Editor’s note: As nearly 20,000 young Catholics — mostly students — gathered last week at SEEK, a massive conference sponsored by campus ministry apostolate FOCUS, The Pillar features reporting from Catholic student journalist Jack Figge, who worked as a ground-level correspondent at the event.
Before Christmas break, college student Daniel Allard joined a fraternity known for hosting wild parties. Now, he wants to lead a Bible study.
So what changed?
Allard told The Pillar that, in the past two years, he fell away from the Catholic faith.
As a freshman at Eastern Washington University, a secular college, he all but neglected it, choosing to embrace the party culture he found at college.
But things changed when Mike Spearman, a FOCUS missionary, invited him to attend the 2024 SEEK Conference in St. Louis, Missouri earlier this month.
“I came to SEEK for the first time, and I experienced God in a new way that I've never experienced before,” Allard said. “I've never had the opportunity to have adoration with 24,000 other people. That was a truly moving and life-changing experience.”
Allard joined more that 19,000 college students at the annual SEEK conference held last week in St. Louis, Missouri. Campus ministry apostolate FOCUS hosts the annual conference to bring young people together for five days of formation, prayer, and community.
Attendees come from all walks of life and every type of school. Some have practiced the faith their entire lives, and others have never prayed a day in their lives. Some are converts; others are reverts. Some are Protestants searching for the truth.
The FOCUS team says that SEEK is not as a moment in the spotlight for their growing organization — it’s meant instead to inspire students to pursue the faith on their college campuses.
“SEEK is a catalyst, but it's a catalyst for something else,” said Hilary Draftz, a FOCUS area director, who oversees 50 missionary teams in the organization’s western region.
SEEK “is a catalyst for that daily transformation that's happening as people are being evangelized to, are being formed, and are being sent out on mission,” she added.
But what domes next? Is SEEK a conference high for most students, or does it make lasting change? And how do “seeking” students get there in the first place?
It began with an invitation
FOCUS missionary Mike Spearman invited several students to attend the conference, including Ethan Teniso, a Protestant at Eastern Washington University.
Growing up in a traditional Protestant home, Tenison first experienced the Catholic faith last May when he attended Mass, he told The Pillar.
“Mike invited me to go to SEEK because I had all these theological questions,” Tennyson said. “So he suggested I come to SEEK so I could become exposed to the culture of Catholicism.”
For Stokley Palmer, a freshman at Drexel University, the invitation to come to SEEK was one in a long line of invitations extended by his FOCUS missionary, including one to join RCIA.
When Palmer arrived at Drexel University, he had no connection to the Catholic Church.
But then he met Enrique Alegria, a FOCUS missionary. After they got together to talk several times, Alegria invited Palmer to attend a FOCUS retreat.
There, Palmer decided that he wanted to become a Catholic.
“I heard about SEEK through my FOCUS missionaries,” Palmer said. “After a retreat that I went on, I felt that sense of community, so I wanted to go to something bigger to learn more about the Catholic faith and be with people who all have the same faith as me.”
But it wasn’t only FOCUS missionaries who sent invites.
On campuses across the United States, students extended invitations to their peers, asking them to consider attending the SEEK conference.
When Hope Lacy received an invitation, the Auburn University freshman was standing in a football stadium.
“I heard about SEEK from a friend who is part of Auburn Catholic,” Lacy said.
“I was at a football game, and he was like, ‘Hey, have you heard about SEEK?’ Then he sent me a link to the website, and I looked more into it and thought I would try it out.”
The invitation chain did not stop there. Once she signed up, Lacy asked her boyfriend, Isaac Ford, also a freshman at Auburn, to come with her.
Ford agreed to come, he said, even though he has struggled to have relationship with God.
“Coming into SEEK, I feel like I had a relationship with God, but it was not the best relationship,” Ford told The Pillar.
“I was in a rocky place, but coming here has really opened my eyes and heart to God, and I have really been able to connect with Him.”
Abby Balkowitsch, a junior nursing student at the University of North Dakota, came to SEEK in 2023, and found herself connecting with God through the people she met. When she returned home, she decided she’d invite friends to SEEK 2024.
“I came last year, and it was such a beautiful experience. We came with three students last year, but now we have even more,” Balkowitsch said. “It is just a beautiful reunion.”
Balkowitsch told The Pillar that she had found it beneficial for her spiritual life to be surrounded by thousands of other Catholics, and she wants to share that experience with others.
“The more time goes on, it becomes harder to be a Catholic in today's day and age,” Balkowitsch said.
"I know a lot of people who have either fallen away or do not believe in God at all, and I feel like we need to be a light and be that figure leading them closer to Christ.”
‘To be bold’
Abby Balkowitsch told The Pillar last week that she walked away at SEEK’s end, feeling encouraged and renewed to return to her campus. She said the conference reminded her that as a young practicing Catholic, she is not alone.
