What makes the SEEK Conference so powerful for anyone who attends?

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With banners, flags, music and chants, the mass of college students from all over the country stormed into the convention venue that kicked off the SEEK2019: Encounter Something More Conference hosted by the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS) in Indianapolis, Jan. 3 – 7.

The palpable joy present among the nearly 17,000 participants caught the attention of more than just a few first partakers of the event.

Indeed, it left many wondering why so many college students wanted to spend the remainder of their winter break at a Catholic conference, and what had happened there that made such a big buzz all over.

While many of the key elements that contribute to the great success of a conference like SEEK often remain hidden, – such as the tireless work of those in logistics – there are more visible aspects that, in harmony with everything else, accomplish the ultimate goal: that people encounter Jesus Christ and become his disciples.

Based on testimonies of participants, here are some of the greatest elements that impacted them about the conference.

Nearly 17,000 students and missionaries from colleges all over the country attended the SEEK2019: Encounter Something More Conference Jan. 3-7. (Photo provided by FOCUS)

The true desire

Father Jim Crisman, who, as pastor at St. Peter’s Parish in Greeley, works with FOCUS missionaries at the University of Northern Colorado through the Bear Catholic program, linked the big impact FOCUS has had, and what it offers through SEEK, to the longing for God already present in the students.

“[FOCUS has had such a great impact] precisely because there’s a hunger in the world… So, when someone who is hungry and desires to know the truth and live the truth receives an invitation, [they see that] now they have an opportunity to do so through the mission activities of FOCUS, [including SEEK],” he assured.

Experience of the Church

But, how does SEEK help people encounter God, and know and live the truth?

A contributing aspect common to many testimonies of the conference is a renewed experience of the living Church.

“The very fact that there were students as well as seminaries, as well as priests, as well as life-long missionaries, and all of us together in these talks and praying together, and spending time together was a really cool vision of the Church alive in a very powerful way,” Father Crisman said.

“When on the first day I saw all the priests process in for Mass and that many young people who chose to spend part of their Christmas break to grow in relationship with Christ, I was taken back,” Luke Metzer, a student from the Colorado School of Mines, also recounted.

More than 400 priests concelebrated Mass and heard more than 6,500 confessions during the SEEK conference. (Photo provided by FOCUS)

For Janet Driscoll and her husband, long-time parishioners of St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Boulder, this aspect took on a different form. Despite it being their first time attending SEEK, they have been sponsoring FOCUS missionaries for about 20 years, and were delighted to witness the exponential growth of the organization, and the joy on so many young faces.

Their daughter Lisa Driscoll, FOCUS missionary and team director at MIT, also shared about the importance of the experience of community.

“We are made for relationship, and you see that in a very wide scale at SEEK. The Devil wants us to think that we are alone… [But] when a person from any state of life is able to see just a portion of the universal Church, that solidarity and that unity is something that we can’t experience on a daily basis, and it provides great hope and encouragement,” she said.

Speakers and topics

The variety of topics offered to the participants of the SEEK conference — ranging from relationships to atheism — and the diversity of talented speakers — including Father Mike Schmitz, Scott Hahn and Sister Bethany Madonna — were also contributing factors to the outcome of the event.

“Every talk I went to, I was just blown away. The gifts that those people they chose as speakers and keynotes have are truly amazing. I can’t commend FOCUS enough for putting on a conference like that. I think it’s hard to go to SEEK and not be changed about the way you think about your life and how you arrange your priorities,” Metzer shared. “The speakers were just phenomenal, and I can’t thank them enough. They’ll never know how much they’ve done for me and other people like me.”

The speakers and topics chosen were important factors that contributed to the overall success and impact of the conference. (Photo provided by FOCUS)

Janet believes that the topics chosen were essential because they touched on fundamental topics of the human person.

“Many of the speakers talked about the big questions, because that’s what FOCUS is about — trying to help all of us, not just students, ask: Who is God? What does he mean in my life? What is my purpose? What is God’s purpose for me?” she said. “The speakers talked about mission in a way that made me think about my own mission… The FOCUS mission is to evangelize and form all of us at any age.”

Jesus in the sacraments

Finally, many students were able to encounter Jesus during SEEK through confession, Eucharistic adoration and the Mass. In fact, more than 400 priests concelebrated Mass and heard more than 6,500 confessions.

Janet recalled partaking of the night of Eucharistic adoration with some 17,000 students.

“It surprised me to see that people [were] so touched. There was something different about the Eucharistic procession they had… There was something very inspiring going on, we could see it,” she recalled.

Lisa highlighted her father’s experience, who, after coming out of confession, saw Jesus in the monstrance in front of him and was “overcome by emotion.”

“It was a beautiful moment of embrace for all of us to share in the goodness of God and his mercy, in our family and in our own intentions in our family,” she said.

More than 17,000 people participated in Eucharistic adoration during SEEK2019. (Photo provided by FOCUS)

The MIT missionary also shared the story of a student from her group who was able to experience God through the beautiful music of polyphony during Mass, and after the conference disclosed that she wanted to become Catholic.

