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SEEK21 weekend leads college students to an encounter with God

021321stt college conference

A group of Valparaiso University seniors, (from left) Evan Cade, Nathan Tranel, Brian Barrett and Blake Harms, listen to a video presentation by Francis Chan, an American Protestant author, teacher, and preacher who founded an Evangelical church in Simi Valley, Calif. founded in 1994, during the national SEEK21 collegiate conference hosted locally by St. Teresa of Avila Catholic Student Center in Valparaiso. The four-day event hosted by the Fellowship Of Catholic University Students (FOCUS), which usually attracts 15,000 or more young people to a single location, went virtual this year and drew a record-breaking crowd of more than 27,000 who met at nearly 1,900 parish sites throughout the U.S. (Marlene A. Zloza photo)

 

BY MARLENE A. ZLOZA

Northwest Indiana Catholic

 

       VALPARAISO – Promised world-class speakers, sacraments, Masses, meals, discussion groups, social activities and Eucharistic Adoration, several dozen Valparaiso University students immersed themselves in all things Catholic at SEEK21, a four-day national conference presented by the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS) and hosted at St. Teresa of Avila Catholic Student Center.

       Normally, up to 20,000 collegian Catholics gather during New Year’s weekend for the annual conference, but since this past year has been anything but normal, SEEK21 went virtual, with small in-person gatherings - following all local COVID-19 health and safety protocols - hosted Feb. 4-7 on college campuses, and in parishes, Catholic centers, tents and living rooms.

       As a virtual event, SEEK21 drew “more than 27,000 people from 20 countries and six continents to encounter Christ and share the Gospel,” according to a FOCUS press release issued on Feb. 8. “That’s the largest attendance ever for a SEEK conference,” noted Eli Owen, director of Collegiate Outreach at St. Teresa and a 2016 VU graduate who returned to Northwest Indiana with his wife, Liz, and one-year-old son Francis just six months ago after spending three years in Colorado. “The title ‘SEEK’ comes from Jesus’ question to John, ‘What do you seek?’ and (usually) offers college students an encounter with Jesus Christ in a large group setting.”

       At this year’s conference, “The keynote speakers were all virtual, which allowed FOCUS to offer some of the most popular presenters from around the world, and we were still able to provide local programs, small group discussions, and what I consider the most important element – the sacraments,” said Matt DeLeon, FOCUS team leader at Valparaiso University. “The small group discussions I heard this weekend were some of the best I’ve seen, with the student really digging deep into content.”

       With three other FOCUS teammates, DeLeon is among 800 young missionaries serving on 171 campuses and in nine parishes across the U.S. and Europe. These recent college graduates devote two or more years to reach out and bring the Gospel to their peers through bible study, service projects and mission trips. “FOCUS is an apostolate whose mission is to fuel the Catholic call for a new evangelism, launching Catholic university students into lifelong mission,” explained DeLeon, a 2018 graduate of the University of Connecticut who spent two years as a FOCUS missionary at the University of Wisconsin in Madison before becoming team leader at VU a year ago.

       Having decided “that God wants me to do this,” Katherine Carlson, a 2019 VU graduate, is ready to join FOCUS as a new missionary in May. A Detroit, Mich. native who played volleyball and basketball while earning bachelor’s degrees in business management and sports management, she is currently employed at Queen of All Saints in Michigan City. After training this summer, she will be assigned to a FOCUS team on a U.S. college campus.

       “The center of my life was sports,” Carlson admitted, “until a mission trip during my senior year flipped me completely around, opening my life to truly encountering God.”

       DeLeon and fellow team members Rachel Tschann, Dusty Boehm and Gina Boeding coordinated the four days of activities in Avila Hall, including meals, icebreaker games and contests and discussion groups, as well as video viewing on three large screens. The FOCUS team enjoyed dinner with Bishop Robert J. McClory to kick off the weekend, welcoming young Diocese of Gary priests Father Nate Edquist and Father Declan McNicholas to celebrate an opening Mass with Father Chris Stanish, St. Teresa pastor and new diocesan vocations director.

       There was a Mass, keynote speaker(s) and small group discussion(s) each day, as well as a game night, video concert, live podcast recording and FOCUS recruitment talk.

       The closing keynote speaker was Curtis Martin, FOCUS founder and CEO, who told the young people that they must be “totally sold out for Christ,” and “willing to quit your job (like the apostles did) if God asks you to.” Telling the collegians that “Nothing else but everlasting life matters,” he urged them to evangelize “in ‘the little way’ that Christ did. It is the most effective way to God. Each of us can find a handful of people and invest in them deeply. . .beginning a spiritual snowball as each of those people reaches out to a handful of others.

       “No podcast, no videos can reach eight billion people, but we can through ‘the little way,’” Martin said.

       Sunday’s session closed with a Mass celebrated by Bishop McClory, who pointed out in welcoming the attendees that, “These conferences can be life-changing, and stay with us for a lifetime.

       “We share what we have with others as we encounter people on campus, and our authenticity comes through, often when we are vulnerable, going through a tough time,” he added, having discussed in his homily the challenging life of Job (Jb 7:1-4, 6-7) of that day. As others see that “our life is not all good, it can be a pathway to healing for someone else – a fertile place for the Lord to work.”

       The SEEK22 conference will take place Dec. 30, 2021-Jan. 3, 2022 in Salt Lake City, Utah, with more information available at SEEK.focus.org.

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