Next generation of witnesses to the faith attend SEEK23 conference

Attendees at the SEEK23 Conference in St. Louis (Photo/FOCUS)

Contributing writer

“SEEK23: You Are Called,” a five-day event, hosted by the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS), took place at the America’s Center Convention Complex in St. Louis, Jan. 2 to 6.

Through fellowship, prayer, world-class speakers and entertainment, participants were inspired to “Fear not; rise, He is calling you.” (Mk 10:49)

Since FOCUS’ inception, their national conferences and events have given students from all over the country and the world the chance to come together by the thousands to learn about the Catholic faith, to experience genuine fellowship and to unite as members of the Body of Christ.

SEEK is the only Catholic conference of its size diving into the heart of the Gospels and exploring how to answer Christ’s call in every moment. More than 17,000 attended this year’s conference.

More than 135,000 people have joined FOCUS for national events over the past 25 years.

Joined by chaplains and religious, Catholic speakers, inspiring artists, and benefactors, the students who attended become a visible, living witness to the Catholic faith for the next generation.

The sentiment from the conference organizers is that when students experience the love of Christ through a FOCUS conference, their minds are opened, their hearts are lifted and their lives are forever changed.

Clara Firtos agrees.

Firtos, administrative assistant of faith formation and youth ministry for the Diocese of Belleville, co-led a group of SEEK23 attendees from the diocese: five from Belleville Young Adults and eight students from Southern Illinois University-Carbondale (SIUC). The other co-leader was Brendan De Padua, campus minister for the Newman Center at SIUC.

Bishop Michael McGovern provided scholarships for this group to attend, which “was a blessing,” Firtos says.

“Everything at SEEK23 was exceptional, brilliant,” Firtos says, describing what it was like to see the faces of these young people light up, when they felt like they belonged.

“They deserve to feel like they belong,” she says.

“Every student encountered the Lord is a deeper way,” De Padua says, “in whatever way that looks like. It was a powerful experience, an overwhelming reaction, seeing other college students trying to live out their faith.”

He adds, “The men in our group said the talks they attended just for men were the most motivating talks they had ever heard.”

“Our goal for our group, when they come back to their parishes or school communities,” Firtos says, “is to start bible studies, continue to reach out to others through discipleship and evangelize their Catholic faith.”

She said it also was a tremendous, rewarding week for faith formation leaders.

“It’s a chance to see the fruits of our labor realized,” she adds.

“Participating in SEEK23 was a perfect opportunity for the Newman Center,” De Padua says. “Two of the students from SIUC were called to become FOCUS missionary disciples, and seven of the SIUC students have agree to serve on the Newman Center student leadership team.”

Firtos attended her first SEEK conference in 2017 in San Antonio. “Now, five years later, I am attending SEEK as a leader,” she says. “It’s a full-circle moment.”

One of the highlights for Firtos from this year’s conference was the connection to St. John Paul II’s visit to St. Louis in 1999. St. John Paul II was the patron of SEEK23.

“St. John Paul II said Mass in this same building. The same altar he used was used for SEEK23,” she says. “When the priests processed in for Mass, they kissed this altar. It felt like we were walking in the footsteps of a saint.”

The diocese group also visited the Cathedral Basilica museum and saw the chair that St. John Paul II used during Mass.

“We were completely moved on all fronts,” Firtos adds.

Encountering the Gospels anew

The conference offered many different talks and special events to meet participants’ needs, including a Collegiate Track, a Making Missionary Disciples Track and a Ministry Track.

A typical day started with Mass at the convention center at 8 a.m., followed by a keynote speaker and three sets of breakout sessions. Lunch was included. Groups arranged for their own dinners. Then additional speakers, entertainment or activities concluded the day.

The group from Belleville stayed at the Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows in Belleville.

Through prayer, sacraments, inspiring keynotes and more, this event was an opportunity to encounter the Gospel anew and to be revived, equipped and encouraged for the life of faith Christ is calling participants to lead.

Prayer space was available steps away from the distractions for a time dedicated to prayer, adoration, Scripture and the sacraments.

Fellowship was experienced with others as they dove into topics that really matter alongside those who were at the same stage of the journey.

Inspiration was found by choosing which speaker sessions to attend. The keynote speakers and special guests inspired and encouraged participants to seek the heart of Christ’s call.

Exclusive concerts, contests, sponsor activities and more provided fun activities, special events and entertainment each day.

Firtos appreciates that the Archdiocese of St. Louis sponsored a lunch and roundtable for any attendees who work for diocesan offices.

“It was so good to talk with others who do the same job,” she says. At this lunch, Firtos reconnected with a friend who now works in the faith formation office for a diocese in New York.

On a personal note, Firtos attended SEEK23 with her fiancé, Braydon Basola, who is a Lutheran.

“Braydon encountered Jesus in the Eucharist,” Firtos says.

Her high note was witnessing his experience with adoration for the first time. He talked with Jesus for an hour and a half, not realizing that much time went by.

“Seeing and witnessing how powerful Eucharist is was a little miracle confirmed in my heart,” she says. “Almost everyone has experiences like this at SEEK. We were so blessed to experience this.”

SEEK returns to St. Louis

By the end of SEEK23, FOCUS announced that the conference would return to St. Louis, Jan. 1 to 5, 2024.

“We are so glad SEEK24 will be in our own backyard again,” De Padua says. “We plan to take advantage of this opportunity, and I will try to get as many students as I can to attend.”

Students at SIUC should contact Brendan De Padua at the campus’ Newman Center at [email protected].

It is still too early to announce plans for the Diocese of Belleville’s participation in SEEK24.

However, if you are interested in future information, contact Clara Firtos in the office of faith formation and youth ministry at [email protected].