Every other year, the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS) hosts its SEEK conference that draws thousands of young Catholics together to encounter Christ and share the Gospel. For safety reasons, SEEK21 was streamed from Denver, CO in a hybrid format with the majority of events online. As a result, SEEK21 was actually FOCUS’ largest event to-date with 27,000 participants from 20 countries on 6 continents. But SEEK21 was markedly different from previous years, and not just because it was online.
Here are 5 key takeaways from SEEK21:
1. A Culture of Life, Not a Culture of Death
The challenges of the past year have been complicated and overwhelming. Many feel lost about what to think, how to pray, and wonder if there is any adequate response to the suffering we see and experience. One popular response to suffering and injustice is “cancel culture.” But condemnation and ostracization are symptoms of the “throwaway culture” that Pope Francis warns against. Instead, SEEK presents the Catholic imagination for a ‘culture of life’.
SEEK presenter Chris Stefanick acknowledged that many Christians, too, are guilty of responding with condemnation instead of love. He encouraged everyone to follow Jesus in preaching the truth of the Gospel, but always with love. Stefanick says that no matter how much we disagree with someone, “the command of Jesus Christ still stands: ‘with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bear with one another in love’.” (Eph 4:2) The Church has always stood boldly for human dignity and reconciliation and now is no different. We as followers of Jesus Christ must be witnesses to a culture of life in our words and actions.
2. Personal Conversion Leads to Cultural Conversion
Later in his talk, Chris Stefanick asked the audience, “Has the love of Jesus Christ conquered your heart? If it hasn’t, you will never conquer ‘cancel culture’.” Faced with the world’s immense problems and systemic injustices, young people can feel paralyzed. Rather than withdrawing from the world or wallowing in despair, the speakers at SEEK21 empowered young people to change the world through personal conversion.
Imaculée Ilibagiza is a survivor of the Rwandan genocide, and she shared her story of forgiving the men who killed her family. “I felt like God was telling me, ‘you don’t have to know how to figure out everything. Give it to me! You are only human’…If I can forgive, anyone can forgive. I know the pain and damage of un-forgiveness. Dare to forgive, there is so much joy, there is so much freedom.” Immaculée surrendered her heart to be transformed by God who gave her the grace to forgive and inspired her to spread the Gospel through her talks and books.
Of course, the Church needs constant conversion, too, since the Church has perpetrated violence and oppression. Chika Anyanwu expressed her sorrow for racism in the Church and challenged everyone to boldly confront racism in all its forms. She asked, “If Jesus were to walk in [to the Church] would He recognize His bride and all of her members?…Jesus is showing us the model of how to do these things.” Personal conversion to the heart of Jesus Christ is the first step toward conversion of culture.
3. We Are In This Together
SEEK21 was an experience of “Church” in the broadest sense. In a time when many are still unable to visit their local parishes or receive the sacraments, this coming-together of the faithful was very consoling. SEEK21 connected the 800 FOCUS missionaries spread across the U.S. and Europe on 171 campuses. Video feeds from each location gave each participant a sense of belonging to something bigger than themselves.
Though many presentations focused on individual conversion and spirituality, there was also a strong call to grow and move forward together as Church. Keynote Speaker Hilary Draftz remarked that “Our salvation is deeply personal, but it is not individualistic…God saves us as a family in the big, messy, Catholic Church.”
The conference presenters echoed this spirit with invitations to make the Catholic Church your home, to grow it with new members, and to continually build it up to better serve God and neighbor. Chika Anyanwu said, “We can do the hard work, and we can bring brothers and sisters into the hard work with us.” The Catholic Church has a mission of faith and justice, and one cannot exist without the other.
4. The Church Is Big and Beautiful
SEEK21 was a rare window into the breadth and depth of the Catholic Church. A popular feature of SEEK is “Mission Way” where Catholic groups can showcase opportunities and resources to grow in faith and love. This includes artists like Village Lights Music and Leanne Bowen; missionary organizations like the Seton Teaching Fellows and Christ in the City; Spanish and bilingual presentations from Fr. Agustino Torres, CFR and Priscilla Garza; and presentations from prominent Black Catholics like Chika Anyanwu and Fr. Josh Johnson.
FOCUS fosters a strong partnership between lay leadership and clergy. Vocations of all kinds were celebrated as many Catholic parents reflected on their call to family life. The conference also included the participation of twenty bishops, members of 59 male and female religious orders, and hundreds of diocesan priests and seminarians. SEEK celebrates the breadth of the Catholic Church and inspires all people to find ways to praise God and serve others. Many find inspiration for how they will live their adult faith life and encouragement to discern their vocations. SEEK wants everyone to feel that in the Church, there is room for everyone.
5. We Were Made for This
The usual joy and excitement at SEEK was sobered by the heavy challenges that currently face the world. Yet SEEK21 was infused with hope. The seemingly unprecedented issues of the modern world were transformed from overwhelming problems into creative opportunities. It is true that the saints did not endure our present trials, but that cannot lead us to despair.
Sr. Bethany Madonna, SV reminded everyone, “Do not be afraid, you were chosen at this unique moment in history…you too were chosen for such a time as this, so give God permission [to love you and love the world through you].” Our faith teaches us that God is calling us to be saints of the new millennium. God is giving us the grace to transform our hearts and therefore transform the world. “The one question in Christianity,” said Fr. Mike Schmitz, “is ‘Will you give God permission?’”
*All the digital content from SEEK21 is archived and can be accessed for the next six months. Register to view the full conference here. Registration is now open for SEEK22 in Salt Lake City, you can learn more and register here.
Images courtesy of @focuscatholic on Instagram.