Adult SEEK attendees inspired to bring evangelization tools back to their parishes

Colleen Beckemeyer, Cathy Hencken, Ann Kelly, and Nick Matrisotto Colleen Beckemeyer, Cathy Hencken, Ann Kelly, and Nick Matrisotto, all parishioners of Annunciation/Our Lady of Providence parishes, at the SEEK24 conference in St. Louis. | Credit: Colleen Beckemeyer

The Fellowship of Catholic University Students’ SEEK24 conference, which took place in St. Louis at the start of this month, attracted some 24,000 people for Catholic talks, workshops, and worship. Much of the programming was aimed at college-age students, but the conference left a lasting impression on many of the adult attendees. 

As participants in FOCUS’ Making Missionary Disciples (MMD) track, several local adult Catholics told CNA that they were reinvigorated in their desire to share the faith in their parish setting — both with the wider secular culture and with others tied to their parish community. 

Chris Meyers, a Catholic convert who serves at St. Norbert Parish in St. Louis as director of faith formation, told CNA that he was drawn to attend SEEK by the idea of learning more about evangelization. Meyers runs the Order of Christian Initiation for Adults (OCIA, formerly RCIA) program at St. Norbert, a program that under his leadership has drawn a healthy number of people to the Catholic faith in recent years.

“This evangelization aspect [of SEEK] drew me in not just because it’s part of my job but also because as Catholics we’re called by Jesus to spread the word of the Gospel to all nations, and not just to sit on that good news for ourselves,” Meyers said.

“So I wanted to go there, learn a few things, and just experience how I can more practically bring the good news to others, as well as make some connections so that I’ve got other resources that I can reach out to.”

Meyers said he appreciated how several of the speakers offered practical evangelization tips, such as demonstrating how to form small groups and Bible studies, and offering ideas for reaching out to people in the community. He said he and other members of his parish have plans to get together to discuss what they learned and how to adapt it to their specific parish context. 

“We are looking to take that enthusiasm that everyone has, and before that flame kind of flickers and dies down, to continue it and to keep it going among those who went,” Meyers said. 

In terms of the speakers and his fellow conference attendees, he said, “I was blown away by their knowledge and their enthusiasm. And it just restores your faith, if you will, that the Church is not going anywhere and that the Church has a powerful future ahead of it.”

St. Norbert is one of the many parishes in St. Louis in the process of a merger as part of the archdiocese’s sweeping All Things New pastoral reorganization process, which began to be implemented in mid-2023. Meyers said in addition to the challenges involved in sharing the faith with a wider secular culture, the parish is also dealing with merging three Catholic communities into one. He said he hopes to bring back some of the strategies and ideas he learned about at SEEK to the still-rebuilding St. Norbert Parish community. 

“I think the first step of evangelization is making sure that we have our own house in order,” he noted. 

‘A launching point’

During the conference Jan. 1–5, adult attendees were given the option to attend special talks geared for them as part of FOCUS’ Making Missionary Disciples track. 

The MMD program is designed for priests, bishops, diocesan and parish staff, FOCUS alumni, parishioners, and benefactors who “long to see their parish, diocese, family, or community experience deep transformation in Jesus Christ and who desire to be a part of the solution,” the organization says.

AJ Garcia, director of parish advancement for FOCUS’ Lifelong Mission team, told CNA that the purpose of the MMD program is to offer inspiration and encouragement to Catholics as well as practical leadership training they can take home to their parishes. 

“It’s not just for the priest, it’s not just for the parish staff. Any parishioner has a responsibility to be sharing the faith — to be living it, first and foremost, but then to be sharing it with the people that God places in their lives,” Garcia said. 

“Hopefully … as they’re here, excited about the faith, growing in the faith, feeling more bold or zealous to share the faith, that they’ll take steps to do that wherever they are, not just within the walls of the parish.”

Garcia said the MMD program is part of FOCUS’ effort to “serve folks beyond the college campus in a number of ways.” FOCUS has long sent missionaries to college campuses, but since an expansion in 2015, almost two dozen parishes across the country, including one in the St. Louis Archdiocese, have FOCUS missionaries living and working there.

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The MMD experience at SEEK serves as “maybe a starting point, a launching point, but much more that’s happening year-round where we are supporting parish life,” Garcia noted. 

‘Are we willing to learn?’

Angela Garcia (no relation to AJ), coordinator of religious education for All Saints Academy in St. Louis, told CNA that her SEEK experience served as a reminder that even those working in ministry settings need to refocus on Christ every once in a while. 