Call to mission

Amid the numerous hearts that were touched at the conference, the common theme of becoming missionary disciples resounded through SEEK2019. This insistence is perhaps one of the main contributors to the great impact of the conference, as is witnessed by the continual growth of the number of SEEK attendees and missionaries.

Archbishop of Denver Samuel J. Aquila, who took a break from the U.S. bishops’ retreat to celebrate the Sunday, Jan. 6 Mass at the conference, encouraged the participants to be witnesses of Christ after encountering him.

“Once we have encountered Jesus… who is the light, we are to become the light of the world… And my sons and daughters, you are the light of the world today in history,” he said. “You are sent on mission, in whatever walk of life you are in, to bring Christ to others. All of us are given that commission. We cannot let that light be hidden but rather we must let that light shine.”

Many speakers at SEEK2019 encouraged the participants to share their joy and love for Christ with others upon returning to their campuses and homes. (Photo provided by FOCUS)

Beyond the many reasons that contribute to the powerful impact of the SEEK conference, one thing is for certain: The model of missionary discipleship works; and, as Father Crisman put it, “It’s the model that Jesus set up — we’re simply following it.”

COMING UP: Radical living and my friend Shelly

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I saw my friend Shelly the other day, for the first time in 28 years.

Back in the day, she was Shelly Pennefather, basketball phenomenon. She led Denver’s Bishop Machebeuf High School’s women’s basketball team to three undefeated seasons, a 70-0 record. In her senior year, her family moved to Utica, New York, where she led the Notre Dame High School team to a 26-0 season, giving her a no loss record for her entire high school career. She remains Villanova University’s all-time scorer — men’s and women’s — with a career total of 2408 points.  She also holds the women’s rebound record, at 1171. She is a three-time Big East Player of the Year, the first All-American out of the Big East, the 1987 National Player of the Year, and a winner of the prestigious Wade Trophy. She’s been inducted into the Philadelphia Women’s Big Five Hall of Fame, and Villanova has retired her jersey. After college, she played professional women’s basketball in Japan. She was making more money than anybody I knew.

She doesn’t go by Shelly anymore. These days, she is Sister Rose Marie of the Queen of Angels. She lives in the Poor Clares Monastery in Alexandria, Virginia. She joined their community in 1991 and took her final vows in 1997. They are cloistered, which means that they don’t leave the monastery, except for medical emergencies. Her only contact with the outside world is through letters, and very limited visits with family and friends. She’s never used the internet, doesn’t know what Facebook is, and when she saw a visitor answer a cell phone, she asked “What is that?”

Why? Why on God’s earth would a basketball star of this magnitude just walk away from the game and the fame, or go from being one of the world’s highest paid women’s basketball players to taking a vow of perpetual poverty? Why would an attractive, funny, vivacious 25-year-old woman renounce marriage and family to lock herself up in a monastery? Why would a loving daughter and sister embrace a religious discipline wherein she could only see her family — through a screen —a few times a year, and hug them only once every 25 years? Why would anybody voluntarily live a life in which they could own nothing, sleep no more than four hours at a time (on a straw mat), eat no more than one full meal a day, and use telephones, TV, radio, internet and newspapers — well, never?

It all boils down to this: We’re all gonna die. And when we do, all of the money and the prestige and the accomplishments and the basketball awards are going to fall away. All that will be left is us and God. If we play our cards right, we will spend eternity beholding his face and praising him. And, as St. Augustine says, that is where our truest happiness lies — in this life as well as in the next: “Our hearts were made for Thee, O Lord, and will not rest until they rest in Thee.”

Cloistered sisters like the Poor Clares make the radical choice to live that way now — to begin their eternal life here on earth. As religious sisters, they are brides of Christ, and they focus their lives entirely on their bridegroom, without the distractions of all the stuff that’s going to fall away after death anyway. They spend their lives primarily in prayer — praying for you and for me and for this entire mixed up world and in deepening their own relationship with Christ.

This, it goes without saying, is a radical way to live. It is not for everyone, or even for most people. It is a free choice on the part of the sisters. But they do not take the initiative. God himself is the initiator. He calls them to this life, and they freely respond. Sister Rose Marie herself told her coach that this was not the life she would have chosen for herself, but it was very clear to her that it was the life God was calling her to.

I finally got to see Sister Rose Marie last weekend, as she celebrated the 25th anniversary of her solemn vows. I had the privilege of witnessing the once-every-25-year-hugs she gave her family. I spoke to her briefly, from behind the screen. She was always a cheerful person. But I saw a joy and a radiance in her that day that I have rarely seen ever, in anyone. It was beautiful.

The great gift these sisters give to us, aside from their prayers, is that they remind us that this life, and all its pleasures and distractions, will not last forever. And their dedication and their joy give us a small glimpse into the joy that is in store for us, if we can only imitate in some small way their singular focus on their Bridegroom.

Pray for them. And pray for the grace to do what they do — to rise above the distractions of this world and look toward the life that never ends.