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.
As the time for Eucharistic adoration approached, silence fell over a packed stadium. For a second, only the gentle hum of the A/C could be heard.
Then a baby cried out, and another, and another.
Maybe not what you were expecting at SEEK, the largest Catholic conference marketed to college students from the U.S. and around the world.
Marketed as an event for college students, the annual FOCUS SEEK conference attempts to encourage encounter with the Catholic faith, and equip young Catholics with the tools necessary to evangelize on their college campuses.
For 25 years, FOCUS has served primarily as a college ministry apostolate, sending young adult missionaries to more than 200 college campuses, to evangelize through “relational ministry.”
In recent years, FOCUS has seen more young adults, families, and older Catholics attend the group’s annual conference.
This attendance shift comes as FOCUS begins looking towards a new frontier in its own evangelization efforts—parishes.
Dr. Edward Sri, FOCUS’ senior vice president of apostolic outreach, told The Pillar that almost every week of the year, a bishop or priest reaches out, asking for FOCUS’ help in a parish or diocese.
“We have missionaries that have started serving in a diocese or in a parish,” Sri said. “That's something we have been testing more because we have had so many bishops in the last seven to 10 years contact us and say, 'We need help with evangelization. Can you come?’”
Parish ministry looks very different from serving college students, which has been the focus at FOCUS for the past 25 years.
But over the past seven years, FOCUS has been experimenting with the prospect of parish outreach. And by the end of 2023, FOCUS had advised 53 parishes across the country — and has missionaries serving at 23.
Sri acknowledged the differences between parish and college ministry, saying that “parish life is very different from campus life. They are two different cultures, but the principles of evangelization are the same.”
At SEEK, post-college Catholics told The Pillar while they may not be SEEK’s target audience, they came looking for what the conference had to offer.
‘The Church has a future’
The conference last week in St. Louis was not James and Kayla Cowell’s first SEEK — the couple had attended previous conferences years ago, as college students.
But last year, the Cowells started going as a family, bringing their three sons to SEEK.
They returned this year with four sons, the oldest age eight, and their youngest a newborn — after seeing fruit from their children’s experience at the conference in 2023.
“I just hope my children experience the peace and serenity during adoration and get to see that there are Catholics all across the country and that it is not just something we do in our own homes,” Kayla Cowell said.
James said it brought him joy to see his sons interact with young Catholics at the conference, and to express interest in learning about the various religious orders.
“To be able to bring my sons to see 20,000 young Catholics in this atmosphere is just incredible,” James Cowell said.
“It is energizing and a great example for my sons to see so many religious and priests walking around and being such a great witness to the faith."
Everywhere they looked at SEEK last week, Dick and Lonnie Veik, a retired couple from Nebraska, said they say a witness to the Gospel, through the joy expressed by the young adults and religious they encountered.
“There was a time where you could walk down the street, smile, and say hello to everybody. But that has gone away in America,” Lonnie Veik said. “But they have it here. Everybody is smiling and talking to people.”
Lonnie and Dick had never experienced something quite like SEEK. They were invited by their friends, Ron and Shirley Huss, who have been coming to SEEK conferences for years.
Lonnie said they decided to come because they wanted to witness the joy of young people excited about the Catholic faith.
“With the state of the world being what it is, we thought this would be really uplifting for our spirit because if you listen to the daily news, it's not what you want to hear, but this is just incredible; it's very uplifting, very positive, and the Church has a future,” Lonnie said.
Even though they are retired, Ron and Shirley Huss keep coming back to SEEK, year after year, because the five days of the conference offer them hope for the future of the Church.
SEEK reminds them that no matter how depressing the news may seem, there are people working to lead others towards encountering Christ.
“My husband and I come because it gives us so much hope for the future when you see 20,000 young college students praising God, and the world is not lost,” Shirley Huss said. “The news is always so bad, but we can see evangelization going on in the world, and it is working.”
SEEK showed the two couples that FOCUS has an evangelization model which is working on college campuses, they said — maybe it can also work in their home parishes, too.
“The whole FOCUS model of getting out on college campuses, meeting people, and inviting them to meet the Lord is great,” Dick Veik said.
“Most people we know have drifted from the faith. Being here inspired me to try to set an example of evangelization and living the Gospel and hopefully people will notice it.”
‘Ten times the experience’
One diocese has seen the direct impact that SEEK has had on evangelization beyond college campuses.
For two years, the conference has taken place in the Archdiocese of St. Louis, where leaders say they can see fruit of the event across the region.
Brian Miller is the director of evangelization in the Archdiocese of St. Louis, and spent four years as a FOCUS missionary.
Miller told The Pillar that since the planning for SEEK began in the Missouri archdiocese, he has seen a new emphasis among curial staffers on forming “missionary disciples.”
“Not only for me as an alum of FOCUS, but the entire leadership of the archdiocese has been deeply impacted by SEEK. It has really helped us to shift our focus, and to say this is the way forward,” Miller said.
“Archbishop Rozanski has kind of made this his catchphrase: ‘Disciples make disciples’.”
For some in the archdiocese, the chance to host SEEK in 2023 and 2024 has seemed providential.
Since 2022, the archdiocese has been working to implement a new strategic pastoral plan, “All Things New,” which will see several controversial parish closures. Shortly after its announcement, the plan faced heavy backlash among Missouri Catholics.
“I think it has been very providential that SEEK has been here in St. Louis when it has been; we are in a period of transition as an Archdiocese,” Miller said.
“Having SEEK here has been a lot of help because, in the midst of that pain, suffering, and hardship, it has been a visible sign of hope and has borne a lot of fruit.”
At its two most recent conferences, FOCUS invited local Catholics to attend a Wednesday evening keynote address and Eucharist adoration.
In 2023, around 2,000 local Catholics attended the Wednesday night session. In 2024, more than 5,000 people came from local parishes.
“We wanted to bring as many people as we could from St. Louis to adoration on Wednesday night because we wanted them to catch the spark that would fan into flame,” Miller said.
“The one-time event does not do it, but to experience that sign of hope in the Church can change everything.”
Betty Joggerst, a retiree from Ste. Genevieve Missouri, loaded into a bus and traveled more than 90 minutes for the Wednesday night adoration, along with 30 other members from her rural parish.
She said the drive was worth it.
“We love our weekly holy hour at our local church, so this was 10 times the experience,” Joggerst said.
“All I could think about when seeing all the people here was how little we are and how great God is.”
Vince Coiro, a young adult from Cottleville, Missouri, attended the Wednesday evening session with his wife.
Coiro told The Pillar that he’d not previously attended a large conference like SEEK. But after seeing the power of adoration and hearing the talks, Coiro said he hopes that leaders and Catholics in St. Louis will be motivated to create similar events for the local church.
“As we go through ‘All Things New’ in the Archdiocese of St. Louis, I hope that we are able to take away the community aspects of SEEK,” Coiro said.
“I think it would be great if we would be able to try and figure out if there is a way to create SEEK-like events just for our archdiocese.”
After two years of hosting SEEK, Miller has begun to see a change in the way parishes across the Archdiocese of St. Louis are approaching evangelization. He sees more pastors and parish leaders investing in relational ministry rather than merely maintaining the institutional church.
“In a diocese, in a parish, when we think about evangelization, a lot of it is about institutional preservation, that they do not want to lose their parish, their school, their experience of the Church,” Miller said. “We can work with that; we can start there. But that is not what evangelization is fundamentally about. It is about people knowing Jesus and living with Him forever in heaven.”