A group of young adults from the Diocese of Superior gathered at FOCUS’s SEEK Conference in St. Louis in January. (Submitted photos)

Aidan Jones
Special to the Catholic Herald

This past January, I had the opportunity to join 20,000 young Catholics as they gathered in St. Louis for the Fellowship of Catholic University Students’ annual SEEK conference. The week was nothing short of incredible, with frequent opportunities for prayer, camaraderie with Catholics from all over the world, and excellent talks by nationally known Catholic speakers.

The heart of the conference was daily Mass, celebrated by a series of cardinals and bishops, including Cardinal Rainer Woelki of Cologne, Germany, and Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York. The other bishops in attendance included the chairman of the National Eucharistic Congress, Bishop Andrew Cozzens of Crookston, Minnesota. More than 500 priests concelebrated each day, and the entrance procession alone took somewhere around 15 to 20 minutes. A large room in the conference center was set aside for private prayer, and several of the week’s speakers were spotted prayerfully preparing their talks in the silence of this chapel. The chapel was often full, and the confession lines wound throughout the second floor of the center. During Eucharistic adoration on Wednesday night alone, an estimated 3,000 confessions were heard. To witness so many of my peers openly seeking Christ was a source of great hope and encouragement to me, both throughout the week and as I returned home.

A Diocese of Superior get-together led by seminarian Andrew Smith occurred on the second day of the conference. It was wonderful getting to reconnect with so many college-age friends from across the diocese. I had become friends with many of these students through the Extreme Faith Camp and Totus Tuus ministries, and it was such a blessing to be able to share the experience of SEEK with people I know and love. As a side note, a student from our diocese (Matthew Halberg from Hayward) was featured on a floor-to-ceiling banner at the conference. Throughout the week, “Matthew’s face” served as a helpful meeting place and landmark. At the end of the conference, he was even able to bring the banner home with him.

SEEK featured a veritable “who’s-who” of Catholic speakers, including Fr. Mike Schmitz, Fr. Gregory Pine, Dr. Edward Sri, Chris Stefanick, Matt Fradd, Jason Evert, and more. Dr. Scott Hahn gave an excellent talk based on his new book, “Catholics in Exile,” where he laid out what modern Catholics can learn from the Babylonian exile of the Jewish people. He noted that “If God is our Father and is in Heaven, then we are all in exile.” However, despite the many excellent talks, it was generally agreed that the highlight of the conference was Msgr. James Shea.

Currently serving as the president of the University of Mary in Bismarck, North Dakota, Msgr. Shea was the only keynote speaker to receive a standing ovation. During a keynote address entitled “The Weight of Our Brokenness,” he mused that “we alone among the creatures of our world are ill-at-ease with our existence.” Msgr. Shea highlighted the existence of sin, death, and the devil before ending his talk with an emphatic proclamation of the hope that Christ brings us. His words flowed like poetry, and his presence on stage was powerful; he is not merely a Catholic speaker, but an orator in the fullest sense of the word. (Readers interested in watching this year’s talks will be happy to know that they are available for free online at www.seekreplay.com. I encourage you to check them out.)

Another highlight of the conference was having the opportunity to sing in a choir made up of students from all over the world for the Thursday morning Mass. Our repertoire was a combination of traditional hymns and Mass parts alongside beautiful new motets written by modern Catholic composers, including Frank La Rocca. Throughout the conference, a projected backdrop of the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis combined beauty and technology to provide a fitting space for Mass. This concept of combining the best of both new and old could perhaps serve as an image of the conference as a whole, as well as an example of how we can effectively bring Christ to the world in the 21st century. The notion of combining modern innovation with the firm foundation of our Catholic patrimony fills me with hope for the future of the church.

On the note of modern innovation, I would be remiss not to mention a new film about the life of Servant of God Michelle Duppong, which premiered at the conference. The film was produced by FOCUS, directed by Trevor Jin, and entitled “Thirst for Souls: the Michelle Duppong Story.” A FOCUS missionary who passed away in 2015 at the age of 31, Duppong’s cause for canonization is now underway. Duppong’s parents were in attendance at the premiere, and the film was a beautiful testament to the impact that one person’s life can have when surrendered to Christ.

In summary, the 2024 SEEK conference was a powerful combination of sacramental grace, excellent fellowship, honest theological truths, beautiful music, and inspirational witnesses that inspired me to continue living out the Faith. I would highly recommend any college student striving to grow in his faith to attend. Registration is already open for next year’s SEEK conference, which will be held in Salt Lake City.