FAIRFIELD—St. Pius X Parish in Fairfield was recently a host parish for SEEK21, a bi-annual conference that is hosted by the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS). SEEK usually takes place at one designated location in the country and is open to college students who desire to learn more about themselves, their faith, and grow in their relationship with God. This year, due to the impact of COVID-19, the format of the conference looked a little differently. Universities, parishes and communities throughout the country were invited to serve as host sites for participants to attend the conference locally. All of the content, including keynote talks, impact session and sponsor information was available via an online platform. Registration for the conference was also opened to a wider age range, as high school students and adults were invited to attend. This year, over 27,000 people participated from around the world, making this year’s conference the largest yet.
At St. Pius X, 80 people participated in SEEK21. They were given the option to attend in-person at St. Pius X or virtually. Participants, based on their age group, were placed in small groups where were able to unpack and discuss the keynote presentations and their experiences over the weekend. COVID-19 protocols (i.e. mask-wearing, social distancing and availability of hand sanitizer) were adhered to, in order to maintain a safe and healthy environment.
On the first afternoon, participants were able to customize their conference schedules by “attending” various impact session talks on their own time, virtually. This allowed them to listen to talks that piqued their interest and reflect more deeply on their desires, struggles, and purpose. The evening in-person session included time in Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, with praise and worship music. This was part of SEEK21’s Worldwide Prayer Vigil, a time for all participants to gather together, albeit in different parts of the world, to spend time with the Lord and pray for themselves, their intentions and the world.
Paola Peña, director of Student Ministries at St. Pius X, was a FOCUS missionary prior to becoming a youth minister. She has attended SEEK every time it was offered throughout the last 10 years. Although the pandemic prevented her and others from attending the conference with thousands of people this year, Peña saw this as an opportunity to invite people from the parish to experience SEEK. “My desire was always, for years, to bring parishioners to SEEK and introduce them to FOCUS,” she said. “There was no way I could have brought 70+ people to SEEK because of time and financial constraints. This was a much more fruitful option!”
When asked what her hopes were for the people participating in SEEK, Peña said she “wanted them to think about their life and their purpose.” She wanted this conference to be part of a “mobilizing effort” that “moves people to step up in the Church.” One of the missions of FOCUS is to “raise up missionary disciples,” and in order to do that, Peña says, “they need opportunities of encounter.” She wanted this opportunity to “let people be aware of the hunger for Jesus in their life. They won’t know it unless it’s being offered in different ways,” she said.
For Tori Stapleton, a young adult participant, SEEK was an opportunity for her to ask questions about her faith and grow in her relationship with God. “As a ‘cradle Catholic,’” she said, “I had very little opportunity to question different aspects of my religion. It was always something I felt emotionally and intrinsically, but it’s important that I question and seek in order to deepen my relationship with God and more fully believe the things I claim to believe.” Stapleton was also able to reflect on her understanding of the role of the Church during the conference. She said “I’d always thought of religion as something personal, and while it still is, I’m beginning to think of it more as being a part of a community: ‘the Church.’”
Alex Miller, a teen participant, took much away from her experience. “Prior to the SEEK conference,” she said, “I felt like I had hit a plateau in my faith. I was going through the motions of prayer without really searching for God or wanting to pray. So, I hoped that the SEEK conference would get me out of my prayer slump, and it did!” Listening to the keynote talks was especially impactful for her, as she grew to understand more about herself and God. “I discovered the deeper meaning to the fact that God is all-loving and that He loves me. Although this is repeated endlessly in the Bible, it’s one thing to hear it, but another to feel it,” she said. Looking back on the weekend, she said that “participating in SEEK reminded me that God is here for me and He loves me!”
Transformative experiences like these are exactly what Peña hoped would happen for SEEK participants. “Individually, my hope for them was authentic conversions and transformed, Christ-centered life, and for each person to know that they’re not too far away from the Father to belong,” she said. As a community, she hopes that this conference inspires people “to step into their gifts and their calling—having vision and possession of that calling over their life, regardless of their state in life.” From there, she said, “they will be able to share it (the call) with others.”
By Michelle Onofrio