“When we have God as the priority, then everything else is going to fall into place according to God’s will. But we’re so eager to get things done that we forget about God,” she said. 

“So one thing I’ve learned many years ago in ministry is that when you’re ministering with people, you need to walk with them, you need to meet them where they’re at and to journey with them, to share that with people that we need to make God a priority.”

Jamie Garza, Angela Garcia, and Jenny Leverich, parishioners at St. Ferdinand Parish, at the SEEK24 conference in St. Louis. Credit: Angela Garcia
Jamie Garza, Angela Garcia, and Jenny Leverich, parishioners at St. Ferdinand Parish, at the SEEK24 conference in St. Louis. Credit: Angela Garcia

Garcia said a large part of her ministry at the Catholic school is to encourage parents to embrace their role as the primary educators of their children, which includes those who are not Catholic or not practicing. She said she left the conference inspired to model holiness for the parents she encounters in her work at the school. 

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“In order to evangelize to others, we need to build that friendship with them and to help them grow. We need to build our relationship with them but also to help them build a relationship with Christ, and then also to help them to know that they can go and help others … we, the Church, are here to bring other people closer to Christ and to get to heaven. And we can’t be afraid of sharing the truth,” Garcia continued. 

Overall, Garcia said her SEEK experience was an inspiring experience that reminded her that she still has a lot to learn about the faith, despite working in ministry for years. 

“Not only hearing the talks, but just visiting with other people, learning from them, even just going through the [booth hall] was just fabulous. Everywhere you turned around you learned something,” Garcia said. 

“None of us know it all. We all are learning. We’re all still on the journey. And as a missionary, are we willing to learn?”

‘Not a one-time event’

Also attending SEEK were several parishioners from Annunciation and Our Lady of Providence parishes in St. Louis, as well as Father Mike Esswein, who pastors both. Esswein told CNA that he was impressed by the ardor of faith on display among the mostly young attendees. 

“Being in such a large number of people who are excited about the faith, and in particular the youth, having 20,000 people there and being caught up in crowds of college-age students was very impressive,” Esswein said. 

Nick Matrisotto, Father Mike Esswein, and Cathy Hencken from Annunciation/Our Lady of Providence parishes in St. Louis at the SEEK24 conference in St. Louis. Credit: Colleen Beckemeyer
Nick Matrisotto, Father Mike Esswein, and Cathy Hencken from Annunciation/Our Lady of Providence parishes in St. Louis at the SEEK24 conference in St. Louis. Credit: Colleen Beckemeyer

Like St. Norbert’s, Annunciation and Our Lady of Providence are in the midst of a complex merger. Esswein said one of the biggest takeaways for him as a pastor was the importance of bringing Catholic school parents into the parish’s life, engaging them beyond, for example, their children’s sports leagues. 

He also said he was gratified that St. Louis in particular was benefitting from hosting such a conference, especially given the numerous pastoral changes going in parishes archdiocese-wide. He said he appreciated the speakers’ emphasis on not being afraid to “let the Holy Spirit do the heavy lifting” and lean on God for support in evangelization efforts. 

“I thought it was very timely for us to have the SEEK conference. For me, it gave me encouragement. It excited me. It gave me some direction as far as how to bring parishioners together and that our message is going to be a shared one.”

Colleen Breckmeyer, a parish volunteer and council member, echoed Esswein’s praise for the event and for the young people in attendance. 

“We thought they were very well done … I know that FOCUS has been in [colleges] for quite some time, and it’s kind of encouraging to see some tools at the parish level,” Breckmeyer said. 

Cathy Hencken, a parishioner and volunteer, said throughout the conference she gained a deeper appreciation for missionary discipleship as a “lifestyle.” 

“It’s not a one-time event or volunteering, but specifically how you live your life,” she explained. “And it starts with prayer. And then after prayer, it’s about being alert to situations where you have a chance to befriend someone or invite them to something or to have an intentional conversation with them … even though you might be nervous about it or it might feel awkward, one of the things we learned was to let the Holy Spirit do the heavy lifting. So to just step into the situation and not worry, because the Holy Spirit’s going to take it from there.”

Hencken said the experience also inspired her to want to form or join a small group at her parish. 

“I liked [speaker] Dr. [Edward] Sri’s comment that God equips those he calls, he doesn’t call the equipped,” she noted. 

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