A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of covering a story with ties closer to home. Every year we try to include something about the summer youth events – Extreme Faith Camp and Totus Tuus – that take place in the diocese.
In many ways, these storylines are the same. In many more ways, they are completely new, and that is because the hearts being touched are new, even when those hearts are housed behind the same names and faces. If we believe that the Word of God is living and effective, then we have to also believe that there is power in sharing and witnessing to it.
When I visited St. Joseph’s Parish in Amery for the Totus Tuus family and parish night, one of the four faces behind the same Totus Tuus shirts I’ve seen for years was so familiar and yet entirely new. It was the energetic and smiling face of my 19-year-old son, Alex.
I’ve seen him sing at Mass, be on stage in plays and know how passionate he can be about sharing something he loves – but this was new. This was a setting where he was giving of himself but not only of himself – he was giving God and our Catholic faith as an intentional conduit. As a parent, I see these are lessons and experiences we could never realize at home.
In late April, Alex had been offered a dream summer job near where he goes to school in Madison. Within 24 hours, it fell through, and though he was really disappointed, and his dad and I were a little nervous, I have seen too many times how God works to get too worked up. Two days later after Sunday Mass, our dear friend (and at times a second mother-figure!) Loree Nauertz asked Alex if he’d consider filling the last male spot for the Totus Tuus teams this summer. By Wednesday, he interviewed with Chris Hurtubise and was sending in his application.
The trajectory of seeing my child, who has always been interested in learning about his faith and participated in music ministry, wasn’t that extraordinary. I know we have had a large role to play in the growth of his daily living of faith, but there is no doubt the 12 years of participating in Totus Tuus and a few summers of Extreme Faith Camp have been very influential.
Watching Alex and his teammates, I recalled my own path of being witnessed to and witnessing. As a young teen, one of my cousins would lead retreats for a group of us. We had fun mixed with prayer and learning, but the biggest impact was the influence of seeing someone close enough in age that I could relate to and feeling drawn to imitate the conviction she had for being Catholic.
As Totus Tuus has come to Spooner over the years, it is the one program all my kids – Alex and his younger siblings – have truly looked forward to as soon as school gets out. Honestly, I don’t know that they remember a lot of what they learn, but they know and remember and want to experience again the power of being in a group that shares faith and fun, led by “kids” who both play and pray with them.
They look up to their leaders and want to follow them… Like Alex, maybe some of them will also follow in their footsteps, but I can assure that all of them walk away with much more than a week of fun (and almost free childcare for the parents). In a world where there are fewer and fewer places our kids encounter Jesus or faith, seeds have been planted and fertilized.
The power of witness is not something that necessarily makes it into the program brochures. It’s hard to quantify it as a measure of success, but I’m confident that we could all easily come up with one or two people who have given similar witness of faith and friendship with Jesus to us.
Was it their knowledge and skill that drew us in, or something more relatable? A way of reminding us, often even without words, that we’re not alone in the ups and the downs? An unspoken invitation to “come and see” like the first disciples who encountered Jesus and then left everything to follow him?
Maybe it’s a conversation to have with your own children – even if they’re grown. Who have been witnesses of faith to you? What was the most powerful aspect of their influence? Hopefully it can be a moment of reflection, gratitude and growth for us all.
Reflecting on the gracious gift of other’s experience, attentiveness and willingness to share of themselves. Gratitude for the encouragement and strength that knowing we’re not along in walking this truly coulter-cultural way of life following Christ. Gratitude in mirroring that witness back to those people – through a simple thank you card, call or even text to let them know what they did and how much it meant.
Then growth, in being open to the ways the Holy Spirit is asking each of us to share the power of witness with those in our own circles. We know we can’t live faith on our own; in fact, God has commanded that we live it out in community. He offers it as both a responsibility and a gift!
In many ways, Alex is and will be the same person after this summer is over. He’ll still love to talk cars to anyone, get excited about a great pastry, forget to do his dishes and need reminders to put away his laundry. He’s still figuring a lot of things about the direction he wants to pursue in life, but the experience of sharing his faith in Jesus and love for his church is something I know will stay with him long after this summer is over.
I can also say from experience that what these youths have received through the power of witness – in Totus Tuus, Extreme Faith Camp and I’m sure through similar witnesses in vacation Bible schools and other programs – is like extra-fortifying fertilizer.
Yes, as parents (grandparents and other youth mentors included), we are the primary teachers of the faith. Our witness and testimony matters immensely, but please, please, keep looking for the opportunities to immerse our young people in peer communities of faith. None of us knows who might be thanking one of our children for their witness someday, too.