Before virtually attending last month’s SEEK21 conference put on by the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS), I was looking for answers to some important personal and spiritual questions.

One problem I had was overcomplicating my relationship with God. I had been battling the idea that God was making demands of me that are too difficult, that he wanted a tremendous amount of work and effort from me to show him that I loved him. I’d been missing the message that God is someone who loves, not demands.

Jenny Villareal (Submitted photo)

I also tended to miss God’s presence in my daily life, because I was always looking for him in extraordinary circumstances and moments, when in reality, he is found in the ordinary happenings of life. God is a God of simplicity. When I’ve been caught up in the noise of the world, it becomes difficult to listen to God’s voice, which is actually everywhere: in laughter, nature, and in other people. 

Lastly, I have struggled with conversations and relationships. Having grown up shy, people often talk over me, tune me out, or appear disinterested when they are with me. This struggle has bled into my faith life. The feeling of being unworthy and unlovable is persistent, and I often feel like I need to overcompensate for my shyness — even when talking to God. 

I brought all of this to my experience at SEEK 21, which brought together more than 27,000 young adults from around the country Feb. 4-7. Some gathered in in-person small groups, while others like myself participated virtually.

Love, I heard the conference’s speakers say throughout, is what causes the most unbelievable and beautiful changes and can drive the most powerful actions. I heard in this beautiful message an answer to what I was going through. 

I was blessed enough to watch SEEK21 with two seniors at Gonzaga University, where I am studying. I could not have been happier to experience this with them. Their hearts are genuine and loving, and God spoke to me about his love through them. After the sessions, we stayed and talked about what we heard and experienced. 

As we started to watch the event, I was scared that I would face the same struggles around self-worth, but instead I found myself among peers who truly listened to everything I had to say. They gave me their undivided attention and let me speak freely. They gave me a precious gift, though they probably do not realize how much that meant to me. I am thankful to Christ that he let me experience this event with them, because God showed himself perfectly that night through friendship.

A small parish group gathering for SEEK21. (Courtesy FOCUS)

There were a few moments during SEEK21 that helped drive these epiphanies home. In the Worldwide Vigil, I heard God say to me, “Why are you looking for me? I am right here around you.” Seeing my friends praying with me brought me overwhelming joy. I knew that was exactly how God was with me. 

Father Mike Schmitz spoke about the obstacles we create when we examine God’s love. He said that we overestimate what it takes to come back home because we think God is making certain demands. However, we are the only ones making these demands. God is not asking for grand gestures — he only wants me.

I was especially struck by another speaker at SEEK21, Immaculée Ilibagiza, and her story of surviving the Rwandan genocide. Her story was incredible for various reasons, but a prominent message that spoke to my heart was the importance of the rosary in helping us to love.   

Immaculee Ilibagiza speaks Feb. 5 from Rwanda to over 26,000 participants globally gathered for the SEEK21 conference. (CNS screenshot/courtesy The Florida Catholic)

When Ilibagiza spoke about her experience with the rosary, I could not help smiling. She recounted hiding in a tiny bathroom for months and explained how the rosary was the only thing that would bring her peace. I find it remarkable that God spoke compassion to her in the bathroom through the rosary. 

God showed her pure love amid the overwhelming hate. She asked herself the question if she would rather be on the side of love or the side of hate. Even in the face of great evil and personal loss, she concluded that the side of love is more liberating. 

I once heard that our faith is faith in a perfect Love. SEEK21 ignited a desire in me to find a home in that Love. 

As Father Mike Schmitz said, “Home is where you let yourself be seen. Home is where you let yourself be loved.” 

After attending SEEK21, I want to let myself be seen for who I truly am and to experience God for who he truly is.