Notes from Across the Atlantic
Peter Mitchell FAITH Magazine September – October 2011
An Experience of the New Evangelisation
Mention the words "Totus Tuus" to a youngster at a Catholic parish in the Midwestern United States, and you are likely to get a very positive reaction. The reason? Each summer in scores of parishes big and small, the Totus Tuus summer catechetical programme has become one of the most-anticipated events of the year for American Catholic youth. Named after Blessed John Paul II's papal motto, the programme brings a week of solid catechesis, youthful evangelical witness, and a burst of enthusiasm and energy that is contagious and seems to be bearing significant spiritual fruit.
Totus Tuus began very informally in 1987 in the Diocese of Wichita, Kansas, and seemed so blessed that it quickly spread throughout and beyond Kansas. The programme now exists in nearly forty dioceses across the United States, including such far-flung places as Oklahoma, Georgia, Nebraska, Colorado, Illinois, and even Vermont. The concept is simple: a team of four college students composed of two young men and two young women spends a week at a parish, catechising the elementary school students (ages 5-13) during the day and the high-school students (ages 14-18) in the evenings. The missionaries speak at the Sunday Masses and invite the youth of the parish to come to the sessions during the week. They stay in the homes of parishioners and eat dinner each night with a different hostfamily. The entire parish is invited to come together for a "pot-luck" supper one evening to meet the missionaries and to hear about what their children have been learning during the week.
Each year the Totus Tuus programme focuses on a different section of the
Catechism of the Catholic Church and also presents one set of the Mysteries of the Rosary to the youth. Daily Mass and the opportunity for the Sacrament of Penance are integral to the week, and the support and involvement of the parish priest is central to the vision of Totus Tuus. It is the powerful combination of content-packed catechesis with the reception of the Sacraments that sets Totus Tuus apart from other run-of-the-mill "Vacation Bible Schools".
"Totus Tuus captures in microcosm the contagious renewal that is occurring from the ground up among the youngest generation of American Catholics"
Where on earth, it must be asked, does one find committed, enthusiastic, faith-filled college students willing to give up an entire summer to teach the Catholic faith to youngsters? Totus Tuus recruits its missionaries largely from campuses where FOCUS has a presence (The Fellowship of Catholic University Students). In turn FOCUS has an inspired recruitment and formation process. Also, increasingly, recruitment is from those who are Totus Tuus alumni - such is the contagious spirit of the programme that many of the youth who attend decide they want to be missionaries themselves when they get to college. The success of Totus Tuus is such that interest in serving as a missionary is spread by word of mouth among young Catholics involved at their Newman Centres and Catholic campuses. Themissionaries themselves receive considerable formation and catechesis before undertaking their task. Most dioceses that sponsor Totus Tuus run intensive training programmes -a week to ten days at the start of the summer.
Each team has a returning veteran who serves as the leader and ensures that the new missionaries are well apprenticed in the many aspects i their demanding work. The experience is not simply one of having a summer job, however, but of living a vocation in community. In addition to their teaching duties, the missionaries pray the Liturgy of the Hours, Rosary, and Chaplet of Divine Mercy together at different times throughout the day.
The week of Totus Tuus is never complete without some classic summer fun: the much-anticipated water fight on the Friday afternoon. There is a delightful innocence and beauty in the sight of dozens of children squealing with excitement as they get to chase the missionaries around with water guns squirting left and right as everyone gets drenched. Saint Paul endured shipwreck and imprisonment for the sake of the Gospel; the Totus Tuus missionaries are happily willing to be pummelled with water balloons on a hot summer afternoon for the Kingdom.
Their witness could be called "catechesis with a punch" - the outstanding content of their teaching is hammered home by the enthusiasm and energy of the teachers who as college students are usually seen as "cool" in the eyes of their youthful audiences. Totus Tuus captures in microcosm the contagious renewal that is occurring from the ground up among the youngest generation of American Catholics, and it bodes extremely well for the future of the Church on these shores. For hundreds of American young people, the words "Totus Tuus" evoke not merely an idea but a lived experience of joyful friendship in the communion of the Church, deep love for Mary and Jesus in the Eucharist, and a bold proclamation of the Gospel. If Father Karol Wojtyla showed up, he would fit right in.