Grace and blessings cascaded through the corridors and concourses of the America’s Center Convention Complex in St. Louis.
Nearly 24,000 mostly college-age Catholics from all over the country were praying, worshiping, studying and forming unbreakable bonds of communion.
It was SEEK24, a five-day Catholic evangelization conference organized by the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS).
Usually alternated among cities throughout the country, the event was held for the second year in a row in the St. Louis venue where Pope St. John Paul II celebrated Mass and visited the masses nearly a quarter-century ago.
This year’s theme was “Be the Light,” inspired by what Pope John Paul told young people on that occasion: “You are children of the light! You belong to Christ, and he has called you by name.”
“All my friends are here for one thing: to worship the Lord and praise him, and that’s just so amazing,” said Austin Schuster, a senior studying communication and journalism at the University of Missouri in Columbia.
“It’s adding fuel to the fire,” said Mason Waltke, a junior studying computer science at Missouri University of Science & Technology in Rolla.
“There’s so much Catholicity here and so much energy and so many amazing speakers and so much to learn from people who know way more than I do and are way farther along the road to holiness,” he said.
Sara Figura, a senior studying psychology at Truman State University in Kirksville, said she’ll never forget the sound of thousands of people chanting the “Salve Regina” at the end of Mass each day in the Dome at America’s Center.
“There’s something about giving due praise to Mary that she gives to her Son,” said Miss Figura. “I can feel heaven rejoicing at all of us doing that.”
These are a few of the more than 200 Catholic students from colleges in the Jefferson City diocese who attended the conference.
Also present were priests, seminarians, Catholic school teachers and adult parishioners from several parishes.
Bishop W. Shawn McKnight led Evening Prayer in the chapel on the middle night of the conference, hosted a dinner at a local restaurant for participants from the diocese, and heard Confessions with dozens of other priests during Adoration of the Most Blessed Sacrament.
Banner-waving seminarians of the diocese led the way from the America’s Center to the restaurant.
At the dinner, Bishop McKnight visited at each table and presented each participant a note that said: “I am grateful for your ‘YES’ in carving out time to encounter the Lord and grow in faith. Our diocese is here to support you in this extraordinary experience of our Catholic Faith!”
“Only through God”
Libbi Keleitz, a senior studying health science at Truman State, plans to attend medical school in the fall.
She said she brought “a lot of anxiety” with her to SEEK24.
“I’m not very social by nature,” she noted. “But I’ve been overwhelmed with the welcome I’ve felt here.
“I know that every person in the crowd has the most important thing in common,” she said.
Namely, faith in God and a desire to grow in relationship with Jesus Christ.
For her, that has meant opening herself up to God and learning to depend on him fully.
“I’ve been able this week to really pump the brakes and say, ‘Yes, I’m capable, but I’m only capable through God and because of God,’” she said.
She hopes to become the kind of doctor that can bring “true love and patience and nonjudgmental and unbiased goodness to every person.”
Toward that end, she wants to develop a relationship with God that is totally open — “laying everything bare to him and more importantly, being able to listen to what he has to say and what he as to offer.”
For Mr. Waltke, one of the most important lessons from SEEK24 was about losing control.
“I’m in pursuit of holiness, I want to sanctify myself, and I love reading things about the saints,” he said. “But so often, I want to do it myself, and I want to do it a certain way.
“That’s not how you do it,” he noted. “You have to let God make you holy. And he’ll do it the way he wants to.”
Raised without much of a faith life, Mr. Waltke started asking hard questions in high school.
“I began thinking more deeply about things and taking the secular worldview to its logical conclusion,” he said.
He found that it ultimately yields no meaning, no objective truth and no reason to be alive.
“Everyone at the very least has a desire for meaning,” he noted. “And when they don’t have that, it’s considered wrong and disordered.”
He reasoned that if the conclusions of the secular philosophy are false, “the grounds that form it must also be false.”
He signed up for a world religions class, which required him to attend several religious services.
He was particularly intrigued by the Catholic Mass.
“I didn’t understand any of it at all, but I was really attracted by it,” he said. “It made me want to learn more.”
He studied everything Catholic that he could get his hands on.
“I just kept learning more and more and decided that ‘yeah, I want to be Catholic,’” he said.
He discovered the Newman Center upon arriving at Missouri S&T in Rolla.
“I’ve found it to be the bright light of my college experience and got as involved as I possibly could,” he said.
Now president of the Rolla Newman Council, he asks for prayers for conversion throughout the Church.
He believes that prayer will only be answered if people live out their faith intentionally every day.
“The spiritual battle for conversion isn’t won as one momentous herculean effort,” he noted.
“It’s a slow, grinding war of attrition. And you have to be present and intentional every day, in every moment, with every interaction you have.”
All that matters
Roman Vecerra said he was keenly aware of God’s presence throughout the conference.
“It’s awesome to have so many young Catholics come together, to see that it’s a growing and living Church rather than what the people in today’s culture say,” said Mr. Vecerra, a junior studying civil engineering at the University of Missouri in Columbia.
He planned to return to campus with deeper conviction to live out his faith more authentically, bolstered by the witness of old and new friends in Christ, and “staying focused on our one shared goal of living with the Lord in heaven for all eternity.”
Matthew Newkirk, a senior at Mizzou, was attending his second SEEK conference.