“SEEK is so much about growing in community; you see all of these people and these Catholics who you listen to their podcasts or read their books,” Balkowitsch said. “They are people too, and you get to spend time with them; you get to be the body of Christ; you get to experience this amazing conference together, and it helps you to remember that you are not alone.”
Some participants said the conference also taught them the faith, in a new light.
Logan Jones, a student at Eastern Washington University, attended a Catholic middle and high school. While he’d learned about Catholicism, he said that SEEK helped him to understand what he’d learned in a more personal way.
“People say that Jesus died on the cross for you out of love,” Jones said. “I went to a Catholic high school and middle school, and it was said there a lot, but I did not really understand the concept,” Jones said.
“But at SEEK, I realized that Christ made the ultimate sacrifice for us because He loves each one of us.”
Since he only began the RCIA process in September, SEEK was Stokley Palmer’s first time experiencing such a large number of Catholics gathered together. Seeing the thousands of Catholics in prayer at SEEK left a mark, he said.
“My biggest takeaway from SEEk was to be bold in my faith,” Palmer said. “Seeing thousands of other people encouraged me to pursue that boldness. SEEK helped me to learn more about the Catholic faith and deepen my prayer life through the different speakers that all gave me different perspectives on payer and the faith that I had not thought of before.”
Elizabeth Gedra, a sophomore at Auburn University, said she encountered the Lord in Eucharistic adoration at SEEK, and learned that her sins and past mistakes would not prevent God from loving her.
“To be able to listen to Fr. Mike Schmitz talk and then go straight into adoration gave me a sense of freedom from sin,” Gedra said.
“Even if I have struggled with these sins for years, it is never too late to break free from them, and even if I fall, Jesus will keep loving me through it.”
From the ‘mountaintop’
SEEK participants told The Pillar that they left the conference with the experience of a kind of spiritual high.
Draftz said she’s glad for that. But she aims to see students persist in the faith after SEEK, too.
“We never want it to be like FOCUS is about SEEK,” Draftz said. “SEEK to us is a mountaintop moment.”
When she was a college student, Draftz went to several SEEK conferences and other Catholic conferences, she told The Pillar, because they left her with a sense of spiritual high.
But after years of attending those conferences, while implementing very little into her daily life, Draftz decided that a change was needed.
As the next conference approached, she began praying daily — she said — asking the Lord to let the conference transform her day-to-day life.
“I think part of the reason this particular conference was more fruitful than others I had attended was because I had been praying every day leading up to the conference,” Draftz said.
“Even though it was just a few days, the Lord could do more in my heart through the content of the conference because I was not coming from a place of just desperation and poverty, like asking for a band aid. I was actually open to seeing Him.”
Jackson Kiger, a senior at Oklahoma State University, told The Pillar that he hopes SEEK will give him the courage to build Catholic practice into his every day life.
“I absolutely feel like I have a spiritual high coming out of SEEK,” Kiger said. “I am working on carving out specific times during the day to pray and changing some of my lifestyle habits. I have a lot of friends who aren't religious or aren’t Catholic, so some of the things I do with them are not going to reflect what I will do post-SEEK, so I think I am going to have to make some general lifestyle changes.”
Starting something new
So what comes next for SEEK participants?
Those who spoke with The Pillar said they’ll focus on building their spiritual lives.
Isaac Ford said that after SEEK, he wants to try and build a daily prayer life, something he has never had before.
“For me, what will be important is the day-to-day stuff, like trying to go to Mass and even praying daily, which has been a struggle for me, so I want to carry on the prayerful life that I have started to form here,” Ford said.
Elizabeth Gedra expressed a similar desire, sharing that after hearing a talk on living a simple life, she wants to reduce distractions in order to continue growing her relationship with God.
“I want to try and enter into a little bit more simplicity in my life by taking away some distractions by staying off of social media and really giving myself time to get to know God better.”
But once they return to school, many will face the temptation to return to their old habits. That’s where FOCUS comes in, Draftz said.
Draftz said that while SEEK is a major event for FOCUS, the apostolate’s real work of the apostolate comes through the daily encounters missionaries have on college campuses.
Draftz said that after she attended a SEEK conference, her missionary checked in every day, which allowed her to continue growing her spiritual life.
“I came back with all these good intentions. I had these people in my Bible study to lean on. I had a missionary who was walking with me, investing in me, and spending time with me to help me become a disciple. It was night and day,” Draftz said.
“There is just something about that accompaniment piece that helped me to live my life differently after the conference based on what I had learned and actually put it into practice. Now that I serve in FOCUS leadership, 21 years later, I see how strategic we are about that accompaniment piece.”
For his part, Allard is looking forward to staring a Bible study for members of his fraternity, and to using the resources and ideas he gained at SEEK to evangelize on his college campus.
“When I get back, I plan on trying to implement the Catholic faith more into Eastern Washington by talking to people about God and evangelizing the Gospel,” Allard said.
“I want to start implementing a Greek Bible study that allows anyone to come in. I hope that will help incorporate faith into the fraternity a little bit more,because that's never really been implemented into fraternities at Eastern Washington, and so I want to start something new.”