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: The Vatican’s Choice: Jimmy Lai or Xi Jinping?

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In mid-May, Chinese leader Xi Jinping unveiled a plan to bypass Hong Kong’s legislature and impose draconian new “national security” laws on the former British colony. Putatively intended to defend Hong Kong from “secessionists,” “terrorists,” and “foreign influence,” these new measures are in fact designed to curb the brave men and women of Hong Kong’s vibrant pro-democracy movement, who have been aggravating the Beijing totalitarians for a long time. With the world distracted by the Wuhan virus (which the Chinese government’s clumsiness and prevarication did much to globalize), the ever-more-brutal Xi Jinping regime evidently thinks that this is the moment to crack down even harder on those in Hong Kong who cherish freedom and try to defend it.

This latest display of Beijing’s intent to enforce communist power in Hong Kong coincides with the most recent persecution of my friend, Jimmy Lai.

Jimmy and I have only met once. But I have long felt a kinship with this fellow-Catholic, a convert who first put his considerable wealth to work in support of important Catholic activities and who is now risking all in support of the pro-democracy movement in Kong Kong. Arrested in February, and then again in April, Jimmy Lai has been charged with helping organize and lead “unauthorized protests.” That he was in the front ranks of pro-democracy demonstrations is true. The question is, why do the Chinese communists regard peaceful protest in support of freedoms Beijing solemnly promised to protect as treasonous?

In late May, the thugs in Beijing tightened the ratchet of repression another notch: Jimmy Lai’s case was transferred to a court that could give the 72-year old a five-year sentence, or even consecutive sentences. But what else could be expected from a regime that was already trying to bankrupt Lai’s pro-democracy newspaper, Apple Daily, by pressuring both Chinese and international firms to stop buying advertising space there? Shamefully, far too many have kowtowed to those pressures, and a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed article reported that Apple Daily is now cut off from 65% of the Hong Kong advertising market. Meanwhile, Beijing, while trying to reassure the business community that everything will be just fine, warns business leaders (as well as diplomats and journalists) not to “join the anti-China forces in stigmatizing or demonizing” the new national security laws.

The Xi Jinping regime may be less stable than it wants the world to think it is. Secure regimes do not increase repression, as Beijing has done for several years now. Moreover, labeling all criticism of the Xi Jinping government as “anti-China” is not the play a regime confident about its legitimacy and stability would make. Such tactics seem clumsy; they bespeak sweaty nervousness, not calm self-assurance.

The attempt to break the Hong Kong democracy movement is one facet of a broader campaign of repression that has not spared Chinese religious communities on the mainland. One million Muslim Uyghurs remain penned in Xinjiang concentration camps, where they are being “educated.” Protestant house churches are under constant threat. And repressive measures continue to be taken against Catholics and their churches, despite the almost two-year old (and still secret) agreement between the Holy See and Beijing. That agreement, which gave the Chinese communist party a lead role in the nomination of bishops, looks ever more like one in which the Vatican gave away a great deal in return for hollow promises; Chinese Catholics who do not toe the party line as the Chinese communist party defines that line are still persecuted. The effects of this sorry affair on the Church’s evangelical mission in the China of the future – hopefully, a post-communist China – will not be positive.

Around the world, voices have been raised in support of Hong Kong’s brave pro-democracy demonstrators. Has the Holy See’s voice been heard? If so, I missed it and so did many others. Are strong representations in favor of religious freedom and other basic human rights being made by Vatican officials behind the scenes in Beijing and Rome? One might hope so. But if the Holy See’s current China policy is in fact a reprise of its failed Ostpolitik in central and eastern Europe during the 1970s, those representations are more likely tepid and wholly ineffectual.

With one of its most courageous Catholic sons now in the dock and facing what could be life-threatening imprisonment, the Vatican now faces a defining choice: Jimmy Lai or Xi Jinping?