Totus Tuus: Four Missionaries, 500 Kids, One Great Summer

Author’s note:  This article was originally published on July 19th, in the One Voice (a Catholic newspaper published by the Diocese of Birmingham in Alabama).

Leaning forward, I address the attentive crowd of grade-school children seated on the floor around me.  I ask them, “Who are we going to see at Mass today?”  A second-grader raises her hand and answers, “Jesus!”  In the back I see Elise, a fellow missionary, smile with approval:  they have been listening!  Perhaps this explains why many of our students, when asked to name their favorite part of the day, are quick to answer, “Going to Mass!”

Together with three college students named Elise, Mary, and Anthony, I am a Totus Tuus missionary this summer in the Diocese of Nashville.  Each week we travel to a new parish, catechizing kids during the day and teens at night.  Day classes are divided by grade level, but interspersed with recess, songs, games, and skits.  The night program is like a small youth conference with skits, lectures, music and personal testimonies, as well as time for reflection and to experience the mysteries of the faith first-hand.  Both programs are very Christ-centered and encourage students toward deeper conversion through the sacraments and a personal prayer life.

“Pray hard, play hard,” is not our motto, but it could be.  Our actual motto is “totus tuus,” which is John Paul II’s famous prayer to Mary meaning “[I am] totally yours”.  Without forgetting its original sense as a Marian devotion, we use this phrase as a reminder for the kids that love – and prayer – means mutual self-gift; loving means giving oneself away for the sake of the beloved.

As missionaries, we try to live out our motto by having a rigorous team prayer life.  This includes Liturgy of the Hours, Mass, and confession, as well as a daily holy hour, rosary, divine mercy chaplet, devotions, and team prayer.  We cannot give what we do not have, so it is vital that we spend time with God in prayer ourselves before asking the children to do so.  We ask God for grace and holiness in our own lives so that we can share those gifts and inspire them in our students.

In addition to the emphasis on prayer and strong catechesis, one of my favorite things about the program is that it is profoundly human in character.  In lieu of decorations, themes, and elaborate activities, Totus Tuus enables volunteers and children to focus all of their energies on personal interaction with each other.  Teaching always occurs face-to-face, with lessons tailored to the needs of individual classes and children.  Skits and songs are interactive and fun, with shared laughter and eye contact eliminating the need for electronic media.  Perhaps most importantly, there is an extended time for recess in which we play sports and games with the kids and simply show them that we love them in a way that is real and tangible.

Our time with the teens is no less important.  Whether the parish already has strong youth involvement or not, the evening program is a chance to show the teens that it is possible to be “cool”, faithful, and happy at the same time.  In addition to the witness we provide, the opportunity for confession and Eucharistic adoration can be a decisive turning point in a young adult’s faith life.  One girl, a high school senior, approached me at the end of the week and simply said, “Thank you for restoring my faith.”

In moments like these, I cannot help but think that Totus Tuus is the most rewarding and meaningful summer experience I have ever had.  My formation as a seminarian and as a Catholic has developed tremendously this summer through prayer, study, teaching, and missionary life.  I would like to thank Bishop Baker [and Bishop Choby!] for allowing me to become a missionary for Nashville this summer, in hopes of bringing Totus Tuus home to the Birmingham diocese next year.  This can only happen through prayer, so please ask that God will continue to bless the program, as well as the children and youth that we serve!

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