Nearly 1,000 FOCUS students attend conference in downtown Knoxville
By Gabrielle Nolan
“Draw near to God and He will draw near to you.”
College students traveled to Knoxville to do just that for SEEK22, the annual winter conference hosted Feb. 4-6 by the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS).
FOCUS has adapted SEEK the past two years due to the coronavirus pandemic. While the in-person conference usually is hosted in one central location for participants to travel to, recent years have seen a hybrid event of local, smaller gatherings that feature livestreamed talks.
“It is amazing. This experience of the kind of smaller, regional conferences is really just a microcosm of what we do on a grand scale,” Mr. Zimmer said. “The conferences always have a role of helping people fall more in love with Jesus Christ and then recognizing that they’re called to mission.”
Students, families, and parish leaders gathered at campuses, homes, or parishes all around the country, including Dallas, Miami, Orange, Calif., and Kansas City, Mo. Nationally, nearly 12,000 students gathered at campuses for the SEEK experience.
Internationally, groups met in countries such as Ireland, England, Austria, and Mexico.
The regional event held at the Knoxville Convention Center hosted 15 campuses from five states, including Tennessee, Alabama, Kentucky, Ohio, and Illinois.
The conference drew a total crowd of 1,100 that included missionaries, benefactors, and mission partners. More than 90 percent of attendees were college students.
In addition to his current role, Mr. Zimmer has previously served as a campus missionary and overseen the training and formation of missionary staff.
“What we exist to do, really, is to evangelize college students, yes, but then to launch them so they can go back to wherever they are, whether that’s their college campus, whether that’s their neighborhood, and when they leave college to bring it into their workplaces, anywhere they go, their parish,” he said.
“Part of what has always been at the heart of the conferences is that this isn’t about FOCUS. This is about Jesus Christ and the Great Commission,” Mr. Zimmer explained. “What we’re trying to do is bring the light of Christ and the enthusiasm of young people to the world.”
The atmosphere was energetic, alive, and full of emotion. Throughout the weekend, college students mentored and counseled one another. Some ran about waving their school flags with pride. Some students left the conference room crying, while others lifted their hands in worship as praise-filled music penetrated the air. Still others were heard through the hallways saying, “I love these people. I love being Catholic.”
Thomas Gardiner, a senior at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, said it was his first time attending a SEEK conference.
“I kind of started taking my faith seriously more in college,” Mr. Gardiner said. “Everyone talked about how great SEEK was for them, and actually I work with one of the missionaries. He would always talk about how he found Christ through SEEK, and that’s what initiated him to start looking more and led him to FOCUS and to start and kind of lead us in our men’s group.”
For University of Tennessee sophomore Helen McCall, she returned to SEEK for a second time because of the fun she had last year at a local gathering with students from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
“I think just seeing so many different people my same age from across mainly the South come together to learn more about our faith and learn more about each other has been really great,” she said.
As a member of FOCUS Greek, Ms. McCall has enjoyed the opportunity to meet other young women from different sororities through a Bible study with her missionary team director.
“That was one of the first ways that I made friends at Tennessee, was through that Bible study,” she said. “I already knew some girls in my own sorority, but then getting to meet different girls across different chapters and relate to them about faith has been really nice.”
Also present for the weekend was Paulist Father Richard Whitney, associate pastor at St. John XXIII University Parish on the UT-Knoxville campus, who said his main role on campus is to provide “spiritual accompaniment as people are trying to find out what it means to be a Catholic in [their] adult life.”
“How do I live my faith as an adult Catholic? I can help them do that because I had to do the same thing,” Father Whitney said. “I would say the biggest question is, what am I supposed to be feeling? Why am I doing this when nothing is happening? And the realization that something will happen…. Having an active faith life allows us to cope and manage just so much better.”
FOCUS missionaries are active on the University of Tennessee campuses in Knoxville and Chattanooga.
“FOCUS [missionaries] are four extra people on the ministerial staff who can go out and show that there is joy in living our Catholic lives as adults,” Father Whitney shared. “And there’s only so far the priests on staff can go.… But the FOCUS missionaries are more peers, and they have a very happy engagement and are just another way to reach out and share the reflected love that God gives all of us.”
The emcee for the weekend was former FOCUS missionary Devin Dunn, who shared his experience with the college students on how being a missionary changed not only the people he worked with but also himself.
“I wanted to be a Catholic rockstar who’s going to, like, kick onto a campus and be like, y’all need Jesus, and make disciples. And what I found really quickly after being hired as a FOCUS missionary is that I was the one who needed to know Him deeper,” Mr. Dunn said.
“I had the opportunity in that mission to meet Jesus Christ in a deeper way, to realize His love for me, to realize my identity as a beloved son of God, and out of that identity to serve as His missionary,” he said. “So, I think for many of us, the idea of becoming a FOCUS missionary might seem lofty, might seem far away, might seem like something for someone else, but I really want to encourage you to consider if God might be calling you to be a FOCUS missionary.”
Throughout the weekend, livestreamed speakers addressed several questions such as:
- Who am I?
- Who is Jesus?
- What is it Jesus taught?
- Why did Jesus die?
- How is God calling me?
Keynote speakers included current Catholic powerhouses such as Father Mike Schmitz; Sister Miriam James Heidland, SOLT; Dr. Edward Sri; Father Josh Johnson; Sister Bethany Madonna, SV; and FOCUS founder Curtis Martin.
“When FOCUS works on a college campus, it isn’t so much that we can do great campus ministry, we hope that that happens,” Mr. Martin shared with his local crowd in Denver and to the thousands of people watching via livestream.
