KNOXVILLE, Tennessee — Knoxville Bishop Richard F. Stika urged attendees at Seek22 to go forth from conference filled with Holy Spirit and the knowledge “Jesus invites us” to his sacrifice.

“We gather together to celebrate the fact that Jesus invites us to this, his sacrifice,” he said during Mass celebrated the morning of Feb. 6 before the conference’s final talks. “Jesus invites us to be here, one with him, as we honor God the Father, as we are filled with the Holy Spirit.”

“As you leave here today,” he added, “you take that message with you, touched by the Holy Spirit.”

Stika 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,” the bishop said. “Now I must admit, I’m a little partial to the Tennessee people over here,” he added, drawing a loud response from the University of Tennessee students.

The conference was one of several regional gatherings of the Fellowship of Catholic University Students. For the past two years, because of the pandemic, the organization has held its annual SEEK event as a hybrid event of smaller local events — with keynote speeches livestreamed to all — rather than as an in-person event in one location.

The Knoxville Convention Center hosted 15 campuses from five states, including Tennessee, Alabama, Kentucky, Ohio and Illinois, and drew a crowd of about 1,100, most of whom were college students, joined by missionaries, benefactors and mission partners.

With the conference held adjacent to the University of Tennessee, there was a large showing of students clad in bright orange.

During his homily, 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 said.

Acknowledging the young people would leave Knoxville “with zeal and zest,” and feeling “boy, this was a great experience,” he urged them to remember a popular slogan from an earlier time.

“I kind of always liked those old wristbands, you know, ‘What Would Jesus Do?'” Stika said. “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.”

In addition to keynotes and impact sessions, the conference agenda allowed time for campuses to break out in small groups to discuss the session 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 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.

An area dubbed “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 Knoxville for the regional SEEK22 event.

“It’s my first in-person experience,” she told The East Tennessee Catholic, Knoxville’s diocesan newspaper. “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,” 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 the night of Feb. 5, where the students encountered the Lord as Jesuit Father Kevin Dyer, a part-time FOCUS chaplain, 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.

Near the end of the conference, FOCUS announced the dates and location of next year’s SEEK: Jan. 2-6 in St. Louis.

Not only will 2023 mark the 25th anniversary of the first FOCUS conference, but once again, students, missionaries and supporters will be back in one location to draw near to God and to each other.

Nolan is a multimedia reporter at The East Tennessee Catholic, newspaper of the Diocese of Knoxville.