Totus Tuus summer program is energizing youth in 24 parishes across the diocese

Seminarian Thomas Williams interacts with Emory Thais and Zoey Mitchell as they “Go Bananas” at the end of the day on June 22. This is the first year Totus Tuus has been at St. Philomena in Monticello. (The Catholic Post/Jennifer Willems)

MONTICELLO — Little surges of energy can be felt all over the Diocese of Peoria this summer, accompanied by prayer, song and laughter — lots of laughter.

It’s the result of a youth program called Totus Tuus and for parishes still rebuilding after COVID-19, it’s a godsend.

Totus Tuus missionary Samantha Domagala draws some key elements about the Third Luminous Mystery of the rosary out of her young students at St. Philomena Parish in Monticello. (The Catholic Post/Jennifer Willems)

“We just couldn’t do anything for the last three summers,” said Kari Higgins, religious education coordinator at St. Philomena Parish in Monticello. “The ability to do something again, I think that drew people in. I think people just missed having those activities.”

But Totus Tuus offers something more, she said.

“It’s all day and they can entrust their kids to people who they know are teaching them about the faith. They’re spending a day learning about God and how to be more reverent at Mass,” Higgins told The Catholic Post.

This is the first time Totus Tuus has been at the Monticello parish, so she wasn’t sure what to expect in terms of participation. By the time the four young Totus Tuus missionaries arrived on June 19, there were 27 children enrolled in the day sessions and seven teens ready to attend the evening sessions.

“The parents I’ve talked to have said, ‘This is so great! The kids come home with so much to say,’” Higgins said. “They’re like, ‘They come home and they’re so excited.’”

FOCUSING ON LUMINOUS MYSTERIES

Totus Tuus is sponsored by the diocesan Office of Priestly Vocations and this year five seminarians are involved in the program. Other potential missionaries were interviewed by Father Chase Hilgenbrinck, diocesan vocation director of recruitment, and Carla Oliver, office assistant.

Clare Thomson talks about Mary as she leads the children in first through third grade on a church tour at St. Philomena in Monticello. (The Catholic Post/Jennifer Willems)

Oliver used her training as a teacher to “pick apart” the schedule and write lesson plans for this summer. Her experience as a missionary with the Fellowship of Catholic University Students helped in “teaching faithful people to teach faithful people.”

Training included learning how to offer the lessons that are scheduled throughout the day and then teaching those lessons to a group of teammates.

“I thought if we can model that for you in training, when you’re with us in this environment that is centered in your formation, then when you’re in parish life you won’t feel like ‘I know this material, but I don’t know how to teach it,’” Oliver said. “So they’re having to stretch that muscle the whole time.”

This year there are four teams of four missionaries working with young people at 24 parishes — seven more than last year — over six weeks. Since the program is focusing on the Luminous Mysteries of the rosary, the theme is “Walk in the Light.”

In addition to learning about the Luminous Mysteries of the rosary, the students are walking through the Lord’s Prayer, taking tours of the church, and attending Mass each day. They also have the opportunity to go to confession.

As is the tradition with Totus Tuus, there are also skits, songs with movements, and games.

GROWTH, PATIENCE AND PRAYER

The missionaries guiding the program at the Monticello parish included two seminarians: Luke Olson from St. Pius X Parish in Rock Island, who is going into his senior year at Immaculate Heart of Mary Seminary; and Thomas Williams of St. Aloysius Parish in Wataga, who is going into his junior year at Immaculate Heart of Mary.

Joining them were Samantha Domagala of St. Michael Parish in Orland Park, a senior at Illinois State University, and Clare Thomson of St. Patrick Parish in Colona, a sophomore at Augustana College. Both are majoring in elementary education.

This is Olson’s third year with Totus Tuus and he said he enjoys team life and the opportunity to grow in human formation.

“It’s very exciting because the kids are so excited,” he said, adding that it can also be exhausting.

“You can feed off of their energy and you need to. You’re dependent on the Lord through them,” Olson told The Catholic Post. “You experience their joy and that consolation leads you into deeper consolation in prayer. That’s one of my favorite parts of it.”

Msgr. Michael Bliss, pastor of St. Philomena in Monticello, notes that he is wearing red vestments instead of green for Mass and asks the Totus Tuus participants if they know what red stands for. Daily Mass is part of the weeklong program. (The Catholic Post/Jennifer Willems)

Thomson also appreciates the increase in her prayer life through Totus Tuus. The missionaries have a daily Holy Hour, and pray the Liturgy of the Hours, rosary and Divine Mercy Chaplet.

Domagala realized that she wanted to give her summer to the Lord and get experience while teaching the children.

“Just a love for mission,” she said. “So I figured this is the best way to do it.”

In the process, the Lord is showing her not only her strengths, but her weaknesses and assuring her that where she is weak, he will be strong.

Growth and patience — as well as being understanding and flexible — is what Williams is taking away from his second year with Totus Tuus. He added that all of his teammates are passionate about catechizing the children with love.

“Right now we are in a critical day and age where kids need catechism,” he said. “We’re realizing the importance of having program like Totus Tuus to inform kids in their faith and protect our faith.”

Msgr. Michael Bliss, pastor at St. Philomena in Monticello, said he recommended Totus Tuus to the parish based on his experience with the program as pastor of St. Edward in Chillicothe.

“I think it’s worked out well,” he said. “I do think a big part is the young people. I think kids and teens are naturally drawn to young people.”

Msgr. Bliss said people expect that kind of spiritual leadership from their pastor. “But to see young people — I think that speaks to their hearts.”

Also serving on Totus Tuus teams this summer are: Isaac Sanders (seminarian), Will Kieffer, Mackenzie Dunbar and Ashley Miller; Andrew Bilgri (seminarian), Michael Reibling, Alison Wong and Claire Martens; and Peter Schoonmaker (seminarian), Paden Wicks, Julia Lavorata and Rose Kirchgessner.

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