By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger
University of Iowa junior Emily Munger wasn’t sure what to expect from her first in-person SEEK conference earlier this month, having participated in the previous two conferences online. When she walked into America’s Center Convention Complex in St. Louis, “I heard people use words like ‘diocese’ and ‘catechesis’ openly, which was such a pleasant surprise. I was experiencing faith as part of a community that was composed of parishes from all over the country. It was beautiful” to experience that, she said.
Munger was among 17,000 attendees at SEEK23 in St. Louis Jan. 2-6. Seventy University of Iowa students, five FOCUS missionaries and three Newman Catholic Student Center staff members comprised “Team Iowa” this year.
The annual conference, hosted by the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS), offers participants the opportunity to dive into prayer, adoration, Scripture and the sacraments; hear talks by Catholic speakers; and experience fellowship with friends, old and new. It was the first in-person conference since 2019, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
About half of this year’s participants were college students, according to a St. Louis Review report. The other half included parishioners, ministry leaders, priests, seminarians and religious sisters and brothers.
“All of the speakers were incredible, daily Mass was built into the schedule, there were hundreds of priests available to hear confessions and there were plenty of opportunities to spend time in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament,” said University of Iowa senior Matthew Freedlund.
Freedlund is studying mechanical engineering —in his words, a stable and well-paying career — while discerning a possible call to the priesthood. “During the conference I spent a lot of time thinking about St. Peter’s call to follow Jesus from Luke’s Gospel. … Putting my life in Peter’s story is scary, it’s full of uncertainty, yet more exciting than anything the world has to offer. Father Agustino Torres said it best in his talk to all the men at SEEK, ‘To truly live life, you always have to be ready to lay it down.’”
“I believe SEEK changed the trajectory of my life as a Catholic,” said sophomore Becca Farmer. “Growing up Catholic, I never felt the presence of God in the Mass. It was something I did every once in a while to check off a good deed box in my head. In fact, within my first year of college I had pretty much given up on being Catholic entirely. I felt I had made too many mistakes, hurt too many people and just didn’t feel worthy of even being in a Catholic community while in college.” Her brother invited her to attend SEEK and paid her way, so she attended with an open heart. During adoration, “I felt as though I belonged to someone and the Church became a safe place for me right there in that stadium. I heard the voice of our Lord comforting me and calling me to him. I asked the Lord to speak to me and he answered. SEEK has encouraged me and kick-started my journey to building a relationship with Christ.”
Munger said a talk by Sister Miriam Jones and Father James Burns was impactful. “Life is hard and people are difficult, so it was really important for me to learn how to forgive through the lens of faith. It’s easy to say that we are called to forgive like Christ forgives, but it’s hard to put it into action. I learned that my (inability to forgive) was holding me captive. By acknowledging the reality of my pain and asking Jesus to help me forgive even the most painful offenses, I can live in the freedom of Christ and see the reality that God wants every sinner in heaven.”
Newman Center Priest Director Father Jeff Belger and Christine Wissink, director of Outreach and Education, saw many familiar faces at the conference. New Development Director Kristie Wert attended for the first time.
“Seeing our University of Iowa alumni at the conference working, leading, walking with college students and thriving in their faith was wonderful,” Wissink said. She also enjoyed connecting with fellow campus ministers. “I met a campus minister from Kentucky and found out we went to the same high school and both grew up in the Cedar Rapids area. I also ran into a high school classmate of mine who is a priest and serves in campus ministry at the University of Northern Iowa.”
Wissink participated in the conference’s Campus Ministry Track and some of the Making Missionary Disciples Track (for parishes) and some of the Collegiate Track. “There were many talks and each person had different experiences to share. Some of the main things I heard in talks were about suffering and healing. I connected with organizations that helped me personally, spiritually and professionally in ministry.”
Freshman Matt King said he appreciated the opportunity to participate in Eucharistic adoration. Talks geared toward young men also affected him, helping him to feel less alone in his faith journey. “It is just amazing to see all those men at SEEK alongside you, pursuing the Lord with you in the same ways. Honestly, on a college campus, Christ-centered brotherhood is hard to come by.”
His sister, sophomore Jenna King, said the conference helped her to feel more comfortable going to confession. It “used to intimidate me, but now I look at it in a whole new perspective; the Lord just wants to get closer to us and give us all his mercy.”
On the bus ride home, participants shared how the conference affected them. “Every single person on the bus talked and was vulnerable about their experiences,” King said. “It was just beautiful to hear everyone’s stories about the week.” The conversations continued. “No one was on their phones or sleeping. We were all there in community, engaging with one another about the Lord. It was great.”
“SEEK23 was such a gift to me in so many ways,” Farmer said. “I hope that others will follow and find love and peace in the Church as I have.”