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FOCUS leaders say synodality, listening to young people guided mission of SEEK24

Attendees pray during the SEEK24 conference at America's Center Convention Complex in St. Louis Jan. 3, 2024. More than 23,000 participants attended the Jan. 1-5 conference held by the Fellowship of Catholic University Students. (OSV News photo/courtesy FOCUS)

ST. LOUIS (OSV News) — A record number of attendees gathered at the Jan. 1-5 SEEK24 conference in downtown St. Louis, with excitement already mounting for the 2025 conference.

Hosted by the Fellowship of Catholic University Students in this Missouri city for the second consecutive year, the conference drew more than 23,000 attendees, including 188 international participants. SEEK attendees participated in presentations and discussions about the Catholic faith led by globally recognized speakers, along with opportunities for Mass, confession and Eucharistic adoration.

Edward Sri, FOCUS’ senior vice president of apostolic outreach, recounted the humble beginnings of FOCUS in 1998 at a Jan. 4 press conference.

“Curtis Martin and I were graduate students together … we did a retreat in January of 1998,” he said, describing how a small group of 24 students gathered in “nowhere Kansas” and sparked a movement that now touches thousands nationwide.

“I remember driving on I-25 from downtown Denver and seeing what at the time was called the Pepsi Center,” Sri said. “I remember saying to Curtis that one day we’re going to be in the Pepsi Center.” At SEEK24, liturgies were held in The Dome at America’s Center, the former home of the NFL’s St. Louis Rams. “It’s very moving to see,” Sri said, describing the impact of students falling to their knees during Eucharistic adoration.

P.J. Cronin, a student at University College Cork, Ireland, said he heard about the SEEK conference while hanging out in a Dominican-run cafe with some friends.

“I really love Scott Hahn,” Cronin said. “He really opened up Scripture for me in ways that I hadn’t seen before.” Hahn is a professor of biblical theology at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio.

Cronin said he recognized a few other speakers too, but the biggest draw was seeing other young people practicing the Catholic faith, which is not something he sees in Ireland.

“I’m there in my local parish at Mass on a Sunday; I look around and there might be one other person my age, and it’s demoralizing sometimes. … You’re on your own,” he said. “And I come here and there’s 20,000 young college students all practicing the faith and trying to live a good life.”

Father Mike Schmitz, director of youth and young adult ministry for the Diocese of Duluth, Minnesota, and chaplain at the University of Minnesota Duluth Catholic Center, spoke about his engagement with FOCUS and its impact on campus ministry. He highlighted the tremendous growth in student involvement, noting his campus now hosts 75 regular Bible studies.

“It’s just amazing stuff,” Father Schmitz said.

Sri admitted this growth comes with challenges. In response to concerns about the organization being perceived as “cultish” or “clicky,” Sri emphasized the importance of inclusivity in training and outreach.

“What the church is calling us to — and what FOCUS is calling all of our staff, all of our missionaries to do — is to be like Jesus, who goes out,” he said. Sri noted it’s a perennial temptation for Catholic ministries to become “insular.” He called for “courage and charity” to drive outreach to people of all backgrounds and to accompany them.

Bishops process during the closing Mass at the SEEK24 conference at America’s Center Convention Complex in St. Louis Jan. 5, 2024. More than 23,000 participants attended the Jan. 1-5 conference held by the Fellowship of Catholic University Students. (OSV News photo/courtesy FOCUS)

Father Schmitz agreed. He described conversations he’s had challenging leaders in his ministry to continue to go beyond a small circle as a “family meeting.” He said that it’s human nature to be comfortable with a group of friends, but it’s essential to continue to encourage students to reach out.

“Every community is going to have some dysfunction,” Father Schmitz said, “but when you can point out that dysfunction without fear of recrimination, that’s a sign of health.”

Asked about the polarization visible in the church today and the impact of the Synod on Synodality, Father Schmitz responded by contrasting his experience growing up with what he sees among young people today.

“The anger, the bitterness, the resentment, the need to change the church that was present when I was in college. … I grew to love Jesus and hate the church,” he said. But Father Schmitz finds students today come with a new openness. “I find our students saying when they encounter Jesus, ‘I love the church.'”

Listening is a two-way street, Father Schmitz said, requiring the church to listen to students but also for students to listen to the church.

Sri noted that a number of FOCUS staff have participated in listening sessions at parishes held in preparation for the synod, and he emphasized a synodal approach is at the heart of FOCUS’s evangelical mission.

“So much of what we’re doing is going to listen to people downstream,” he said. Sri insisted that hearing the questions of young people has driven the way that FOCUS has developed its formation curriculum. And that process will continue, as formation materials are revised and reissued, Sri said.

Emily Wilson Hussem, an author and speaker, described the openness she has seen among students at SEEK24.

“They’re so hungry, they’re so sick of the culture, they know it’s all a lie … and they’re here, and they’re ready and open,” she said.

Father Schmitz echoed Hussem’s hope. He described meeting attendees who enthusiastically shared with him that the Bible, and a newfound love for Scripture, had saved their families.

As SEEK24 drew to a close, FOCUS announced the theme for SEEK25, to be held in Salt Lake City, using the words Jesus Christ speaks to his disciples in the Gospel: “Follow me.”

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