By Tom Maguire
The “unicorn” was free to roam.
After a typical 8 a.m.-9 p.m. missionary day, with the sky almost dark over the church parking lot in Baldwinsville, Kurtis Schmitz, nicknamed by the kids “Mr. Unicorn” because of the way he sometimes does his hair to keep it out of his eyes, ran around with his arms raised and then partly shinnied up a light pole.
Yes, the summer missionaries around here are young and energetic. Schmitz is one of four college-age people working seven days a week in Totus Tuus (Totally Yours), a parish summer program. Totus Tuus was the motto of Pope St. John Paul II.
Bob Walters, director of the diocesan Office of Youth and Young Adult Ministry, said serving as a young missionary in Totus Tuus is a powerful resume builder, especially if the young adults are looking to go into teaching or any kind of parish ministry.
According to program material he supplied, Totus Tuus was started in 1988 by Father Bernard Gorges in Wichita, Kan.: “Because the young adult missionaries are striving to live an authentic Christian life and actively discerning their vocation, they can better help youth to do the same.”
The four missionaries rise early in host homes, lead the family in prayer, then visit a parish for a day session with the little kids and a night session with the older ones. Then they go back to the host homes for night prayers. The foursome teaches kids about topics including the saints, the Luminous Mysteries of the Rosary, and the Apostles’ Creed, and also leads the children in games.
The witness of young missionaries who have given up a whole summer of their lives, said Father Joseph M. O’Connor, “is more powerful than any lesson plan they’re going to give.” They help the little ones meet Christ, he said, by giving them “a language for the stuff that’s already in their hearts.”
Father O’Connor, the pastor, spoke at the night session at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church in Baldwinsville. “The idea that you want to pray came from God,” Father O’Connor told the children. The session included Eucharistic Adoration, with Deacon William A. Dotterer; confession; and songs led by guitarist and singer Jeremy Bobak, music minister at Divine Mercy Parish in Central Square.
John Sheridan, in charge of youth ministry and faith formation for middle school grades six to eight at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, admires the Totus Tuus workers’ “tireless effort.” His children, Brayden, 8, and Emily 6, were participating in the morning sessions of Totus Tuus.
As he listened to the Gospel reading for Sunday, July 15, Sheridan felt that “there’s something special coming.” The Gospel, Mark 6:7-13, speaks of Jesus sending out the Twelve with no extra accoutrements for their journey. The Totus Tuus missionaries take a similar approach.
Missionary Schmitz, from Wichita, 20, the quartet’s co-leader, said he came here with his phone, in case he is called to go someplace; his wallet; and the clothes on his back: “I like to travel light. … Being overprepared makes me inauthentic.”
He added: “The people here are incredibly passionate and caring and open their homes to me.” His host mom in St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish wouldn’t let him do his own laundry. Other people in the parish also provide meals for the missionaries. “Everyone in the parish can get involved,” he said.
In his instruction to the children, Schmitz said, “the most important thing is that they realize that it’s fun to be Catholic. It’s not boring to be Catholic. And you can be Catholic and you can get crazy and you can shout off the top of your lungs.”
The one-week Totus Tuus sessions are sometimes so much fun outdoors that the missionaries become a “sundae” — the little kids designate one missionary to be covered in chocolate and strawberry syrup, whipped cream, and sprinkles. On one day, Schmitz lost out on being the designated sundae in an 11-8 vote.
The winner, his high-rise of hair rendered rather flat by ice cream toppings, was Maximilian Lickona, 19, of McGraw in Cortland County, who will be a sophomore at SUNY Geneseo in the fall semester. He is the brother of Kateri Lickona, who is the Totus Tuus program coordinator for the Office of Youth and Young Adult Ministry. She noted that her brother and the other missionaries devote themselves totally to the next generation of the Church.
Maximilian described Totus Tuus as basically kind of a Vacation Bible School, except it is sacramentally focused and delves into the Catechism. Included is instruction in “how the Trinity works, how it’s three persons in one God.”
Asked if he minded donating his summer vacation, he said, “Not at all. It is very busy, and we’re very tired at the end of each day, but I would say it’s absolutely worth it.” The kids hear things they have never heard before about the Catholic faith, he said, and their eyes light up.
Missionary Isabelle Hewitt, 18, from Fabius, spoke of taking Franciscan University of Steubenville courses for her online degree. She admires the Sisters of St. Francis of Perpetual Adoration because they’re “super-joyful people, and they’re always happy, and they’re really good at connecting with young people.” Hewitt herself is quick to laugh. She makes Totus Tuus joyful for the children by latching onto their energy.
Missionary team leader Iderase Ademoyo, 18, a graduate of Seton Catholic Central High School in Binghamton, is attending the Albany College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences. One of the things she learned at the missionaries’ weeklong training at Christ the King Retreat House and Conference Center in Syracuse was how to teach the children “in a way that they will understand the Gospel but also see it as something inviting.”
She noted that people in St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish were “working together to motivate the youth to come to the evening program, so it’s really amazing to have a nice turnout.”
Attendee Everett Buckner, 14, said, “They’re really good leaders. … They tell their own life stories. … It really, really affects you in a positive way.”
Likewise, attendee Maria Ganci, 11, appreciated the leaders’ personal stories, and she also learned about Eucharistic Adoration and met new people. “I definitely feel like it changes how you are at the end of the week, with what you learn,” she said.
“It’s a great program that introduces them to the Catholic faith in a fun and non-threatening environment,” said Nick Calaprico, faith-formation coordinator for high school students at Seton Parish.
The missionaries, who are paid $300 per week, started their summer visits at St. Anne, Mother of Mary Parish, Mexico, then worked at Holy Cross in DeWitt and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton. This week they are at Sacred Heart in Cicero, and next week they are at Divine Mercy in Central Square.
Steve Nepil, director of youth ministry and faith formation for the sixth through 12th grades at Holy Cross, said Totus Tuus involves “really teaching the depths of the faith combined with a really fun program that kids love coming to. … There’s an excitability and a relatability with those that are running it.”
Helping Nepil with the program at Holy Cross was Connor Gleasman, 14. “I’m hanging up signs that say Sundae Kurtis,” he said. Also participating were three of Connor’s four brothers: Oliver, 12, Joshua, 10, and Nicholas, 7. Noah, 4, is a little young yet.
“When they presented the program, it just seemed really Catholic and seemed like it was different than the other Vacation Bible School programs,” said the boys’ mother, Michaeline Gleasman.
Holy Cross Totus Tuus participant Alaina DiBiase, 10, said the missionaries were “really nice and funny”; she may even give them an “A-plus.”
“We learned about the Luminous Mysteries, we learned how Jesus died,” she said.
“You’ll never see the kids again,” said Missionary Schmitz, “but you’ll know that maybe you had a little bit of impact on one of them. And personally I would say that … even if not one of them had a change of heart because of my work, I would thank God, because my work is inadequate; it’s only God that can work in others’ hearts.”