By Fr. Jeff Ryan Miraflor, SJ.
It isn’t a new revelation that the Church is in a crisis. Rampant clerical sex abuse. Bishops have lost our trust. Public squabbling. Endless scandals and media revelations. What has been the result? Division. People leaving the Church. People like me wondering if there’ll be a Church for me to serve in the future.
And yet, in the last five months I’ve found more reasons to hope. My most recent witness of hope was at SEEK 2019, the biggest conference in the country for Catholic college students, where I had the privilege to represent the Jesuits and promoting Jesuit vocations at our booth.
SEEK was started twenty years ago by the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS), whose aim is “to know Christ Jesus and fulfill His Great Commission” by “win[ning] the hearts of college students, build[ing] them up in the faith, and send[ing] them out into the world.” Their typical model is to have four FOCUS missionaries at a college and partner with the Catholic campus ministry to meet students where they are. Through outreach events and one-on-one conversations FOCUS missionaries draw students to events like bible studies, men’s/women’s groups, prayer, liturgies, service opportunities, and national conferences like SEEK.
SEEK is a five day conference that happens every other year for college students to gather for prayer, fellowship, engaging talks, inspiring entertainment, and to encounter Christ and his Church. According to FOCUS’ website, the purpose is to “encourage all students to come explore what they truly seek: to learn about the faith, to share in friendship, to be encouraged in their unique vocation — and to experience the love, hope and very real presence of Jesus Christ through His Church.”
This year marked the largest SEEK conference yet with over 17,000 people in attendance, which is a dramatic increase from the ~13,000 that attended the last SEEK in San Antonio in 2017. While the majority of attendees were college students, there were also campus ministers, parents, priests, seminarians, and Religious representing a variety of religious orders active in the United States. Let me not forget to mention the loads of some of the most prominent Catholic speakers like Fr. Mike Schmitz from Ascension Presents, former model and contestant on America’s Next Top Model Leah Darrow, Jason Evert, Sr. Miriam James Heidland SOLT, Chris Stefanick, and artists like Matt Maher and NEEDTOBREATHE.
Just from the description, SEEK sounds like an uber-Catholic experience and it certainly was. There was daily Mass (with full choir or band, incense, and priests concelebrating) that would last for about an hour and a half, daily adoration from the start of the day up until 11:45pm, relics being venerated, Religious in their unique habits, confessions heard daily (including priests being pulled to the side for on-the-spot confessions), and the highlight of Saturday night: adoration, eucharistic procession, and benediction with a long line of confessions being heard by hundreds of priests.
Now I’m the kind of person that loves this experience of Church. But I am also aware of those who experience the Church differently from this. Some people (including some Jesuits) would expect SEEK to be a place where Jesuits wouldn’t be welcomed warmly because it’s not our “crowd.” Regardless of what our experience would be, FOCUS and SEEK are bearing fruit in the lives of young Catholics across the country. We as members of the same Church wanted to participate too. However, we aren’t the first to enter into the FOCUS scene. It is probably little knowledge that Jesuits have been in the scene for a while now, even though this year is the first year we’ve officially had a booth. Two Jesuits currently serve as FOCUS chaplains. They assist in the training of new missionaries and teach Ignatian spirituality, which is an influential part of FOCUS’ charism.
So was SEEK a strange place to be as a Jesuit? Yes! And I wouldn’t have it any other way. I had a few challenging encounters, but they were overshadowed by plenty of life-giving ones. I can’t recall the number of times people came up to us and said, “I’m so glad the Jesuits are finally here at SEEK, I love Jesuits!” I experienced unity best at Mass and Saturday night adoration. At the first Mass, just sitting with all the diocesan seminarians from across the country was moving. I thought, “Wow. I will be serving the Church for the next 50-70 years with these men I’m sitting with.” For communion I assisted a priest to one of the 76 communion stations and we probably walked the length of a football field, but the whole walk I was in awe of the 17,000 people together on their knees out of love for Christ in the Eucharist. For two other Masses, I had the honor of singing in the SEEK Choir & Schola, which switched off with the praise & worship band every other day. I marveled at how singers and musicians from across the country seamlessly came together to sing diverse and multi-lingual music from the Church’s rich tradition.
When I wasn’t listening to the talks or at Mass, I talked with anyone that came by the Jesuits vocation booth. I thought that I would be missing out on everything else going on, but surprisingly every conversation I had at the booth left me deeply edified and wanting for more. It was here that I expected people would approach the booth with preconceived notions about Jesuits that create division or are hurtful, but those conversations happened surprisingly sparingly. Instead, more people wanted to talk about faith, discernment, the life of St. Ignatius Loyola, and the Society of Jesus. We even had a shocking amount of people interested in becoming Jesuits! It gave me so much hope to talk with so many college kids whose main concern is to know Jesus, how to discern his call, and best serve His Church.
Although hope and unity weren’t central themes of this year’s SEEK, they are my biggest takeaways. These days the world and the Church can feel polarized and divided, but events like SEEK reminded me of the importance of interacting with people who are not only different than you, but also have different opinions. Being in that environment and having meaningful dialogue can help bridge understanding. The Church is not as divided as we think! It may just take events like SEEK to help us realize it. There is more that unites us, specifically it’s Jesus Christ.