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A starburst of lights reflected off the sweet, ascending smoke of the incense and the shimmering gold of the monstrance.
The Lord of the Universe was back in the Dome at America’s Center in St. Louis.
More than 17,000 Catholics, mostly young, from all over the United States and beyond, were gathered to adore Christ in the Most Blessed Sacrament, in the place Pope St. John Paul II offered Mass nearly 24 years previously.
Hundreds of priests heard Confessions in a nearby assembly hall as the people joined in mantras of praise and the Blessed Sacrament was carried in procession through the crowd.
It was a highlight of SEEK23, a massive annual Catholic evangelization conference organized by the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS).
The theme was “You Are Called.”
“I wasn’t expecting anything like this. It really touched me,” Korbin Fisher, a senior at Helias Catholic High School in Jefferson City, stated shortly after Adoration.
He and fellow Helias Catholic senior Aidan Martin had stood near four priests they’d never met before, who quietly sang and adored Christ throughout the two-hour service.
“It was like God put us there, right in front of these priests, so we could learn from their example,” said Korbin.
Allison Newkirk, a freshman at the University of Missouri in Columbia, was one of 105 student parishioners of the St. Thomas More Newman Center who attended SEEK23.
She called to mind a phrase from the keynote talk by Sister Miriam James Heidland of the Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity.
“She kept going back to the idea that ‘it’s good that you are here,’” said Ms. Newkirk. “That really stuck out to me because it reiterates the fact that God assembled these thousands of Catholics not just from throughout the United States but from throughout the entire world, here at this conference for a reason. And He has a plan for each of us.”
During Adoration, she meditated on a verse from the Book of Esther (4:14): “Perhaps, you were made for a time such as this.”
“That was really clicking with me,” Ms. Newkirk said, “that there’s something about bringing us all together here this week that’s going to make a lasting impact not only on the whole Catholic Church but the entire world.”
MU freshman Catherine Patti became keenly aware of God’s presence during Adoration.
“It was my first time experiencing Adoration in a crowd that large, and I felt so much joy being able to worship God with so many people from all over the world,” she said.
In talks throughout the week, she had been hearing how much God wants her to spend all eternity with Him.
“My experience in Adoration made me truly feel God’s love for me,” she stated. “That’s something I will take with me for the rest of my life and will use to help motivate others to attend Adoration and experience for themselves God’s outpouring of love for them.”
MU freshman Emma Johnson invited her mother, who lives in St. Louis, to join her at Adoration in the Dome.
“It made me so happy to have her here,” said Ms. Johnson. “It was the first time she’s ever been to an Adoration like this. And I know that her experiencing what I experienced was an answer to prayer, because we’re both going to have a better relationship with Jesus, and that’s all I want.”
Numerous college students, along with 45 priests, seminarians, high school students and lay parishioners from all over the diocese, attended SEEK23.
Zach Mueller attended from St. Brendan Parish in Mexico.
“I felt unity and love, and you could instantly tell that God was in St. Louis,” he said.
Logan Mathews graduated from Helias Catholic last year and is a freshman at MU. He decided to cap-off his winter break by attending SEEK23.
“I heard a lot of good things about it and I wanted the opportunity to deepen my faith and meet some new people in the process,” he said.
He wasn’t disappointed.
“When you’re with so many people who have similar goals and ideals, you hit it off so much better than with anybody else,” he stated. “The connection you feel is that much stronger.”
He said he would be taking a trove of new insight back to campus with him.
“The people I’ve met here from Mizzou and even the ones I came here with — I feel like our bond is stronger,” he said. “Hopefully, we can branch out and be like undercover missionaries on campus.”
“The same best friend”
A platoon of priests gathered around the edges of the indoor stadium floor, ready to hear Confessions throughout Adoration.
Among them were: Father Paul Clark, chaplain of Helias Catholic and diocesan vocation director, director of seminarians and moderator of youth and young adult ministry; Father Joshua Duncan, pastor of St. Mary Parish in Glasgow and St. Joseph Parish in Fayette; Father Daniel Merz, pastor of St. Thomas More Newman Center Parish in Columbia; and Father Nicholas Reid, a priest of the diocese who’s serving as an Air Force chaplain in Texas.
Fr. Duncan attended his first SEEK conference as a college student in 2010.
He went to another as a seminarian in 2013, and as a priest has been at each SEEK held since 2018.
Twenty of his parishioners, including three teachers from St. Mary School, came with him this year.
“I told them it’s one of the best experiences of the universal Catholic Church you could have,” said Fr. Duncan. “You’re seeing the Church fully alive.”
“It’s like you already know everybody here because we all have the same best friend, Jesus!” he stated.
Fr. Duncan hopes the experience will help those who attended convince their fellow parishioners to get more involved in carrying-out the Church’s mission.
Tools for evangelization
Brett and Erin Witte were among the adults from St. Mary in Glasgow at SEEK23.
