Have you ever walked in late to a movie, after key elements of the plot have already been revealed, and you find after a few minutes that your head is spinning and you simply have no idea what is going on?
That’s how I felt Jan. 1 when I walked into the Gaylord Opryland Hotel in Nashville to check in at SEEK 2015, the biannual conference of the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS).
Crowded in on all sides by more than 9,500 college students jostling about to see who they knew, or fervently texting for the whereabouts of friends they hadn’t seen since (gasp) before Christmas, my head began to spin, and I began to ask “why?”
What exactly, I asked, went on before this point that would explain why these very normal (and loud) college kids from 450 of our nation’s universities would freely sign up to spend five days of their Christmas break at a conference where they were expected to pray, listen to talks on the faith, and seek fellowship with priests, nuns, bishops and lay missionaries?
Over the next five days, three moments helped fill in missing parts of the story.
Questions-and-answers with Sister Mary Gabriel: It might be because this was the first talk I attended, or maybe it was the warmth and charm of this Sister of Life, or that this was a women-only session, but I was deeply moved by the genuinely profound and honest conversation carried on here, moderated by the delightful Sarah Swafford.
As I was following the questions on Twitter, I was a little impressed by the spiritual depth of these young college women, and the fact that more than half the questions dealt with how to discern a vocation. “Was there a definite moment where you just knew what God wanted you to do?” asked @BuddKate.
Others asked more personal questions about how to heal deep-seated wounds, such as growing up not knowing the love of a father, or how to bring a boyfriend or a family member closer to Christ. Others had really good questions on prayer.
These weren’t your average college kids, or even your average Catholics. These women had received some pretty good spiritual and intellectual formation from somewhere, and my guess was that FOCUS had something to do with that.
Eucharistic adoration and confession: From the moment I entered the chapel on Thursday, I knew I was in the presence of some fairly powerful prayer warriors. The room was half-full of young adults deep in prayer, and as the conference progressed, it became harder to find an empty seat.
The marquee event, however, was Saturday evening’s eucharistic adoration and procession. Tears flowed all around me as a series of priests processed with the Blessed Sacrament up and down the aisles, blessing each section of students as they progressed.
That night, thousands of students lined up for confession (5,500 in total over the five-day event). An anonymous poster on Yik Yak (a social media app) revealed the depth of his experience: “That confession was my first true one. I have never been so relieved. God is good.”
Kylie Salmen from Dakota State University told FOCUS how she was affected by adoration and confession that night: “I could feel that I was not alone and that God was with me. I arrived at SEEK 2015 a wounded woman and left beginning to heal.”
The missionaries: This wasn’t one moment, but a series of moments spent talking to several of the currently 400 missionaries who serve on college campuses around the country about their life and the work they do to bring Christ to their peers—befriending them, leading them in Bible studies—and the hour they spend every day in prayer.
And that’s when it all made sense—the prayer, the formation, the massive confession lines, the adoration, the attendance at daily Mass. These were college students, living on campuses that are unfortunately rife with binge drinking and promiscuity, and nearly 10,000 of those students came to Nashville during their Christmas break in search of something totally different. And why did they come? It’s because a FOCUS missionary invited them.
The beginning of the story that I missed was the part when a FOCUS missionary stepped onto a college campus, and began to pound the pavement for Christ, seeking opportunities to bring the Gospel to young hearts that are hungry for something more.
And if what I saw at SEEK 2015 is any indication, those missionaries just might be the ones who transform their lost generation into a generation uniquely on fire for Christ. Now that would be some story, wouldn’t it?