On a July afternoon, a young Totus Tuus missionary acted out the story of St. Michael the Archangel, jumping around and waving his arms wildly, in front of about 25 kids sitting on the floor in St. Anastasia School in Waukegan.
Such skits, along with songs and games, are a big part of Totus Tuus, a program that offers weeklong Catholic camps to elementary and high school students in parishes around the Archdiocese of Chicago. This year, 16 teams of four college students led camps at 24 parishes.
Totus Tuus means “totally yours” in Latin and was the motto of St. John Paul II. The youth camps began in 1987 in the Diocese of Wichita, Kansas. The Archdiocese of Chicago held its first Totus Tuus in 2007.
Camps run on a six-year cycle with themes such as the Apostles’ Creed, sacraments and virtues. Elementary and teen campers learn to pray the rosary and the elementary students attend Mass daily. Elementary programs take place during the day, with teen programs in the evening.
Totus Tuus is designed to promote the faith not just among campers, but also among the missionary leaders, many of whom are seminarians.
“It’s a program that helps young people have a structured experience of prayer, of community and of ministry. For both the men and the women it really equips them to enter more deeply into discernment,” said Father Tim Monahan, director of vocations for the archdiocese, whose office runs the program.
The missionaries start with a two-week training at the end of May and then have six weeks of camps. During the week they live with host families at the parish. On weekends, they stay at Casa Jesus, a house for discernment located on the campus of Holy Name Cathedral. They receive a stipend of $2,000 for the summer.
Monahan said he has been impressed with the number of married couples, priests and men and women religious who speak highly of their experience as Totus Tuus missionaries and its impact on discerning their vocations.
“It’s giving people a concrete experience of Jesus through the sacraments, prayer, communal living and service,” he said. “Discernment is very hard to do in the abstract so we need experiences that awake these desires in our hearts.”
This is the second time seminarian Kevin Gregus has been a missionary. He first did it in the Diocese of Rockford 10 years ago when he was in college. At the end of that summer, he thought about entering the seminary, a decision which would come years later.
“It really is a great way to see a bunch of different parishes and meet different priests,” Gregus said. His team has put on camps in Deerfield, Bartlett, Hoffman Estates, Oak Forest, Waukegan and Niles.
“Parishes are all very different and the kids are always fun,” he said.
Gregus, who will be ordained for the Archdiocese of Chicago, said working in the parishes every day has given him a firsthand glimpse into what ministering in a parish really looks like for priests.
“You have to rely a lot on God,” he said. “If you don’t, you’re really going to struggle.”
Mary Rose Zoeckler learned about Totus Tuus through her sister ,who attended University of Illinois-Chicago and saw a flyer for it in the John Paul II Newman Center. Zoeckler is from Catonsville, Maryland, and attends Duquesne University in Pittsburgh.
She was searching for something ministry-related to do for the summer.
“I liked the fact that it was Catholic and I wanted to get more experience working with kids,” she said. “I’m definitely way more comfortable with kids now.”
Visiting the various parishes through Totus Tuus makes her feel more connected to the faith.
“I think it’s a great way to understand the basic parts of the faith. If you can teach something you know it yourself,” she said.