“I’d say it’s re-sparked the fire in us for reaching out and sharing our faith with others,” said Mrs. Witte.
Mr. Witte added: “It’s giving us more tools to do the evangelization that we’ve been aspiring to do for years but really haven’t had the confidence, the motivation, the know-how that we felt we needed in order to do it.
“We want every single soul to go to heaven,” he stated. “We want to get our fallen-away family and friends and community members back to Holy Mass and the Sacraments so they can know joy and be saved.”
Mrs. Witte was delighted to enter a packed assembly hall for a 7 a.m. talk on respect for life and women’s health.
“These young people are fun but they are also serious about their faith and their life, and it’s been beautiful,” she said.
“He’s always waiting”
Four seniors from Helias Catholic attended the conference.
“I feel like we’re all here to grow a little bit closer to God, and explore that relationship and take a deeper dive,” said Aidan.
“It’s cool to see so many Catholic youth who are active in their faith,” said Josie Morasch. “It gives you an inkling of how many of us there are in the world.”
Statistics show that a large percentage of high school-age Catholics stop practicing their faith within a few years.
“Before this, I’d say I was probably going to be one of those people who wouldn’t be practicing,” said Korbin. “But I feel like this has really changed my way of looking at Christ and deepened my love for Him.”
Josie was inspired by hearing one of the speakers say: “Don’t be afraid to come back home. You’re not defined by your sins. God is always waiting with open arms for you to come back to Him.”
What stood out for Aiden was a speaker’s message that “you’re not defined by your greatest weakness; you’re defined by your Father’s love for you.”
For Allie Mathews, the most striking message was that “they can try to call it the Common Era or whatever, but there’s nothing ‘common’ about the time after the birth of Jesus Christ!”
She asked for prayers for continued guidance and growth in relationship with the Lord.
Korbin said the most challenging message for him was to “forgive the ones who hurt you the most, first.”
Zachary Rockers, director of campus ministry at Helias Catholic, said SEEK23 was “a sliver of heaven.”
“We’ve seen the Church fully alive,” he said. “We get a really good look at the Communion of Saints here.”
He hopes the experience will help launch everyone who was present on a lifelong pursuit of the Lord.
“Heaven is our final destination,” he noted. “And the beauty of our Catholic faith, with the depth and the breadth of it, you’re never going to be finished with it, you’re never going stop finding gems and treasures.
“Those things are going to keep leading you closer to Jesus,” he said.
Mr. Rockers hopes everyone will remember that God wants to have a deep relationship with them.
“And He’s given us the gift of the Catholic faith to encounter Him in the most intimate way possible,” he said.
Like no other joy
MU freshman Sofia Fiorino became Catholic with members of her family last Easter.
“What really surprised me here is that there are so many people representing different practices of the Catholic faith in so many different ways,” she said.
She witnessed priests, sisters and monks in a panoply of religious garb, mingling effortlessly with crowds of laypeople.
“I saw two priests, a nun and a layman playing spikeball together,” she said. “I sure wasn’t expecting that!”
MU freshman Olivia Evers said she hopes she never forgets seeing “a bunch of people that don’t know each other come together and bond with their Catholic faith.”
“I’ve never seen this kind of joy anywhere else,” she said. “This community of people who are yearning to feel God’s presence and just be in community with each other and serve others and help the world become a better place — it’s unlike any other joy I’ve ever encountered.”
She was looking forward to taking that joy home with her and sharing it with her family and friends.
“I want my happiness and joy to be so evident that people want to know where it’s coming from,” she said. “It’s because of a relationship with God and with others, built on the foundation of Christ.”
“Our deepest desire”
MU freshman Alex Mittendorf noticed a common thread through all the talks and workshops — the love of Christ.
“It was through Jesus’s love for the Father and the Holy Spirit that He created everything that’s around us, and it’s through Jesus’s love that all of us are here and all of us are saved,” he said.
Why does that matter?
“Because it orients our entire life toward heaven, which is the ultimate goal,” he said. “That is our deepest desire as humans, to be in communion with that love.”
MU freshman Thomas McCauley asked for prayers for the powerful experiences and speakers’ messages from SEEK23 to stay with everyone who attended.
“Pray,” he suggested, “that we have the courage to act on all of this and help the people in our communities and do what God’s really calling us to do.”
Mr. Mueller found that he could relate in some way to each of the speakers and their stories.
“The knowledge they shared definitely made a great impact on my faith and provided a sense of clarity in this time of such confusion,” he said.
Maureen Quinn, director of religious education and youth/young adult ministry for the diocese, 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.
Next year’s SEEK conference will also be in St. Louis. Mrs. Quinn hopes the number of people who attend from this diocese will double.
“Consider SEEK24, where you will be inspired by top-notch speakers, find out about countless resources, learn how to be missionary disciples in our parishes, and most importantly have an encounter with Jesus Christ,” she said.