Hundreds gather in Boise for annual SEEK conference
The following story appeared in the March 11 Idaho Catholic Register.
Father Nathan Dail, center, celebrates Mass at the recent SEEK Conference in Boise. He is the chaplain at the Catholic Student Center at Boise State University. On the far right is Father Chase Hasenoehrl, chaplain at St. Augustine’s, the Catholic campus ministry at the University of Idaho in Moscow. (ICR photo/Sophia Ann Chumich)
By Gene Fadness
Perhaps more than any other time in life, the college years are when young adults make the most consequential decisions that will shape their futures. It’s a time when students are going to decide who they love the most in the world; what they will say “yes” to and what they will say “no” to, said Father Nathan Dail, campus chaplain at Boise State University.
College is also the time when many Catholic young people decide to quit practicing their faith, not necessarily because they no longer believe but because so much of what they experience crowds out their faith.
“College students don’t forsake their faith, they just forget it,” Father Dail told about 500 young people gathered last month in downtown Boise, which was one of several sites of the annual SEEK conference put on by the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS).
The annual conference typically attracts 12,000 or more mostly college-aged young people at one site, but COVID has interrupted the large gathering the last three years. This year’s event was to have been in Salt Lake City. Instead, students gathered at several smaller, regional locations where they heard from live speakers as well as listening to national speakers on a large screen in Boise’s Center East. Boise was host to students from Boise State, the University of Idaho, Idaho State, the University of Utah, Western Washington and Eastern Washington.
National speakers spread out to regional locations. Boise hosted Dr. Andrew Swafford and Sarah Swafford. Dr. Swafford is associate professor of theology at Benedictine College and the author of a number of books. Sarah Swafford is a national speaker and author of “Emotional Virtue: A Guide to Drama Free Relationships.”
The Boise audience listened via satellite to national speakers like Jason Evert and Dr. Edward Sri of the Augustine Institute. Locally, in addition to the Swaffords, the Boise group heard from Bishop Peter Christensen, who celebrated Mass for conference attendees at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist and from Father Dail.
Both Bishop Peter and Father Dail focused on the decisions college-aged young people must make in the midst of a culture that is not only indifferent to Christianity, but often stridently opposes the Christian worldview.
Bishop Peter told the people about his experience taking an English class at a secular university while, at the same time, being a seminary student. The professor in the class singled him out for particular criticism, dubbing him the “seminarian with the rose-colored glasses.”
“There is a time when we need to stand up for the truth,” the Bishop said. “Our world is changing and Christian values are being challenged,” but if students “move forward even when the outcome is not visible,” they will eventually be blessed, he said. “If it is the truth that you live by, no matter how it is perceived by others, our Lord will always give you His strength and protection. Even though we may question at times, in time the truth will be made known.”
The Bishop began his remarks, commenting on the Gospel reading for the Mass about John the Baptist confronting Herod over his adultery. “People don’t like being confronted by their own sin,” the Bishop said. “People don’t like to bend their knee to a power other than the one of their own making. The Gospel message is one of truth. And many do not want to listen to or follow truth. They want to live their lives on their own terms.”
Father Dail had to come to terms with whom he would follow in life, especially after his sister confronted him with the question: Who do you love most in the world?
Growing up in a home where half his family members were nominally Catholic and the other half nonbelievers, Father Dail could easily have chosen a different path.
His father was a self-professed atheist who didn’t want his son to become “one of those Jesus freaks,” after he told his dad he experienced a conversion while in college. He also became involved with a girl while in college. In the end, his choices would be determined “by my ‘Nos’ and my ‘Yeses.’ ”
After his conversion, Father Daid said he had to start saying no to a lot of things in order to be faithful to Jesus Christ,” including friends and even his father, which he feared might sour their relationship. Also, if he were to become a priest, he would have to say no to a further relationship with his girlfriend.
“Am I beginning to love somebody more than my father and more than my girlfriend?” he asked himself.
“Who do I love most?”
“People outside the faith can’t understand our ‘Nos.’ When a man says no to every other woman so that he can say yes to that one woman he will marry, many in the world can’t understand that.” However, saying no frees people to be able to say a greater yes to life in Christ, he said. And, many times, “you get everything back,” even after saying no. “My father is now proud to have his son as a priest,” he said.
“Loving God with our whole heart, might, mind and strength is the biggest battle of your life,” he told the students. “Jesus’ entire battle was to be faithful to His yes to our Father,” he said. “Who do you most love? It’s a question only you can answer not by what you say, but by what you do and what you refuse to do,” he said.
Dr. Andrew Swafford and Sarah Swafford shared with the Boise audience how the two met at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan.
His football career was most important to him during college, but that ended his freshman year when he broke his leg during an exhibition game in Paris, France, an injury that caused him to go into depression. He took a class from Dr. Edward Sri in Christian Moral Theology and then got involved in a FOCUS Bible study. Both of those deepened his faith. The only thing holding him back was a relationship to a girl at another campus that was not helping him grow in his faith.
