At the same time that the bishops of the United States gathered at Mundelein Seminary at the behest of Pope Francis for a week of prayer and reflection concerning the clergy sexual abuse crisis, 17,000 young people met just 200 miles away in Indianapolis, Indiana. While the shepherds of the Church were on retreat, the Indiana Convention Center was transformed for the biennial Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS) SEEK Conference. Only God’s Providence could have arranged such timing.
Gatherings of young people like World Youth Day, the National Catholic Youth Conference, and SEEK do not fail to inspire great hope for the future of the Church. The joyful displays of faith and the confidence imparted by unapologetic catechesis are enough to bolster any open heart who witnesses them.
This SEEK conference, however, was particularly salient. This week was a powerful moment in our American Catholic history. And at SEEK 2019, God’s grace was manifestly at work.
Hallmarks of SEEK
SEEK organizers intentionally offer students personal encounters with Christ. Priority is given to meeting Him in the sacraments. Each day of the conference begins with a reverent liturgy. These Masses, with the scale of tens of thousands attending, are made all the more grand by their beautiful music which showcases chant and traditional hymnody, flawless logistical coordination, and engaging preaching. Thousands make use of the sacrament of confession. Eucharistic Adoration is available throughout the day in a quiet space for prayer.
Further, an all-star cast of speakers, men and women like Sr. Bethany Madonna, S.V., Curtis Martin, Jen Fulwiler, Fr. Mike Schmitz, and dozens more offer, in keynote speeches and breakout sessions, dynamic presentations designed to encourage and inspire as well as to offer orthodox instruction in the faith.
Yet, these are the hallmarks of the conference. They happen each time SEEK is held. So I had to ask myself, what was different this year?
The heart of St. John Marie Vianney
On Friday evening, the incorrupt heart of St. John Marie Vianney arrived at SEEK 2019. St. John Vianney, who lived in France in the 19th century, lived a rigorous life of prayer and fasting, but above all, was dedicated to his work as a dispenser of mercy in the confessional. He heard confessions for hours. Daily. How fitting then that God would give this man who loved so much an incorrupt heart!
Word spread slowly about the arrival of the relic, but after a few hours, organizers found themselves needing to restrict access to the hall where the relic was displayed, as more than 3,000 had packed in to pray before it. The hall that hosted the relic had been transformed, with its beautiful arrangement of Catholic art, into a worthy chapel where Eucharistic adoration was held throughout the weekend. Rosemary Sullivan, the Executive Director of the National Conference of Diocesan Vocation Directors (NCDVD), described the scene, saying, “I witnessed a silent tsunami of joy.” The fervor manifested in adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and in devotion to the relic of St. John Vianney was truly remarkable.
Seeing so many young people and priests venerate the relic allowed a glimpse of the sorts of prayers that were offered to God all weekend. As people reverently knelt before the saint’s heart, and gently touched its gilded case, I could see parts of a sacred conversation happening. As Sullivan put it, “I saw John Vianney pulling hearts toward God.”
The following day the relic was carried in procession and placed in front of the main altar during Holy Mass. It so happened Saturday was the feast of St. John Neumann, a St. John Vianney of sorts in Philadelphia. Like John Vianney, he gave himself over to his ministry as preacher and confessor, and against all odds founded a number of Catholic schools for the education of our youth. With its prominent placement in front of the altar, the heart was teaching us that closeness to Christ in the Eucharist, would make our hearts like Christ’s. As John Vianney says, “When the heart is pure and simple it cannot help loving, because it has discovered the source of love which is God.”
The visit of the relic to SEEK was made possible by a partnership of the Knights of Columbus, who are presently hosting a national tour of the relic, and NCDVD, an organization devoted to encouraging priestly vocations. Sullivan remarked that thanks to the intercession of St. John Vianney, the NCDVD sponsorship booth was busier than ever before!
The primacy of Christ
During this providential juxtaposition — the bishops on retreat and SEEK 2019 — something was made clear. Handing on the faith is just that: passing on our traditions. People meet Christ in the sacraments and in His saints. Young people embrace the Church because they’ve been invited to embrace the things of God the Church has had all along.
Some might be led to believe that the presence of a relic, or other such expressions of devotional life, distracts from a relationship with Christ. On the contrary. If there was one theme of the weekend, it was the primacy of Christ.
In a time when our faith is being challenged by the wounds inflicted by priests, we can look to the life and intercession of St. John Vianney. He whose heart was so perfectly conformed to Christ’s inspires the young men and women of our day to turn to Christ.
I know because I’ve seen it.