“Totally Yours” in Service: Youth Missionary Program Expands Throughout Diocese

It’s a bright, hot day in June, and in a classroom at the Cathedral’s family center in Gallup, Maria Constantino is teaching an energetic young class of first-grade students about hierarchies in Church clergy.

“Okay, we have priests, who say Masses and administer sacraments,” she says. “Does anyone know who the priests’ boss is?”

One little boy raises his hand. “The bishop?” he volunteers.

“Yeah! Good job.” Constantino writes his answer on a whiteboard. Elsewhere throughout the building, three of her teammates are teaching other grades as part of a weeklong youth ministry camp run by their organization, Totus Tuus.

“Totus Tuus” is Latin for “totally yours”, popularized when Pope St. John Paul II adopted it for his apostolic motto. The program started in the late 1980s in Wichita, KS, with two teams of students assisting a local priest in catechetical ministry. It has since evolved into a nationwide program – dioceses and parishes throughout the country support teams of four, two men and two women, who live as missionaries for the summer.

“The Totus Tuus missionaries go out to different parishes – one parish a week – and just put on a weeklong summer program for the kid,” explained Fr. Josh Mayer. Fr. Mayer, pastor of St. Mary in Bloomfield and St. Rose of Lima in Blanco, invited a team from the Diocese of Phoenix to his parishes last year for the first time. The parishes viewed it as such a success that a Totus Tuus team was invited back this summer, this time to three parish communities in the diocese: Bloomfield/Blanco, Winslow, and Sacred Heart Cathedral.

Fr. Mayer described how the missionaries spend one full week at each parish, teaching elementary and middle school-age kids in the mornings and afternoon, followed by a high school teen session each evening. “They evangelize, catechize, have a lot of fun, help the kids get excited about the sacraments, all sorts of stuff.”

For Aaron Acunin, a junior in college, and Marlee Bigsby, Sophomore, their assignments to the  Phoenix program mark the first time either has spent a summer teaching younger students with Totus Tuus.

“I teach 5th and 6th grade, so I try to teach it in a way that gives them something new. Most of them are really smart and know the material, so I’m trying to challenge them,” Acunin said. “It’s different with teens, though – you want to challenge them in the same way you want to challenge the kids, but you also want to make it in a way that engages them and is presentable to them.”

Aaron Acunin leads his students in a prayer before their afternoon class.

Bigsby, who teaches 2nd and 4th grade students, agreed – “[younger kids] know some things about the sacraments, but it does have to be very basic. The teens, especially this group…it’s definitely a talk for young adults, and even some stuff I might tell one of my peers if I was talking to them about the Sacraments.”

For Jose Lam, the fourth member of the team, each new parish in the Diocese of Gallup presented a new set of challenges and enjoyable experiences.

“The kids change, the environment changes, the parish contact coordinator changes, our team dynamic changes because we get to know each other at different levels,” he said. “Winslow – they were so happy that we were there. They didn’t even know us and they were so happy we were there. They were very supportive…so we were able to do our best to just be there for the kids.”

Each team member stressed that any young person thinking of joining a Totus Tuus team should be prepared for a rigorous prayer schedule – a sort of “spiritual boot camp.”

“I was expecting it just to be like ‘okay, you go out and you teach kids’”, Lam recalls. “But then I found out during the retreat that it’s all about personal holiness. I didn’t expect prayer to be such an integral part of it, so it was a very happy surprise. “

Constantino outlines the missionaries’ daily schedule: a rosary in the morning, Mass with the students each day, a daily Holy Hour and prayer in the evenings with the teen students.

“Definitely more than we normally do, but that really helps with growth,” she said. “Working in community with the team is really cool – we’re basically with each other every waking moment.”

Acunin cuts in – “It’s a good and bad thing,” garnering laughs from his teammates.

Jose Lam, left, watches as Maria Constantino (seated, in pink) plays a game with students during an afternoon session of the weeklong catechism camp.

After their week at Sacred Heart Cathedral in Gallup, the team is off to other dioceses in Hawaii and Phoenix. Fr. Mayer expressed great appreciation to the Diocese of Phoenix for sharing their teams, and hopes that the Diocese of Gallup can recruit a team of its own in the future.

“We’re looking for college students in our Diocese who feel the call from the Lord to give up a summer of their life, to be sent out and to evangelize and teach about the faith and live in a small community of four traveling around in a car all summer to different parishes, spreading the word of Christ, evangelizing the Gospel.”

Each of the four members of the Phoenix team happily recommends Totus Tuus to other young Catholics pondering summer job options.

“There [have] been struggles, but each difficulty has been an opportunity to grow, and I know it’s really helped me personally,” Bigsby said. “This the most structured prayer life I’ve had during a summer so far, which has really helped me with my relationship with God and doing His will. It’s definitely very rewarding.”

Acunin echoes her statement, citing the rewards of personal spiritual growth and of guiding his students in their own spiritual development.

“You have a team and they’re there to support you and the set prayers we have each day – it’s like a sprint, and you’re gonna need that spiritual fuel to keep going. I don’t think I would have been able to keep doing this if I didn’t have that,” he said. “So I think it’s different when the mindset going into it is going in personal holiness, and that affects how you’re a witness to these kids and how you approach living out in a community, visiting other dioceses, visiting other parishes, and showing the kids love. We might not see the effect right away, but it’s really humbling to play a part in that.”

Are you, or someone you know, interested in becoming a Totus Tuus missionary? Contact Fr. Josh Mayer at [email protected]

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