By Kiki Hayden
(OSV News) — Thousands of Catholics are converging on St. Louis from Jan. 2 to Jan. 6 to adore Jesus Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, listen to talks about important topics and celebrate their faith at the SEEK23 Conference.
The annual SEEK conferences, hosted by the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS), are for anyone interested in deepening their faith and spreading the Gospel — whether on college campuses or in their home parish. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this year is the first in-person national conference since 2019.
Many past attendees are looking forward again to this year’s SEEK conference.
“I grew up a cradle Catholic,” Javier Lugo, a 26-year-old FOCUS missionary at the University of Miami, told OSV News. “The faith was very, very important to me.”
When Lugo transferred from Keiser University Latin American Campus in Nicaragua to the University of Southern California as a sophomore, he “wanted to prioritize my faith,” he said. Lugo had heard about SEEK, and a campus missionary helped him get a scholarship to attend so finances would not be an impediment.
Growing up, Lugo said he had attended many “retiros” (retreats) — but nothing like the 2017 SEEK conference.
“A conference of this size is like a ‘retiro’ times a thousand,” he explained. With a smile, he recalled the Eucharistic adoration night — thousands of people praying on their knees and praising the Lord, as fragrant incense billowed through spotlights pointing to the monstrance on the altar — and how in that moment with Jesus in the Eucharist he felt “loved and wanted.”
“I attended one [SEEK conference] as a student, two big ones as a missionary, and then two online,” he said. This year, Lugo and the other University of Miami FOCUS missionaries will be accompanying about 45 students to SEEK23. Lugo is praying for his students and fellow missionaries to have “an open heart” that will lead to “the courage to say yes to whatever is next in their spiritual journeys.”
As freshmen in college at the University of South Alabama in Mobile, twins Lauren and Kelley Hartman also attended SEEK for the first time in 2017. They told OSV News they have attended every year since.
Like Lugo, the Hartmans were deeply moved by experiencing adoration at SEEK. “I’ve never been in a room with so many people in adoration before … I can’t even stretch my legs out,” said Kelley Hartman, “but I know that I’m seen and known by God.”
Now 24, both Lauren and Kelley Hartman will attend SEEK23 as FOCUS missionaries. Kelley Hartman, who evangelizes at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, will accompany about 140 students and the other LSU FOCUS missionaries. Lauren Hartman will accompany her fellow FOCUS missionaries from Murray State University in Kentucky with about 50 students. “I’m praying that the talks … apply very deeply to what they’re going through,” said Lauren Hartman.
Both Hartman sisters emphasized that their students are “made for community.” Kelley Hartman described how FOCUS missionaries provide spiritual support beyond the SEEK conferences: “Almost equally as transformative as going to the actual conference was having a missionary be able to affirm the things that happened and being able to walk with us.”
The Hartmans will be joined by one of their sisters and by their parents, because SEEK23 is not just for college students, and FOCUS missionaries serve in parishes as evangelizers beyond the college experience.
Now in her 12th year as a FOCUS missionary, Martha Griswold currently serves at Our Lady of the Valley Catholic Church in Windsor, Colorado. Griswold, 34, continues her mission “walking with parishioners instead of college students … helping the little way of evangelization to be interiorized and lived.”
This year, she is accompanying several parishioners to SEEK23 on the “Making Missionary Disciples” track. Griswold looks forward to talks that are “meant to build up parishioners to feel confident in leading other parishioners, in either small groups or in whatever capacity they are serving in leadership at their parish.”
A few weeks later, her parish will host an online “SEEK Where You Are” conference, showing videos of the keynote speakers from SEEK23.
“This SEEK Where You Are is going to be the best yet,” said Griswold. “The keynotes are very intentionally a narrative re-presenting the Gospel to parishioners and then sending them out on mission.”
SEEK23 aims to engage anyone open to learning more about Jesus Christ’s Great Commission. In addition to the many talks in English, SEEK23 includes several talks in Spanish, such as a session about Our Lady of Guadalupe and the new evangelization. Although the five-day conference begins Jan. 2, registration for single-day attendance is open until the evening of Jan. 5. Already, more than 15,000 people have registered.
For those unable to attend the in-person conference, FOCUS offers an online version of SEEK23 called “SEEK Where You Are,” which is available for individuals, small groups or parishes after the in-person conference — as well as a live Lenten Bible Study — such as the one being held at Our Lady of the Valley.
“We are thrilled to offer this post-SEEK salvation history study,” FOCUS founder Curtis Martin said in a news release. “SEEK is not designed to be a typical conference, but rather an iconic experience on a journey to mission.”
SEEK23’s Jan. 4 Eucharistic adoration night expects to gather thousands of Catholics. Among them will be priests, religious, FOCUS missionaries, college students and parishioners — and, of course, Jesus Christ, truly present and among them in the Eucharist.
Adoration night at SEEK is “one of the closest foretastes of heaven,” said Griswold. “It’s about tens of thousands of people all together worshipping Christ as He walks among us.”
Kiki Hayden is an OSV News correspondent who writes from Texas.