January 18, 2019

Priests laud benefits of SEEK to students, chaplains and more

Father John Hollowell, third from left, smiles as he is introduced at a Campus Ministry Track panel discussion on Jan. 6 during SEEK2019 at the Indiana Convention Center in Indianapolis. (Photo by Natalie Hoefer)

Father John Hollowell, third from left, smiles as he is introduced at a Campus Ministry Track panel discussion on Jan. 6 during SEEK2019 at the Indiana Convention Center in Indianapolis. (Photo by Natalie Hoefer)

By Natalie Hoefer

Priests who serve as college chaplains or campus ministers do not have an easy load to shoulder. These days, that role is likely just one of his many duties.

“With the priest shortage, it’s difficult to have priests to be there on campus,” says Father Rick Nagel, pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish and chaplain of Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI), both in the heart of the capital city.

This reality is true for Father John Hollowell. In addition to serving as chaplain for DePauw University in Greencastle, he is also pastor of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in the same town and of Annunciation Parish in Brazil, as well as chaplain of Putnamville Correctional Facility.

Dominican Father Patrick Hyde can also relate. He ministers as associate pastor of St. Paul Catholic Center in Bloomington, as well as head of the parish’s campus ministry serving the students of Indiana University (IU).

But the three priests share one powerful source of help: Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS).

And part of FOCUS’ help in ministering to college students is its biennial SEEK conference.

“It has a profound impact,” says Father Nagel of the five-day experience. “I’ve never heard anyone say it didn’t make a difference in their life.”

With the support of the late Indianapolis Archbishop Emeritus Daniel M. Buechlein, he brought FOCUS and its lay missionaries to the IUPUI campus in 2009. The organization and its “multiplication of discipleship” concept now also serves at DePauw, and started serving at IU two years ago.

With its thousands of participants—more than 17,000 at SEEK2019 in Indianapolis on Jan. 3-7—students get “a sense of the universal Church not just with the other students, but also the hundreds of priests, religious and bishops,” says Father Nagel. This year, the bishops were primarily from other countries, as the bishops from the United States were on a retreat at Mundelein Seminary at the University of St. Mary of the Lake near Chicago.

Witnessing the myriad religious men and women—many in traditional habits—is not the only impressive sight at a SEEK conference.

“When you’re in a room with 17,000 college students that are all in adoration or all in Mass, and are really into it, I think that’s something that blows people’s minds in a good way,” says Father Hollowell. “Certainly a lot of [college students] are falling away in frightening numbers, but it almost makes the faith of those who stay and those who are coming back seem even more powerful.”

Father Nagel has attended four SEEK conferences before and witnessed its impact.

“Sometimes there can be a ‘mountaintop’ experience with a retreat, but then they re-enter the world, and the effects wane over time,” he says.

“But SEEK ‘disciples’ students so they have real, tangible takeaways, like ways to pray or a particular way to live your life. It enhances our ministry and allows us to build on that when they go back on campus.”

SEEK, which Father Hollowell says FOCUS “describes as an experience rather than a conference,” also serves as a way for chaplains and campus ministers to connect with their students.

“One of the best things for me to be here is that we have about 97 people here from Bloomington,” says Father Patrick. “It’s really beautiful to see students I recognize but don’t know, because that’s a sign that something good is happening, that maybe people who were on the fringe are going a step deeper. And that’s just cool to see.”

Father Hollowell, too, has taken advantage of the opportunity to attend the conference with the DePauw students he ministers to.

“I try to be with the students as much as I can here,” he says. “We’ve had lunch and dinner. I’ve gone to several talks with them. There are a lot of great questions and discussions.

“It’s a great opportunity for me to be with them and have conversations, to interact with them outside of my formal role. Some do that on campus, but for others who don’t want to ‘bother me,’ there’s a sense that, ‘I can talk to Father because he’s sitting here eating dinner with us.’ ”

While Father Nagel notes that the majority of SEEK participants are university students, he says it reaches a broader audience as well.

“A year ago, they began a Lifelong Mission Track [of sessions and speakers] for non-students,” he says. “Last year, there were about 1,000 who participated in that, and it’s grown this year [to 1,700]. We have about 50 non-students from the parish going.”

FOCUS also welcomes non-Catholics to the conference. Father Hollowell’s group included “a few non-Catholics and one person going through RCIA [Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults].”

SEEK offers a special track for the chaplains and campus ministers as well.

“It’s an opportunity to talk shop and share best practices with other campus ministers,” says Father Patrick. “It’s an interesting, full spectrum of what college campus ministry looks like now in this country.”

What’s more, FOCUS covers the cost of SEEK for priests who are college chaplains or ministers on campuses where FOCUS ministers, says Father Hollowell.

“They recognize priests need ongoing formation too, and they make it as easy as possible to utilize that. That’s really impacted me as a priest.”

In terms of more immediate impact, Father Patrick says he looks forward to witnessing SEEK’s effects on the students he ministers to.

“I’ve heard people have been blown away by the talks and the atmosphere,” he says. “It’s going to be really interesting to see a diverse response to what God does this week in their lives.” †


Related story: Young adults embrace opportunity to deepen faith at SEEK2019

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