It was only after having to give up a career in football and give up a long relationship with a girl, that he began to feel freedom, he said. After his romance ended, “I never felt more alone, but I also never felt more peace in my entire life.” He used the time to read the Gospels, where he began to find the strength to overcome a fear of becoming a good dad because he didn’t experience that in his own life. “The resolve to be the dad you didn’t have can move mountains. I can promise you now that you are not a slave to the past,” said Swafford, the father to five children.
Unlike Andrew, Sarah Swafford told the students she grew up in a tight-knit Catholic family, but was consumed with anxiety over her perfectionism. She constantly tried to please others, fearing that others would think poorly of her. “We didn’t have social media in those days, thank God, because I don’t know if I would have been alive with social media.”
Trying to be perfect also led to trying to find the perfect man, she said, which resulted only in failed relationships. A turning point for her came when a priest told her, “You’re trying to make men your God. Let God be God and let men be men.”
“That changed my life because I learned then that life is about surrender to God,” she said.
Sexual attraction may be where love begins “but is not where it ends,” she said. “Love must evolve into a mature love when I seek only the good for my spouse.”
It's not uncommon to see students fly the flags of their respective schools at a SEEK Conference. At left, a student waves the flag for the University of Utah Utes. In the Middle, Bronco Catholic students fly their colors. (ICR photos/Sophia Chumich) On the Right Bengal Catholics at Idaho State University in Pocatello sent a large delegation to the SEEK Conference in Boise. SEEK is sponsored by FOCUS, the Fellowship of Catholic University Students. (ICR photo/Sophia Ann Chumich)
During a session later with only the men, Sarah Swafford again discussed the challenges young people face with social media. “Even if I don’t understand your battle completely,” she told the men, “I respect your battle. Before I was married, I didn’t know what social media was. You men are playing with a completely different deck. We had bad hair,” she joked about the 80s and 90s, “but we didn’t have social media.”
Social media has changed dating to the point that couples often “stalk one another” out on social media and make decisions about them based on often misleading Facebook and Instagram posts rather than actually getting to know the person first.
She encouraged the young men not to do the same as she did, seeking to find ultimate fulfillment in a girlfriend or a future spouse. “If you are looking for someone to be your god and everything, you are not looking for a girl, you are looking for heartache,” she said. Instead, she said, men should look for women who will say to them, “I don’t want to be your everything, but I want to point you toward your everything … I want us to run together toward Him.”
In both their dating and their friendships, Swafford had the young men promise to remember two sentences throughout their lives when it comes to relationships: “I will not use you,” and “I will not let you use me.”
She encouraged the young men to surround themselves with friends to whom they could be available, vulnerable and accountable. “Don’t be afraid to share your struggles with others,” she stated, noting that the worst thing young people can do is isolate them-selves. “Your life is not your own. If you want your peace and freedom, give your life away,” she said.
Jason Evert, a nationally known chastity speaker, speaking on screen, encouraged young people to radically change their schedule if they seek to grow deeper in Christ. “Disrupt your sleep schedule and your social media habits,” including no social media while lying down at night and, instead, making room for night prayer. As important, he said, is making time for prayers at the day’s start, quoting St. Jose Escriva, who called the 20 minutes of morning prayer time the “heroic minutes,” of the day.
Evert especially cautioned the young adults against the destructive nature of pornography. “You can’t ask a woman on a date if you are in a habit of porn use,” he told the men saying doing so is dishonest to women, leading them into relationships with men who are not spiritually, emotionally and sexually healthy.
Evert criticized the trend of some in culture today “who want to make you almost apologize for being a man.” He said the oft-used term “toxic masculinity,” is an oxymoron because genuine masculinity cannot be toxic. Genuine masculinity is choosing to do what is sometimes difficult rather than settling for the “softness’ of doing only what is pleasurable, he said. Further he said, “Masculinity is not determined by who we are attracted to, but it is gaged by how willing we are to conform our lives to Jesus Christ crucified.”
Also speaking remotely, Dr. Edward Sri referred to the growing threat of relativism on college campuses. Contrary to the views of some, “relativism is not neutral,” when it comes to matter of faith, Sri said, adding that those who believe in relativism are the most “aggressive evangelizers,” on campus.
“Get a relativist to explain how society would work if everyone made up their own truth,” he said. Students should not be afraid of being castigated as judgmental or bigoted for pointing out wrong behavior. “Can you judge another person’s actions? Yes, but you cannot judge his soul.”
The definition of love is to “will the good of the other,” Sri said, even if that means pointing out or refusing to engage in wrong behavior.
In an effort to avoid being termed judgmental, “The world is trying to get us not to talk about things that are most important: love and marriage,” Sri said. But, he said, “Indifference is not love, even though modern culture.
In an effort to avoid being termed judgmental, “The world is trying to get us to not talk about things that are most important: love and marriage,” Sri said. But, he said, “Indifference is not love, even though modern culture is trying to get us be indifferent.”
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