by Joe Bollig
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — If it can be said that Totus Tuus is a summer religious education “boot camp” for kids, then it must be among the few boot camps that kids love — and want to do again and again.
Just ask Jessie Johnson from Wichita, now a junior at the University of Dallas.
She was a Totus Tuus kid while growing up in Wichita.
“I remember how I always admired the teacher a lot,” said Johnson. “More than anything else, I appreciated their interest, and how often they taught things about the faith I knew and illuminated it with their personal stories.”
She liked it so much that she wanted to become a team member herself. Johnson was a Totus Tuus teacher in the Archdiocese of Kansas City in 2012, and found it so fulfilling she came back this year.
Totus Tuus is Latin for “Totally Yours,” the papal motto of Blessed John Paul II. He took it from the spiritual writings of St. Louis de Montfort, and it expresses the late pontiff’s personal devotion to the Virgin Mary.
Totus Tuus has been getting rave reviews since its inception in the Diocese of Wichita in 1988. Since then, it has spread to dioceses all over the United States, including the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas.
Father Jerry Volz, pastor of St. Matthew Parish in Topeka, brought Totus Tuus to the archdiocese in 2002 when he was leading the campus ministry at Emporia State University. Today, he administers the program with Father Andrew Strobl, parochial vicar of Prince of Peace Parish in Olathe.
The program has enjoyed steady growth, and this year had to add another four-person team. The Summer 2013 Totus Tuus program was held at 23 parishes and saw participation by 1,823 grade school, junior high, and high school youths.
Totus Tuus is very different from the usual vacation Bible school. It is distinctively and unabashedly Catholic, serving up the riches of the faith for hungry young souls.
“Totus Tuus is very much focused on our Catholic faith,” said Father Volz. “Each summer, we spend our time teaching a section of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. This past summer, our theme was the sacraments. And we also teach, each summer, one of the mysteries of the rosary.”
The Totus Tuus session lasts one week. It is led by college-aged young adults who undergo a week’s worth of training themselves. Most parishes have one team, comprised of two women and two men, of which one is a seminarian.
Briana Murphy, from Holy Trinity Parish in Lenexa, became involved in Totus Tuus while a freshman at Benedictine College in Atchison.
“The thing I love about Totus Tuus is that everything — the whole day — is centered around the Mass,” said Murphy, now a junior at Benedictine. “We have Mass every day. Leading up to it, we’re preparing for it, and after, we reflect on it.”
Murphy taught at five parishes, and was trained at Savior Pastoral Center. She was delighted by the kids that she taught and impressed by their inquisitiveness. They’re not afraid to ask questions, she said, and they have a lot of questions.
“They really open up to you, especially the first- and second-graders,” said Murphy. “Color with them and you are their best friend.”
“A lot of people say the junior high kids are the hardest to work with, because they’re at a weird transitional stage, but I think they’re misunderstood,” she said. They want to know things. They are seeking the truth and trying to figure things out on their own. It’s great to help guide them and to hear their questions, and see where they’re at.”
These young adults do a tremendous job, said Father Richard McDonald, pastor of Holy Angels Parish in Basehor.
“By having theological and/or catechetical backgrounds, these young adults impact the children and teenagers much more forcefully because of the knowledge they gained and the joy they have spreading that knowledge,” said Father McDonald.
“The effect has been for [the students] to appreciate not just that they are Christians, but they are Catholic,” he continued, “to appreciate singing out in fulsome voices and more fully participate in Mass, and allow their own individual prayer lives to blossom.”
Several parents have told Father McDonald that their children are more reverent and attentive at Mass, and get more out of worship as a result of their participation in the program.
Father Pat Sullivan — pastor of Annunciation in Frankfort, St. Columbkille in Blaine and St. Monica-St. Elizabeth in Blue Rapids — said the program was a tremendous success.
“I was extremely pleased with it,” said Father Sullivan. “I had high hopes and expectations because I heard how great the program is, but it surpassed my expectations. And I know it did for my parishioners, too.”
He’s really encouraged that the high school students asked that it come back next year.
“It’s Catholic,” he said. “It’s fun and Catholic, and the team members who put on the Totus Tuus are energetic, happy and alive with their faith. And they challenge the kids. They don’t mince words or water down the faith. They teach lovingly, but they challenge our young people the way Jesus did.”
The results of Totus Tuus in his parishes have been positive all the way around, and that’s exactly what Father Sullivan has been looking for.
“This was the first time we’ve had it in Frankfort, but it will not be the last time,” he said. “I want to have it back every year, if I can.”