Fradd.
“Never despair. Keep reading, keep praying, keep seeking, pardon the pun,” Nash said, addressing students who, like him, might have attended a FOCUS conference as a non-Catholic.
“Whether or not you discern that you ought to become Catholic, or you discern that you ought not — if you trust God, at the end of it your faith will be stronger. That being said, I do sincerely hope you become Catholic,” he said, laughing.
After two virtual years, SEEK23 marked a return to packed audience halls and outsized venues for many of the Catholic speakers who addressed the crowds during the week.
“One thing I think has been remarkable has been the freedom that I’ve seen in the students, when it comes to coming out of this fear that’s been hanging over people for a couple of years now,” Father Mike Schmitz, host of the popular “Catechism in a Year” podcast, told CNA.
“I just see a freedom. I see what life should be like, where we’re in contact with each other, we’re in proximity with each other, we’re in relationship. After two years of isolation… you’re made for contact with each other. And that’s one of the things I see [here at SEEK], which is awesome.”
Paul J. Kim, a Catholic speaker, musician, and comedian, told CNA that it is clear to see that the attendees have longed for the fellowship that a conference like this facilitates.
“I think everyone obviously has been hungry to be together. I think the great joy and excitement of SEEK is that you’re with so many people who share the same faith in Christ,” he told CNA.
“We’re meant to be together as human beings. We’re not meant to be isolated or on the metaverse, or all this junk. We’re meant to be with each other. We’re incarnational beings, just like Christ. It’s awesome.”
Chika Anyanwu, a keynote speaker at SEEK23, told CNA that she approached the event with a certain amount of trepidation, harboring some doubts as to whether such a large gathering was wise given the large numbers of the populace currently being sickened by the flu, COVID, and RSV.
“But we have to learn how to responsibly live within this new normal,” Anyanwu said.
“And I’m grateful for people who are able to come, but also there are people who are doing this online or with community groups, whether it’s their ministry, their school ministry or parish ministries, they’re coming together in a smaller way. And I think that’s just as great as being here. So however you feel comfortable, I’m just glad that people are coming,” she said.
This year marks nearly 20 SEEK conferences for Lisa Cotter, who served as a FOCUS missionary and who gave a talk at SEEK23 on discernment. Cotter said she is concerned about the “micro-generation” of students whose high school or college careers have mostly encompassed the pandemic, causing them to miss out on many in-person experiences, like SEEK.
“That power of when people gather, you cannot replicate that online. It’s good to have that experience if you can’t get here — something is better than nothing. But being together is just a massive difference in terms of … I mean, the Gospels even tell us, right? When two or three are gathered together, ‘There I am in the midst of you,’” Cotter told CNA.
“So, we know that there’s power in that. There’s a reason we gather as Catholics every Sunday, and we don’t say, ‘Go pray in your fishing boat by yourself.’ … We have to be the body of Christ, we have to be together. And so to see that lived out again is critical.”
For Father Josh Johnson, vocations director for the Diocese of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and a podcaster and author, this also marks the latest of many SEEK conferences he has attended. He led, along with Sister Miriam Heidland, the attendees in a massive adoration session on the Wednesday night of the conference.
“To be at adoration [Wednesday] with the students and to watch them gaze at the Eucharist, and to see the lines for confessions, that’s just beautiful, it’s just really beautiful. And I have a very profound feeling that I’m surrounded by future saints here at this conference. And I’m not just saying that. I really feel it,” he told CNA.
Johnson said although “the introvert in me is dying because it’s so many people, the priest in me is just filled with joy.”
“I’m filled with joy because I love Jesus and I love seeing people fall in love with Jesus. And I’m seeing that tangibly this week, so it’s been a gift,” Johnson said.
He also said that for him personally, he has received a lot of encouragement about his own ministry from people at the conference.
“It’s just a gift to reconnect with co-workers in the vineyard and to build each other up. But then, also, it is so beautiful just to see these young adults encounter Christ and share their testimony,” he said.
Sister Heidland — also a self-described introvert — nevertheless said being together again in person has been “wonderful.”
“There’s just an electrical, just a magnetic energy that flows through a crowd of that many people of all coming to encounter the Lord,” Heidland told CNA.
“It’s beautiful to see so many people coming together, and the fact that nobody HAS to be here. This is not some requirement for confirmation. People are coming because they want to. When you see young and old alike, it’s really inspiring, and I think we all need that. We all need the reminder, the physical reminder, that we are not alone.”
FOCUS missionaries moved, encouraged
FOCUS sends missionaries to college campuses across the United States and abroad to share the Catholic faith primarily through Bible studies and small groups, practicing what it calls “The Little Way of Evangelization” — winning people to the faith through authentic friendships and forming others to go out and do the same.
Srishti Gupta, a convert from atheism now in her fifth year as a FOCUS missionary, told CNA that she teared up at the conference’s opening Mass as she joined with thousands of voices singing and offering the responses during the liturgy.
“I was overwhelmed, in a good way. We needed this. My students needed this… most of them haven’t been to anything like this,” Gupta said.
Gupta’s teammate, second-year FOCUS missionary Kara Kelly, attended FOCUS conferences in 2019 and 2020 as a student. After those SEEK experiences, she started attending daily Mass and pined for the sacraments during the COVID lockdowns. She says the foundation of prayer she developed at FOCUS conferences helped to lead her to realize she should apply to become a missionary.
“I’m a whole other person because of it,” she said of her FOCUS experience.
“The Lord wanted me to see the beauty of the Church again, because I hadn’t seen it for so long, and I was losing my conviction, I was losing my drive … being back has just rekindled that, and brought it back.”
“This Catholic faith isn’t just Georgia College, where I’m placed — it’s universal. The need for community and the need for this walk with the Lord, together… seeing this really inspires me to keep going.”
For Joy Dan, a second-year missionary at UCLA, this was her first in-person SEEK conference after joining exclusively online previously — despite a 16-hour time difference.
Dan moved to the U.S. for the first time in 2021 from Malaysia, a country that lacks the infrastructure to put on a major Catholic conference like SEEK, she said. She was moved to apply for FOCUS after encountering missionaries who came to her home country in 2017.
“For the first time in my life, I saw people with authentic joy,” Dan said.
The joyful and holy environment of SEEK is bearing spiritual fruit, she said. On the last night of the conference, one of the UCLA students she mentors as a missionary returned to the sacrament of confession for the first time in three years.
“There are so many people who are seeking God,” Dan said. “There’s this hole in you that only God can fill. And if there’s something about the Catholic Church that you want to ask, ask it — be bold.”