St. Louis hopes FOCUS conference will spark Catholic renewal in the ‘Rome of the West’
Father Mike Schmitz addresses the crowd at "SEEK First," a preview event put on by the Fellowship of Catholic University Students in St. Louis on Oct. 1, 2022. / Jonah McKeown/CNA
St. Louis, Mo., Oct 6, 2022 / 15:00 pm (CNA).
Nearly 1,000 Catholic students and adults gathered in St. Louis last weekend for a preview of the upcoming Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS) national conference, which is expected to draw 20,000 people to the Midwest metropolis in January.
It will be FOCUS’ first in-person national conference since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and conference organizers hope it will help to revitalize a city where Catholicism, once a vital part of the fabric of society, is largely on the decline.
The Jan. 2–6, 2023 conference, SEEK23, is expected to draw tens of thousands of people — a large portion of whom will be college students, but the organizers stress that it provides tracks for all ages and backgrounds — to the America’s Center Convention Complex in downtown St. Louis for talks, workshops, entertainment, prayer, and worship.
FOCUS sends missionaries to college campuses across the United States and abroad to share the Catholic faith primarily through Bible studies and small groups, practicing what it calls “The Little Way of Evangelization” — winning people to the faith through authentic friendships and forming others to go out and do the same.
The smaller Oct. 1 event, called “SEEK First,” served as a preview of the conference for the people of the Archdiocese of St. Louis. Father Mike Schmitz, host of the “Bible in a Year” podcast, spoke about “letting Jesus into your boat,” drawing on the example of St. Peter in Luke 5, in his address at St. John Vianney High School in St. Louis. Schmitz will return as a keynote speaker in January.
Father Mike Schmitz addresses the crowd at "SEEK First," a preview event put on by the Fellowship of Catholic University Students in St. Louis on Oct. 1, 2022. Jonah McKeown/CNA
Schmitz encouraged the crowd to give God access to all aspects of their lives — past, present, and future — including their failures, which he said God can use as an opportunity to “get in our boat” and change their lives for the better.
“Sometimes the thing that we think disqualifies us from being called by Jesus is actually the one thing that has paved the way for Jesus’ voice to speak to our hearts. It is not our failure that disqualifies us; in many ways, it is our failure that opens the way for Jesus to say, ‘Let me step in,’” Schmitz told the crowd.
“This is how God works. He uses our past, our strengths, our brokenness, our failures and our victories; he uses all of that, if we let him … He can use them to change our present and give us a future.”
Attendees at the Oct. 1 event also got the opportunity to see and pray with a first-class relic of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, one of FOCUS’ patrons.
A student prays with a first-class relic of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, one of FOCUS' patron saints, at a preview event put on by the Fellowship of Catholic University Students in St. Louis on Oct. 1, 2022. Jonah McKeown/CNA
FOCUS has since 2015 been in the process of expanding beyond college campuses by creating a Making Missionary Disciples track designed to bring their relationship-based evangelization model to parishes. The organization is testing the model of sending its missionaries to parishes in almost two dozen parishes across the country, including one in the St. Louis archdiocese — Immaculate Conception in Dardenne Prairie.
Brian Miller, director of evangelization and discipleship for the Archdiocese of St. Louis, told CNA that St. Louis was chosen for SEEK in part because it is centrally located and convention-friendly, but also because the city is ripe for the kind of renewal that FOCUS aims to provide.
St. Louis, a city with a historically vibrant Catholic presence that earned it the informal moniker “The Rome of the West,” is today undergoing a strategic planning initiative whereby an as-yet-undetermined portion of its 178 parishes will close or merge in an effort to better use archdiocesan resources for evangelization. Data from the archdiocese show that in 2021, the number of Catholics in the Archdiocese of St. Louis dipped below 500,000 for the first time since the 1960s.
As part of the All Things New restructuring process, the archdiocese is considering designating some of its area as mission territory. Large swaths of the archdiocese — especially those that are predominantly Black — have a low Catholic percentage of the population. Though the archdiocese is expected to announce the final plans for parish consolidations and closings in May 2023, the archdiocese has already announced that St. Mary’s High School and Rosati-Kain High School — all-boys' and all-girls' schools respectively — will be closing at the end of the school year due to low enrollment.
Jesuit Father Kevin Dyer, FOCUS’ senior national chaplain and a St. Louis native, explained that his hometown’s deep Catholic roots combined with its present challenges are “ripe for what FOCUS provides; to reignite a spirit of missionary discipleship and evangelization within people.”
Miller said he hopes that SEEK in St. Louis will be akin to “a little Catholic bomb going off,” similar to the way World Youth Day 1993 in Denver served as a catalyst for a large number of vocations and many apostolates.
SEEK23 will be FOCUS’ first in-person conference since Indianapolis in 2019 and a smaller student leadership summit in Phoenix in the earliest days of 2020. Conferences for 2021 and 2022 conferences were held online due to the pandemic.
At the Oct. 1 event, Archbishop Mitchell Rozanski of St. Louis addressed the crowd and encouraged them to bring Christ’s presence to others in a face-to-face way, seeking to break through the isolation wrought by an individualistic society and a reliance on technology. He noted that often, evangelization takes the form not of argumentation or apologetics, but of people noticing the joyful witness of a Catholic friend.
Archbishop Mitchell Rozanski of St. Louis addresses the crowd at "SEEK First," a preview event put on by the Fellowship of Catholic University Students in St. Louis on Oct. 1, 2022. Jonah McKeown/CNA
“The Lord has planted the seed of faith in our hearts, not merely to hold it to ourselves but to share it with others, to share it by the witness of our lives,” Rozanski said.
Rozanski encouraged those present to consider exploring FOCUS’ Making Missionary Disciples track as a means of learning more about how to evangelize as part of daily life.
Ryan and Sara Huelsing, parishoners at St. Joseph parish in Cottleville, Missouri, at a preview event put on by the Fellowship of Catholic University Students in St. Louis on Oct. 1, 2022. Ryan leads a men's group at his parish and both hope to get involved with FOCUS' "Making Missionary Disciples" track. Jonah McKeown/CNA
Miller said part of his office’s goal is to encourage Catholics to recognize, as Vatican II affirmed, that there is a “universal call to holiness” for every person to go out and share the Catholic faith, not merely an institutional or “programmatic” call for the Church to do so. He said he hopes that the information, encouragement, and connections that SEEK aims to provide will touch people’s hearts and help to build a Catholic presence “in every square mile of the archdiocese.”
“It's a perspective shift for many Catholics, who are used to just showing up, or letting the programs of the Church take care of evangelization and caring for the needs of others,” he said.
Beyond the young people and students who will attend SEEK, Miller said they hope to use FOCUS’ Making Missionary Disciples track as a launchpad for getting more mature Catholics excited about sharing their faith as well. He also said his office plans to host follow-up events for St. Louis Catholics to build upon what people will learn at SEEK about evangelization as well as provide them with resources to help them start Bible studies and small discipleship groups.
He said he hopes that as parishes in St. Louis “come together in their new parish realities” after the merging and closing processes, that “they have some common footing, some common training, and they have a common mission.”