“What we realize is that you’re going to get more amazing with time,” he explained. “The hope and prayer is…if we can trust Christ in our lives and allow Him in, He starts to work in us in our 20s, then in our 30s, then in our 40s, we’ll become more amazing with time.”
“It just so happens that this weekend, 24 years ago exactly, the first FOCUS event of all time occurred,” he continued. “It’s such a delight to be reminded 24 years ago we had about 20 students, we issued the invitation to Christ-like leadership, and each of them, each to the last person, accepted the invitation.”
Saturday morning, Feb. 5, began with Mass led by part-time FOCUS chaplain Father Kevin Dyer, SJ. For the last decade, Father Dyer has been involved with FOCUS in a variety of ways, such as summer training of missionaries.
“I love this, I love the people that get brought together in something like that,” Father Dyer said. “It really is a reflection of the Gospel today, where Jesus brought everybody together, and the priests and religious who are here, to see the missionaries, our mission partners, and then all the students who are coming in seeking out the Lord is really a huge consolation to my heart.”
In addition to watching livestreamed talks, local speakers also traveled to Knoxville so that students could experience in-person impact sessions.
Students chose to attend talks that were most relevant to them, whether that was on the topic of vocations, how to pray, care for the poor, transgenderism, pornography, the feminine genius, or how to trust God.
Present for his Knoxville impact session was Catholic speaker and musician Paul J. Kim, widely known for his YouTube videos with Ascension, the faith formation platform.
Mr. Kim shared his conversion story, which occurred while he was in college, reflecting on the importance of having a relationship with the Blessed Mother.
“Despite my lack of faith, despite my poor decisions to do anything and everything except to follow Him, but the Holy Spirit was still active in my life,” he said. “I was trying to fill the emptiness in my life, to silence my conscience, but God kept inviting me.”
Mr. Kim explained how he turned to the rosary when he began to feel a desire to pray.
“As I knelt next to my bed and I prayed the rosary, weird things started happening. I felt more peace, joy, and purpose in that 20 minutes of prayer than I did in my whole month’s worth of screwing around. And it intrigued me, and I came back to it the next day…” he said.
“I was praying the rosary in college, and out of nowhere I start smelling roses. And it wasn’t because I was geographically located next to a rose bush…” Mr. Kim continued. “And it freaked me out because I was like, what is happening? … But as I pondered why she might be visiting me out of all people in the world, what was made clear was she was saying something very important. She was saying, ‘Paul, this is real. Everything you’re reflecting on right now is real. My Son is real. What He accomplished for you on the cross is real. He has a plan for your life. Respond to His call.’”
After keynotes and impact sessions, campus attendees broke out in small groups to discuss the topics with their peers.
Other activities available throughout the weekend included special sessions for students involved in Greek life or athletics; playful but competitive rounds of Catholic-themed Family Feud; a prayer wall for faithful to write their intentions; praise and worship music; an online trivia board; pop song sing-alongs; and a bracelet-making table to commemorate the weekend.
Mission Way included numerous booths representing Catholic artisans, nonprofits, vocational paths, and FOCUS-related opportunities for the students to explore, learn, and purchase goods.
University of Illinois sophomore Cori Martin and 60 other students traveled for nearly 10 hours through winter weather to attend the regional SEEK22 event in Knoxville.
“It’s my first in-person experience,” she said. “I did SEEK last year, but it was just at a missionary’s house, so I’m super excited that I’m somewhere else this year.”
“I loved all the talks so much last year and all the relationships I made from bonding with other people,” Ms. Martin said. “This year, I’m a small group leader at Illinois, so I was encouraging other girls to come now, too, because I enjoyed it so much last year.”
The high point of the weekend was adoration on Saturday night, where the students encountered the Lord as Father Dyer walked through and around the crowd holding the monstrance high in his hands.
During the time of adoration, the sacrament of reconciliation also was available throughout the convention center. With 30 priests available to hear confessions, it is estimated that 900 individuals received absolution that evening.
Before the final talks on Sunday morning, Bishop Richard F. Stika of the Diocese of Knoxville celebrated Mass alongside FOCUS chaplains and other visiting priests and seminarians.
“It is a pleasure to welcome you, to be with you, to celebrate with you, and to live our faith. Now I must admit, I’m a little partial to the Tennessee people over here,” Bishop Stika said, drawing a loud response from the UT students.
“We gather together to celebrate the fact that Jesus invites us to this, His sacrifice,” he continued. “Jesus invites us to be here, one with him, as we honor God the Father, as we are filled with the Holy Spirit. And as you leave here today, you take that message with you, touched by the Holy Spirit.”
During his homily, Bishop Stika commented on the lack of faith in our culture at large and how the culture is often divided.
“And yet, it is Jesus who speaks to us. It is Jesus who would nourish us, and it is Jesus who invites us. And isn’t that what FOCUS is all about?” he continued. “As you leave Knoxville today filled with zeal and zest, and boy this was a great experience, … I kind of always liked those old wristbands, you know, What Would Jesus Do? That’s a guide for me as I make decisions and hopefully all of you, at the beginning of every day as you pray…ask the Lord to bless and guide you for that day because it’s going to be filled with unexpected moments.”
Near the end of the conference, FOCUS announced the dates and location of next year’s SEEK conference: Jan. 2-6 in St. Louis.
Not only will 2023 mark the 25th anniversary of FOCUS’ first-ever conference, but once again, students, missionaries, and supporters will be back in one location to draw near to God and to each other.