He planned to return to Columbia with a renewed sense of how many young people truly want to know God.
“I’m not journeying on my own but with a lot of my friends here and from across the country now,” he said.
“Ultimately, we’re all on the journey to heaven. We’re all called to be saints, and ultimately, nothing matters but the Lord.”
This was Miss Figura’s fourth SEEK conference, although the first two were substantially modified due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
This year, she learned a lot about simplifying the time she sets aside to spend with God.
“I’m trying to learn to just sit with the Lord and love him and allow him to love me in return,” she said.
She plans to remain Catholic for the rest of her life.
“I’m part of the body of the Church, so it’s not just me relying on the Church; the Church is relying on me, too,” she said.
“So it’s my duty to love as much as I can and to receive love from the Church so we work as the Body of Christ, because that’s what Christ calls us to do,” she stated.
She aspires to become an educator who builds up positive relationships with each of her students.
“I want them to walk out of my classroom knowing that they’re loved in whatever state they’re in,” she said.
She encouraged adults of all ages to continue showing the Father’s love and demonstrating what faith in action looks like.
“We’re looking for good, solid examples for how to build our families and raise our children right,” she said. “We need to be loved, and we appreciate the love that people can give us,” she said.
Shannon King, a freshman studying education at Truman State, was at SEEK24 to strengthen her faith in the company of people who share her beliefs.
“Every chance I get to celebrate God, I want to do it!” she said. “He’s the one who sent his son to die for us so that we could live in eternal happiness.”
She said the speakers at the conference taught her different ways to involve Jesus in her everyday actions.
“It’s going to require me to be active in my faith,” she said. “I know God doesn’t need anything back from me, but I want to give him something back.”
“Never been surer”
Austin Stewart, who’s studying business with a minor in marketing at the University of Missouri, returned to the Catholic Church three months before attending SEEK24.
“I can tell you, I’ve never wanted to be in the Church more than I do now,” he said.
Mr. Stewart grew up Catholic but gradually stopped practicing his faith.
He began attending a Protestant church and turned his life over to Christ at an event similar to SEEK.
Yet, he couldn’t help feeling that something was missing.
His mother suggested that he attend the 8 p.m. Sunday Mass for students at the St. Thomas More Newman Center in Columbia.
“It was absolutely beautiful!” he recalled.
He met with several priests in the weeks that followed, and one invited him to take part in Adoration at the Newman Center.
“I went there and just rested,” he said. “It was very moving. I knew there was something going on.”
After that came a series of profound “aha” moments he could no longer set aside.
“It was the strongest calling from the Lord to go back to the Catholic Church,” he said. “I’ve never been surer of anything in my life.”
That’s precisely what he wanted everyone at SEEK24 to experience for themselves.
“I want everyone here to turn their live over to Christ,” he said. “That’s what life is all about. We’re here for Christ, to worship Christ and ultimately be redeemed and saved. Because that’s what he offers.”
Back for good
Ashley Stewart, who recently graduated from the University of Missouri with a degree in communication, hopes to remember forever what she saw and heard at SEEK24.
“I think the biggest thing is the community — all of these Catholics I’ve met, all of these college students and people in religious life,” she said.
She had stopped practicing her Catholic faith for a while in favor of a Protestant community on campus.
“I came back to the Newman Center and what kept me was how much we Catholics emphasize and celebrate the Eucharist,” she said.
“That’s us receiving the Body of Christ, the one who died for our sins, so that we can have eternal life in heaven!” she stated.
“That’s more important than anything, and that’s why I can never leave.”
Miss Keleitz said life will never be the same after SEEK24.
“Just knowing that I’m being fortified by this entire community around me, it gives me so much hope for going back to my regular routine,” she stated.
“Because I know that no matter where I go, I will always have God’s grace with me and I will always have this community of likeminded people supporting me.”
Maureen Quinn, director of religious education and youth/young adult ministry for the diocese, attended SEEK24 with a delegation from the diocese.
She said it’s clear the Church is alive and well among young people, and that they’re searching for truth, beauty and goodness, all of which point them to God.
“They want the fullness of the truth,” she stated. “They want beauty in the Church and also in relationships. And they want what is good, and that means building up one another as brothers and sisters in Christ.
“That’s what you experience here,” she said of the conference. “And I love that we’re all able to come here united as one Church.”
She said FOCUS, the SEEK conference’s organizer, has “mastered the art of building missionary disciples.”
“Through SEEK, we are able to learn tangible skills that we can bring home to our diocese,” she stated.
A point from the message given in a keynote talk by Father Mike Schmitz, whose social media ministry is among the most powerful in the world, particularly resonated with Mrs. Quinn.
“We have a lot of young people in the pews who need to be held by God in the Eucharist,” she said. “We also have a lot of people, many of whom are not in our churches right now, who need to be healed.
“And you’ve got to be willing to be present in that reality,” she stated. “It’s about being brothers and sisters in Christ. We need to go and build those relationships.
“This isn’t complicated, and it’s nothing new,” she said. “It comes from Jesus.”
SEEK24 photos and videos are posted on FOCUS Catholic Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, with homilies from each daily
Mass available on the FOCUS Catholic YouTube page.
SEEK25 will be held in Salt Lake City, Utah, from Jan. 1 to 5, 2025.