By Eileen Jevis | Staff writer

Missionaries arrived in the area from Indiana, Kansas, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania to teach more than 500 children and young adults throughout the Syracuse Diocese. The Totus Tuus Program is a summer Catholic youth program dedicated to sharing the Gospel and promoting the Catholic faith through evangelization, discipleship and worship. The 13 men and women who are serving as Totus Tuus missionaries travel from parish to parish each week to guide children and teens to encounter Christ through conversation, activities and prayer. 

Joseph Kaminski is from Floyd in Oneida County. He is a senior at Ave Maria University in Florida, studying classics and early Christian literature and minoring in philosophy. Kaminski is a parishioner at Our Lady of Good Counsel in Verona and has been an altar server for many years. “I come from a Catholic family and was raised with a firm understanding of the faith,” he said. He spent one week teaching at Divine Mercy Parish in Central Square before moving on to his next assignment. “I am teaching Totus Tuus because I see it as a good way to serve our Lord, Jesus Christ, over the summer, while helping children to have fun and grow in their relationship with him.”

Kaminski led a week of instruction and activities for children in grades K-4. Throughout the week, he talked about the importance of prayer, breaking down the Our Father so that students better understood the meaning. “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name; thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Kaminski asked the students what it means to do God’s will. “Is it difficult to do God’s will? What is easy about doing God’s will?”

Bonnie Merkel is the director of Religious Education, K-4 at Divine Mercy Parish. She said the Totus Tuus program teaches students the different aspects of their faith — starting with the basics, like how to act during Mass and helping them understand the Mass. “The program gets the children excited about going to church. It’s a high energy, positive experience for them. It’s a great way to pull families into the parish community.” Merkel said the students get to know Father Christopher Seibt when he greets them each day and celebrates Mass. “The children who meet him learn that he is a regular person who is approachable. It takes some of the mystery out of the practices of our Catholic faith.”

Senior missionary Peter Gasparini’s hometown is Winston-Salem, N.C. A recent graduate of theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, he is currently working on a master’s degree in Catholic studies. This is his second year of ministry for the Diocese of Syracuse. “I wanted to do something meaningful with my summer that would glorify God and I also wanted to discern if I was called to be a theology teacher,” explained Gasparini. “Being a missionary with Totus Tuus is truly giving yourself to the work of the Church and to Jesus.”

According to Bob Walters, the diocesan director of the Office of Adolescent Catechesis & Discipleship, there are over 50 dioceses throughout the United States that offer the Totus Tuus program. “We recruit college-age adults in order to create a community of disciples,” said Walters. These missionaries are connected through their faith, and they become lifelong friends. They stay connected to the diocese and the parishes they served in. 

Missionary Brooke Stephens lives in a suburb of St. Louis, Mo. Her love of ministry and desire to serve led her to apply to become a Totus Tuus minister in the Syracuse Diocese. Stephens has been traveling around the country for the past year. She plans to return to college to work toward a degree in Social Services. Stephens said she has received much more out of the experience than she anticipated. “It is a blessing to witness and share the truth, joy and purpose of Christ with those I meet,” she said. “To me, being a missionary is walking alongside my brothers and sisters in Christ.” 

“The missionaries that teach in the Totus Tuus program offer different perspectives to my children,” added Annamarie Smith who had two children in the program at Divine Mercy Parish. Her 9-year-old son, Andrew, enjoys listening and learning about his faith through the stories shared each day. “Our faith is woven into every aspect of our day-to-day life,” she said. “We pray daily, and it’s vital to me that my boys know how important God is in their lives. He is there to call on during both trying and joyous times.”

This was the first year ninth grader Izabella Bonacci attended Totus Tuus. She found the missionaries were truly inspirational. Her favorite part of the week was pouring water over Father Seibt during the games they played. “I want people to know that it is a really good program,” she said. “Your faith is strengthened when you are there.” 

“There is nothing else to compare to this weeklong mission in our parishes,” said Walters. “It’s fun and faith-filled and fosters vocations to religious life and the priesthood.”

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